In Praise of Pratchett: Interesting Times

If too much of Soul Music was the re-use of previous ideas, Interesting Times shows instead how to build upon the existing structure of Discworld in a way that doesn’t merely repeat the same format, with different jokes.
Erudite readers would have taken one look at the title and surmised that, in the same way that Pyramids was Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fell off, Pratchett’s seventeenth Discworld novel would be about tuning Ancient China up until you had to go hunting for the knobs under the nearest furniture. And they would be right, for the Ancient Chinese had a curse which invited people to live in interesting times, these being the periods that the historians like to write about: you know, wars, rebellions, upheavals, disasters…
In itself the concept, and the wealth of possibilities that were inherent in it would have made a superb book but, for a second novel in a row, Pratchett was aware of his own creation’s history, and of inevitable things…
Interesting Times is another Rincewind book, the first since Eric, giving Pratchett yet another excuse – beyond his unbounding enthusiasm – to use Ridcully and the Faculty. A message has come from the Agatean Empire, the Counterweight Continent, demanding a visit from the Great Wizzard, an epithet no-one can decipher until somebody finally twigs the spelling, and the Great Irony.
So, by magical means that involve shunting people around the Disc, Rincewind is firstly dragged back from his desert island, which has just been invaded by a nation of nubile women seeking someone to repopulate their civilisation (which only arouses in Rincewind an urge for potatoes), and secondly despatches him to the Agatean Empire in exchange for some strange kind of mechanical object with a string on fire…
For the Agatean Empire is our analogue for Ancient China, though given the continuity of life in China throughout centuries, it’s a China that carries with it some modern echoes, such as a Red Army, and a wall to keep everybody in that foreshadows China’s Internet Firewall of this century.
But this Red Army are still the rebels, the not-Communists long before the Long March: innocents, idealists and adolescents who try to combine revolution with their innate respect for tradition, but who are unaware until someone as cynical as Rincewind comes along that they are no more than a complex game being played by the Grand Vizier of the Empire, Lord Hong.
For Lord Hong proposes to overthrow the ancient, senile yet still smilingly psychopathic Emperor with the Red Army as stooges. It’s all part of a game to cement his role as pre-eminent between the five major families, the Hongs, the Tangs, the Sungs, the McSweeneys and the Fangs. Very old, established family, the McSweeneys.
And then there’s his long term ambition, to visit Ankh-Morpork.
But Lord Hong’s plans are affected by the presence of another force seeking to overthrow the Emperor. This is the Silver Horde, and their leader is Cohen the Barbarian. Like Cohen, they’re all barbarians, unused to the mores and expectations of civilisation. Like Cohen, they’re all incredibly old (except for Boy Wullie, who’s only 79). They’re the least probable invading force there ever has been or could be, even with the advice of Mr Ronald Saveloy, aka Teach, a former schoolmaster, who’s trying to educate them on the civilised way of taking over Empires, which to the Horde’s immense disappointment and puzzlement, doesn’t involve fighting, looting or killing.
The thing is, though, the Silver Horde have got where they are by not having been killed. Given what their profession consists of, the ability to not be killed by an enemy for over 80 years argues for considerable expertise when it comes to fighting.
Ask yourself which one you expect to come out top? Especially, or should that be even with Rincewind on their side.
But this isn’t just a book of jokes about Ancient China, and fledgling rebels. If it were, Interesting Times would be good, but it wouldn’t be Pratchett. In his portrayal of the Empire, of the sheer rigidity of its society, of the gulf between those who rule and those who merely survive, as cannon-fodder for every second of existence, Pratchett draws a picture of a slave society held in place not by whips and brutality and torture, but by something easier for those on top: by whips in the soul.
Like too many ordinary people, both in this fiction and in our world, the chains of slavery exist in people’s heads, in too much of an acceptance of the strata of society, of the concept that there are those who are better than you, innately so because they start on top, and your life is only fit to be ordered and ruled upon by them. The Agatean Empire and its peasants are an extreme example of this, but too much of China and its satellite nations is the same thing.
Nor do the rebels get any better shrift. Pratchett is even more dismissive of them, disposing of their pretention to be on the side of the people, to be for better conditions for them, but for the moment intent on telling them what that better life is going to be.
The best bit for me is how much this book is founded upon the reappearance, in unexpected form, of the other of Pratchett’s earliest two characters, Twoflower.
Yes, the little man with the round face and the glasses, the Discworld’s first tourist, and the most naïve, unworldlywise and optimistic person you could ever meet. Twoflower passed through the first two books in total ignorance of everything around him, causing disaster wherever he went (usually for Rincewind, to whom he looked up as the Great Wizzard).
As with the eventual fates of Mort and Ysabell in Soul Music, Pratchett understands the logic of Discworld. Twoflower went to see the world. Admittedly, what he saw was mainly in his own head, but enough of the reality that underlay it penetrated as an unbelievable contrast to the life of the Agatean Empire for Twoflower to inadvertently turn himself into a pebble.
Of course he’s going to want to tell everybody about his holiday when he gets back. How could he not? And equally, to a closed in society like China, ‘What I Saw On My Holidays’ is a magnificent provocation, and an eye-opener.
But Twoflower is still, when he first appears on the page, the same old cartoon of those early, unworked out books, impossible to think of as real. That is, until the girls of the Red Army cadre ‘led’ by Rincewind turn out to be Twoflower’s daughters. There’s a reference, dismissive, offhand, shied away from, to a former Mrs Twoflower. Imperceptibly, the little man begins to grow real, to put roots down into a life.
Wisely, Pratchett doesn’t make much of this, or even involve Twoflower onstage. Until that moment which, for me, is the very heart of this book, when Pratchett sets Twoflower fully up on this earth, when – the least qualified person to do so – he faces the shrieking, defiant, still lethal Lord Hong.
Twoflower’s reasons are a mystery to Lord Hong, for whom the little man is beneath everything. But Lord Hong killed Twoflower’s wife. Not by his own hands, but by his soldiers, without thought, without intention, without meaning. And Twoflower’s well aware that he hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell, but he acts from the heart, and he says the words that matter most, that maybe be possessed of a romanticism that this book, that Pratchett’s works eschew, but which are nevertheless utterly true.
“The important thing is that someone should stand up to you. Whatever happens to them afterwards.”
He doesn’t die. He doesn’t kill, either, trust Rincewind and the Faculty for that, as comeuppances are distributed with casual accidence. And Rincewind is propelled somewhere else that we recognise as a ripe place for tuning up until those knobs fall off again, somewhere down the line.
A great book. The run is back on.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Light Fantastic

Every year, when I went on holiday, in those days before television in the rooms became standard, I would take away with me books to read in the quiet evenings after a day on the fells. In September 1986, I badly miscalculated my reading times and ran out in midweek.
It was late in the evening, I was in Keswick, the bookshops were closed and I was running round the newsagents/giftshops that were open until 8.00pm, desperate to buy something I could enjoy reading. But I was struggling to find something that appealed.
There was another Terry Pratchett book about, The Light Fantastic, a sequel to The Colour of Magic (literally so, the only Discworld book to follow directly on from its predecessor). I was dubious of it but the hour was getting late. It probably wouldn’t be much cop, but at least I knew I would be able to read it, and besides I could always sell it on. So, better than nothing.
I have never seen such an improvement in a writer in just the space of one book.
At the time, I only knew Pratchett from the Corgi paperback of half a year earlier. I hadn’t even noted the hardback publication date, so as far as I was concerned, the writer had made this quantum leap in the space of six months. I roared my head off reading The Light Fantastic, knowing that I’d have to re-buy the first book.
What made such a difference? I can make a few points now, but essentially it was down to my instinctive impression on that night’s reading, that in the intervening space, Terry Pratchett had sat down and thoroughly analysed his ‘first’ book, seen where it didn’t work and had set out to do it right this time.
That it had taken him three years to work it out, not six months, doesn’t lessen the impact.
The Light Fantastic was in every way a better book. For one thing, it was a single, coherent story that went several steps beyond The Colour of Magic in developing several narrative voices across a number of characters. Rincewind and Twoflower are hauled back from their fall off the Disc via a resetting of Reality, whereupon they become the target of any number of Wizards from Unseen University, who want the Great Spell back out of Rincewind’s head.
Which is particularly important because Great A’Tuin, the galaxy-sized Turtle, is gradually swimming out of the Discworld Universe’s space towards a single red star. And people are panicking more than somewhat.
But the book had gained more than a plot, it had gained an authorial voice. Pratchett now sounds like Pratchett. He is still nicking tropes from fantasy fiction, but instead of parodying other people’s works, he’s taking archetypal situations and using them in a basically straight manner, whilst undermining them via the responses of his characters. And his jokes sound like Pratchett.
The version of Unseen University we meet here is very rough-edged, and inherently unstable. Pratchett is still a long way from discovering that the most effective form of magic is the one you don’t do, and the Wizards of this Faculty are still overtly competitive. The entire Faculty, the eight Heads of Orders that Pratchett quickly learns he can do without, are wiped out, Archchancellor Galdor Weatherwax (hmm. Significant name, that) by the Luggage, the rest by Tymon, the ambitious but ultimately grey Deputy.
Tymon is actually the most significant figure in this book. He may be magically apt, but he’s the anti-Wizard, Organisation Man, determined on an efficiency that takes the passion, the satisfaction, the fun out of everything. Pratchett finds his true voice, the true purpose of his talent, in inveighing against him as the antithesis of what is needed to be properly human. He still has to learn to let that voice go, to let the anger within form the solid backbone of Discworld, but this is where it first shows.
The Light Fantastic also introduces us to Cohen the Barbarian. Whereas Hrun, in the first book, is a generic barbarian, distinguished only by his unusually small head, Cohen is a far greater conception, the barbarian who has been a legend so long that he’s grown old in his trade: eighty-seven, bald, toothless and a martyr to arthritis, but still unkillable. In the clash between him and Herenna, the Henna-Haired Harridan (visually a more sensible take-off of Marvel’s Red Sonja), there’s only one winner.
We also are privy to that moment, early in the book, where a ball of wild magic rises through the library, transforming the Librarian into, well, The Librarian. His response is, naturally, Oook.
Rincewind comes out of it seemingly on top, supervising the clean-up at Unseen University, in position to take over as Archchancellor. It was never going to be that way, and Pratchett may well have known that already, but since Rincewind wasn’t going to be used in the next book, it was a sentimental gesture at the time, a tidying-up. Sometimes, writers develop a sentimental attachment to their characters, almost as much as readers do. There’s a scene in a much later book where Pratchett demonstrates by how much he learned to know better.
In short, a vastly better book, and more importantly, one on which Pratchett could begin to build the towering edifice that will become Discworld. It’s less the architecture that we see taking shape, than the attitude of Discworld, that of a world in which a certain literalness will forever undermine the fantastic, putting it into its proper place.
My eyes were now wide open for the next book from Terry Pratchett.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Colour of Magic

The first Discworld book was published in hardback in 1983, via Colin Smythe, an independent publisher. But it was not until it was re-published, in 1986, as a Corgi paperback that it made a surprisingly large splash. Despite his having already published three novels, Terry Pratchett was still an unknown. I probably heard about it first through Fantasy Advertiser, the UK’s leading comicszine. There was a now-forgotten serialisation on Woman’s Hour that I never heard. But suddenly the book was everywhere, in large quantities.
Either way, when it all began, Terry Pratchett was rated as what he seemed to be: a Douglas Adams for fantasy. Adams, thanks to The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy was the name for comic SF, and it seemed inevitable that someone should come along and do something similar with fantasy.
(Of course, that’s what we on the inside, as it were, understood. For an idea of just how difficult the outside world found it to get where Pratchett operated, see the blurb on the cover of the Corgi paperback. I mean, honestly…)
I bought The Colour of Magic on that assumption, picking up the paperback in one of those paper-shops that also offered a wall of books, in the days before the abolition of the Net Book Agreement opened up the way for W. H. Smiths and Tescos and the like to undercut the shit out of anyone smaller than them. It had a bright, somewhat confusing looking cover – Josh Kirby’s art was distinctive but usually crowded well past the point where the central imagery could always be discerned – and I went home and read it.
It was amusing, more or less. It passed a few hours undemandingly, but I couldn’t see myself wanting to re-read it so I got rid. You could get some money back on such things in the pre-eBay world, second-hand bookshops proliferated.
Obviously, I bought it back again, in circumstances I’ll relate elsewhere. But The Colour of Magic still isn’t very good. When I talk with people who’ve never read a Pratchett in their lives but who are thinking of trying, I have to point them away. In fact, if you want to get into Pratchett, I’d certainly tell you to read at least three of the other early Discworlds before even looking at this.
The first Discworld book stars Rincewind, the failed Wizard, expelled from an as-yet unspecified magical University. It’s the only portmanteau novel in the series (comprising four individual stories). The premise is that Rincewind – who cannot do magic because he has one of the Eight Great Spells from the Octavo lodged in his head – is assigned to protect Twoflower, an insurance agent from the Counterweight Continent, who has become the Discworld’s first tourist.
It’s what it says on the can: it’s a parody, fantasy as farce. The first story features an easily-recognisable and fairly respectable lift of Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The second has Lovecraftian overtones and a bog standard barbarian parody. The third is an Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders adventure. Only the fourth and final novella does not have any easily discernible antecedents, and it ends with Rincewind (and Twoflower and the Luggage) falling off the Discworld in circumstances that don’t suggest any plans to continue with the characters.
And that’s where it falls down. The Discworld has the shape we know from later books, but Pratchett hasn’t yet begun to understand just what he can do with it. It’s parody and nothing more, whereas Discworld’s real nature is that of a fun-house mirror, reflecting a distorted, but ultimately truer-to-life vision of genuine, human concerns.
There’s nothing like a sense of underlying coherence here. The four novellas take place over four totally different locations, only one of which, Ankh-Morpork, we will see again, but it’s an Ankh-Morpork that, at this stage, is built out of cardboard sets, filched from the generic backdrop of fantasy fiction. Unseen University doesn’t exist yet: instead we have an unspecified Magic Quarter. Wizardry is far more rife than it will become, even though from the first Pratchett (half-heartedly) attempts to set limits upon its practice. But these are limits that he more or less forgets, as magic is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the book.
We are introduced to both the Guild of Assassins and the Patrician, though neither are remotely the institutions we will grow to understand. The Assassins are low-lifes, glorified thugs with silly names, and are covered in scars and cuts, suggesting that they aren’t very good at it really. And the Patrician, who goes un-named, is corpulent and obsessed with sweets and candies.
Pratchett did suggest that this Patrician was indeed Lord Vetinari, who simply lost weight later, and he should know, but if there was ever any plausibility to that suggestion (and I can’t believe it for a second), it was killed off by the appearance of the young Havelock in Night Watch. There is a direct line of causality between the as-yet-ungraduated Assassin and the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and the Patrician of The Colour of Magic is simply far too far off that line to be even distantly related.
This Patrician is not merely too crude, directly threatening Rincewind, but he’s too helpless. The Counterweight Continent is too powerful for Ankh-Morpork and could run all over them any time it wanted to, and this Patrician recognises weakness and has no plans to deal with it? Sorry, you can’t tell me this is Havelock Vetinari. As far as I’m concerned, he has got to be Mad Lord Snapcase.
The Colour of Magic is, for me, very much prentice work. It suffers from an overwhelming lack of detail, detail that could only accumulate over successive books, but even with that objection dispelled, the underlying problem is that Terry Pratchett had not yet worked out what he had. Discworld at this stage is a sketch, pulled from other people’s cheap and crude art. It pokes fun, not very successfully, at very small and very parochial targets. Pratchett was yet to see that the bigger the target, the greater the scope and the wider the reach of a writer who, at this point, is just pissing about, having fun, and completely unaware of what he has in front of him.
Things could only get better. In 1986, I had no inkling of by just how much.