Terry Pratchett’s books have sold about 50 million copies around the world and are the most shoplifted books in his native Britain. So it’s a little odd that he’s still considered a fringe figure, a cult taste. Usually, people put the blame on the fact that he’s filed away in bookstores in the sci fi/fantasy section, a category that brings to mind…well, you know. I’m sure that’s partly true. When I first questioned a friend on her Pratchett shelf at home, she said, “Oh he’s terrific, but you’d hate him.” As it turns out, I think he’s terrific, too, and on my shelves he’s filed in between Dawn Powell and Marcel Proust, which, now that I’ve noticed that alphabetical fact, seems strangely significant — the merger of momentary jabs of social satire with the ongoingness of a roman fleuve, etc., etc.
But I think Pratchett also suffers the fate of lots of comic writers until they’re very dead — highfalutin’ folks just don’t take them seriously. This is probably best viewed, however, as a mixed curse. I stumbled upon a dissertation on Pratchett online (at the University of Plymouth in England; since it’s for an undergraduate degree, it’s more like an American senior thesis). Seeing Pratchett analyzed in terms of Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, et al., roused from me a bilious blend of incredulity, despair, hilarity, and pity. Like Wodehouse and Waugh before him, Pratchett’s prose demonstrates the agility and brio of ordinary English; applying postmodern French theory to it seems sadly tone-deaf.
Beginning in 1983 with The Colour of Magic, Pratchett has been our Dante to Discworld, the realm he has invented and continues to explore. His Discworld books total more than 40, ranging from full-length novels to a toddler’s tale, Where’s My Cow. It is, as its name suggests, not a sphere but a flat disc, transported through space on the backs of four elephants, who in turn are carried on the back of a giant turtle. Astrozoologists have not yet been able to determine the turtle’s sex, a question which may have some bearing in testing the hypothesis that the turtle is moving purposefully towards a cosmic mating place: the theory known, of course, as the Big Bang. The Disc’s geography and peoples are various: dwarfs underground; silicon-based life forms like trolls in the chilly mountains; the desert continent of Klatch, home to the pyramid-building country of Djelibeybi; the vampires and surgically innovative Igors of Uberwald; the witches of Lancre; and various peripatetics such as the deeply unfortunate wizard Rincewind and the antique but formidable hero Cohen the Barbarian.
Much of the population of the Disc beats a path to the city of Ankh-Morpork — filthy, corrupt, and irresistible. They’re lured by money and jobs but also by the possibility of changing the state they were born into. The captain of the City Watch, Sam Vimes, has the tough job of policing the practical multiculturalism that results. In dwarf society, for instance, the default cultural assumption is that all dwarfs are male (it helps that they all have beards). One of Vimes’s dwarf recruits, Cheery Longbottom by name, gradually sports mini-skirted armor, earrings, and the name Cheri. Vimes might have to fight against some of his own prejudices — he tends to distrust vampires, even ones who have taken the Pledge — but the Watch now usefully contains a werewolf, a zombie, a golem, and various trolls and dwarfs, including the six-foot-tall Carrot Ironfoundersson. Pratchett’s approval is clear, but he is an equal-opportunity mocker of P.C. silliness. Take the Campaign for Equal Heights: “The point was that since dwarfs were on average two-thirds the height of humans, the Post Office, as a responsible authority, should employ one and one-third dwarfs for every human employee. The Post Office must reach out to the dwarf community.” (Thinks our hero: “It’s reach down.”)
Pratchett frequently revisits characters or has them make guest appearances in books starring other characters, but he impressively avoids what I think of as Angela Thirkell Syndrome. Thirkell, building on Trollope, for over 20 years wrote a long series of novels set in Barsetshire. By the last phase of her writing life, any character ever mentioned seems to be reintroduced with the result that there’s no room for any plot at all. Pratchett is a gifted plotter and stylist, rivaling Wodehouse. Pratchett is, in fact, frequently compared to Wodehouse, to the greater glory of both of them. They’re both thankfully fecund masters of social comedy with flashes of farce who always perform near the top of their game, which is very high indeed. I, for one, experience comic buildup in both of them to the point where my occasional smirks and giggles turn to hoots and shrieks; then I’m overtaken by a prolonged jag of silent laughter until tears spring from my eyes and I fall off the sofa. Both men have an almost surreal range of allusion. And their brief experiences of Real Life in legit but odd jobs — Wodehouse at the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Pratchett doing PR for the Central Electricity Generating Board — seem to have either matched or fitted them to appreciate the absurd.
But while Wodehouse sets his novels in what seem like real places, really they take place in a sort of Never-neverland. Evelyn Waugh pointed out that Wodehouse’s characters are not nostalgic Edwardian throwbacks at all but rather “creations of pure fancy.” Pratchett’s fantasy world and characters (including dwarfs and trolls, golems and vampires, witches and werewolves) are almost the opposite: they look and sound made up but in fact have almost everything to do with our world, from small wars in far-off places to pole-dancing parlors down the street. In the 1920s, Wodehouse was published in the Soviet Union; his depictions of gormless drones like Bertie Wooster and his friends Gussy Fink-Nottle, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, and Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton consistently outwitted by man-of-the-people Jeeves were taken as stringent satire portending the victory of the proletariat. They weren’t. But Pratchett’s novels really do have satirical targets. Particularly in his more recent novels, Pratchett takes on various institutions (army, police, post office, university, communications systems, organized religion) to see how in the world — any world — they came to be and even, sort of, work.
His newest book, Making Money, takes on the banking industry and the institution of paper money. Thus far, Ankh-Morpork has operated on the gold standard-goldish anyway. Now Lord Vetinari, the humanitarian despot of Ankh-Morpork, dragoons Moist von Lipwig to reform the Royal Bank: “The city bleeds, Mr. Lipwig, and you are the clot I need.” As a forcibly reformed con artist who has previously overhauled the post office, Moist is perfectly qualified to oversee what might just be a glorified shell-game. As he puts it when someone protests that he’s in too much of a hurry, “
eople don’t like change. But make the change happen fast enough and you go from one type of normal to another.” Besides his native craftiness, Moist is partly aided by the Glooper, a Rube Goldberg/Hammer Horror quasi-computer invented by Hubert-“Hubert’s an economist. That’s like an alchemist, but less messy.” The Glooper, claims Hubert, simulates “quite complex transactions. We can change the starting conditions, too, to learn the rules inherent in the system. For example, we can find out what happens if you halve the labor force in the city, by the adjustment of a few valves, rather than going out into the streets and killing people.” Less messy, indeed.
And how does the banking system work anyway? Perhaps a fantasy writer is professionally equipped to understand the kind of magic that underpins it. Many of Pratchett’s novels deal with issues of faith and belief. In a passage from Hogfather (whose title character is a Father Christmas?type figure) that is achieving classic-quote status, Death (you know, the skeletal guy with a scythe) tries to explain the values of fantasy to his mostly human granddaughter, Susan:
“You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.”
NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH WITH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE WERE SOME SORT OF RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point?”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Pratchett’s satires bite, but unlike the unreformed vampires from Uberwald he doesn’t usually go for the jugular. I think of Pratchett as a catch-and-release satirist. He considers human venalities, whether large or small, fair game, but after all, if they were gone, what would be left? Pratchett seems content — or at least resigned — to be frustrated and amused with the human condition. This I can say: His writing — and his
heart — are pure goldish.