At their best, Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are inspired comic creations: funny, pointed, irreverent, and endlessly entertaining. This entry, appropriately entitled The Truth, is the 25th installment since the series began in 1983, and I'm pleased to report that it's as deeply deranged as any of the previous 24.
Discworld, for the benefit of newcomers, is a flat, disc-shaped planet carried on the backs of four giant elephants, who are themselves carried by the giant turtle called Great A'Tuin. The principal metropolis of Discworld -- and the site of most of the stories -- is Ankh-Morpork, a cosmopolitan city populated by an uneasy combination of humans, vampires, trolls, werewolves, zombies, gnomes, gargoyles, and imps. Typically, the Discworld novels reflect fractured versions of instantly recognizable events, trends, and cultural phenomena, and The Truth is no exception. This time out, investigative journalism gains a foothold in Ankh-Morpork, with predictably bizarre results.
The hero of The Truth is William de Worde, disenfranchised member of the wealthy -- and arrogant -- nobility. William earns a meager living selling highly specialized "news letters" to selected subscribers. With the belated advent of moveable type, business picks up rapidly, and William finds himself manning the helm of a revolutionary publication: The Ankh-Morpork Times,
whose erroneously typeset motto is "The Truth Shall Make You Fret." It shall, indeed.
William and his fledgling staff start out by covering a variety of mundane subjects: weddings, weather, fires, and flower shows, as well as "human interest" stories, such as the unusual -- i.e., genital-shaped -- vegetables grown by an enterprising farmer. But before you can say Woodward and Bernstein, William uncovers a major political scandal, as the anonymous members of "The Committee to Un-elect the Patrician" attempt to incriminate and depose the legal ruler of Ankh-Morpork, Havelock Vetinari, and replace him with a more amenable candidate of their own.
William's pursuit of the elusive, subtly shifting concept known as "truth" takes him from the highest levels of Ankh-Morpork society to the lowest, and bring him into contact with a wide variety of allies and opponents, including: a talking dog named Gaspode, a pair of imported hit men, a fast-talking lawyer who happens to be dead, and -- my own favorite -- a vampiric photographer with a peculiar allergic reaction to sudden flashes of light. The result of all this is an illuminating excursion into the origins
of journalism, Discworld-style, and a first-rate entry in the most consistent series of comic fantasies currently available in the English-speaking world.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
TheRumor spread through the city like wildfire (which had quite often spread through Ankh-Morpork since its citizens had learned the words "fire insurance").The dwarfs can turn lead into gold ...
It buzzed through the fetid air of the Alchemists' quarter, where they had been trying to do the same thing for centuries without success but were certain that they'd manage it by tomorrow, or next Tuesday at least, or the end of the month for definite.
It caused speculation among the wizards at Unseen University, where they knew you could turn one element into another element, provided you didn't mind it turning back again next day, and where was the good in that? Besides, most elements were happy where they were.
It seared into the scarred, puffy, and sometimes totally missing ears of the Thieves' Guild, where people put an edge on their crowbars. Who cared where the gold came from?
The dwarfs can turn lead into gold ...
It reached the cold but incredibly acute ears of the Patrician, and it did that fairly quickly, because you did not stay ruler of Ankh-Morpork for long if you were second with the news. He sighed and made a note of it, and added it to a lot of other notes.
The dwarfs can turn lead into gold ...
It reached the pointy ears of the dwarfs.
"Damned if I know. I can't."
"Yeah, but if you could, you wouldn't say. I wouldn't say, if I could."
It came to the ears of the night watch of the city guards, as they did gate duty at ten o'clock on an icy night. Gate duty in Ankh-Morpork was not taxing. Itconsisted mainly of waving through anything that wanted to go through, although traffic was minimal in the dark and freezing fog.
They hunched in the shelter of the gate arch, sharing one damp cigarette.
"You can't turn something into something else," said Corporal Nobbs. "The Alchemists have been trying it for years."
"They a can gen'rally turn a house into a hole in the ground," said Sergeant Colon.
"That's what I'm talking about," said Corporal Nobbs. "Can't be done. It's all to do with ... elements. An alchemist told me. Everything's made up of elements, right? Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and ... sunnink. Well-known fact. Everything's got 'em all mixed up just right."
He stamped his feet in an effort to get some warmth into them.
"If it was possible to turn lead into gold, everyone'd be doing it," he said.
"Wizards could do it," said Sergeant Colon.
"Oh, well, magic," said Nobby dismissively.
A large cart rumbled out of the yellow clouds and entered the arch, splashing Colon as it wobbled through one of the puddles that were such a feature of Ankh-Morpork's highways.
"Bloody dwarfs," he said, as it continued on into the city. But he didn't say it too loudly.
"There were a lot of them pushing that cart," said Corporal Nobbs reflectively. It lurched slowly around a comer and was lost to view.
"Prob'ly all that gold," said Colon.
"Hah. Yeah. That'd be it, then."
And the rumor came to the ears of William de Worde, and in a sense it stopped there, because he dutifully wrote it down.
It was his job. Lady Margolotta of Uberwald sent him five dollars a month to do it. The Dowager Duchess of Quirm also sent him five dollars. So did King Verence of Lancre, and a few other Ramtop notables. So did the Seriph of AI-Khali, although in this case the payment was half a cartload of figs, twice a year.
All in all, he considered, he was onto a good thing. All he had to do was write one letter very carefully, trace it backwards onto a piece of boxwood provided for him by Mr. Cripslock, the engraver in the Street of Cunning Artificers, and then pay Mr. Cripslock twenty dollars to carefully remove the wood that wasn't letters and make five impressions on sheets of paper.
Of course, it had to be done thoughtfully, with spaces left after "To my Noble Client the," and so on, which he had to fill in later, but even deducting expenses it still left him the best part of thirty dollars for little more than one day's work a month.
A young man without too many responsibilities could live modestly in Ankh-Morpork on thirty or forty dollars a month; he always sold the figs, because although it was possible to live on figs you soon wished you didn't.
And there were always additional sums to be picked up here and there. The world of letters was a closed bo- mysterious papery object to many of Ankh-Morpork's citizens, but if they ever did need to commit things to paper quite a few of them walked up the creaky stairs past the sign "William de Worde: Things Written Down."
Dwarfs, for example. Dwarfs were always coming to seek work in the city, and the first thing they did was send a letter home saying how well they were doing. This was such a predictable occurrence, even if the dwarf in question was so far down on his luck that he'd been forced to eat his helmet, that William had Mr. Cripslock produce several dozen stock letters which only needed a few spaces filled in to be perfectly acceptable.