Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate sports.
I know this may come as a surprise, since I studiously avoid all but the most cursory acknowledgment of current sporting events. I finish the paper when I hit the sports section, and the sport report on the news is, for me, time to wash the dishes. I have no favorite teams of any kind, no players I look up to, and no interest in following play-offs, bowl games, championships or derbys. Hell, even with the Olympics my interest plummets after the opening ceremonies.
But I don’t hate sports.
You see, in order to hate something, you have to actually care about it. And that’s the thing about sports – I just don’t care.
I wasn’t always like this, of course. When I was a kid, I tried all kinds of sports. I tried (deep breath) baseball, basketball, skiing, swimming, sailing, soccer, tennis, golf and judo. And those were after school. In PE class we had all the usual PE things – volleyball, softball, track and field, running, archery, field hockey, dodgeball…. What it came down to was that I had no natural talent for sports  and, more importantly, I never had fun. I never saw the point of the whole thing, so I pretty much said “Bugger this,” and turned to other areas of entertainment, thereby sealing off the sporting world from my interest forever.
A lot of my friends do love their sports, though, so I try to keep a cursory understanding of things – you know, how many touchdowns there are in an inning, that kind of thing. I mean, there’s nothing more disappointing than trying to talk about something you love, something for which you have great passion and enthusiasm and having someone just ignore you, right?
Anyway, I’m telling you all this so that you can correct for it when I tell you about Unseen Academicals, one of the latest of the Discworld books. If my attitude seems kind of lackluster or disinterested, keep in mind that it’s probably not Sir Terry’s fault.
The book, you see, is about football. Not the sissy-pants American kind where the guys are so afraid of grievous bodily harm that they wear protective armor all the time, but the good, old-fashioned British kind, wherein people get their heads cracked open by cobblestones and die on the streets. You know, fun for the whole family.
In the great and exciting city of Ankh-Morpork, footy is a tradition. It’s a lifestyle, in fact. Where you live determines who your team is, and who your team is tells you with whom you can associate and mingle. A supporter of one team wandering into the territory of another is a person asking to be beaten to death by enthusiastic and drunk hooligans. “Suicide,” I believe the police refer to it as. It’s a game that goes beyond the simple description of “rough and tumble.” It’s a substitute for war in a time where war is neither profitable nor productive. It’s a channel for long-standing feuds and grudges and aggressions, and is practiced religiously in the streets of the city every weekend.
So obviously what this grand, injurious tradition needs, then, is the introduction of wizardry.
The wizards of the Unseen University are forced, through a clause in a long-forgotten honorarium, to put together a football team and play a match. Despite most wizards having the athletic ability of an overstuffed beanbag chair, it’s either play the game or lose so much money that they’ll have to cut down to only three meals a day. So, with the help of the son of one of the greatest footballers in the city’s history, two cooks from the Night Kitchen and a young Orc who is trying to find value in his life, they put together a team and oh gods, I’m bored already.
Seriously, I couldn’t care less about football. The book’s not really even about football, to be honest. It’s about identity and self-image, two things that are inextricably tied up in sports and sports fandom. The book is a lot less subtle than usual, pretty much hitting you over the head with a mallet and saying, “You are who you choose to be!!” over and over again.
Actually, what gets said over and over again is a variation on “A leopard can’t change its shorts,” a kind of humorous eggcorn that loses its humorous value after about the fifth time it gets used in the book. But it’s pretty much the theme of the book – what is identity, and can it be changed?
To explore this, we have, for example, Trevor Likely, the son of a famous (dead) footballer who has sworn to his (also dead) mother that he will never play football again after what happened to his father. He’s introduced as a young layabout, a lazy grifter who works very hard at not having to work, and desperately doesn’t want to live up to his responsibilities. Unfortunately for him , he falls in love with young Juliet, a beautiful – if somewhat dim – young woman who works in the Night Kitchen. Standing in the way of their love, however, is the fact that they support opposing teams, and her family would never allow her to see the young man if they knew.
Hmmm. Trev and Juliet. Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
Also mixed up in this is Glenda, the head of the Night Kitchen, whose identity as a below-the-stairs cook is so ingrained into her head that trying to become something else is almost unthinkable. The wizards themselves face an identity crisis as well – the Dean has gone off and accepted the Archchancellor’s position at another university, and has now come back to try and stand as an equal to Ridcully, the head of the Unseen University.
At the center of the book is Nutt, a strange young person who possesses a mysterious past. He looks a little odd, has an enormous intelligence, and harbors an unshakable desire to acquire self-worth, even if he’s not entirely sure what that means.
All of these people are trying to figure out the same thing – who they are. Some of them are surprised by what they find, others dismayed. Nutt discovers that he is an Orc, a race of creatures so hated and reviled that he could be killed on sight. Juliet discovers that her beauty is her path out of the kitchens, Glenda that her desire to control others can be focused into something productive, and Trevor that the destiny he has avoided for so long is what he always should have been.
Threaded throughout all this is the love of the game, the dedication of these people to their football. Indeed, the identity of the game itself comes into play here as well – will it remain a violent street game, wherein the only rule is that there are no rules, or will it gain a sense of purpose and order? How will the old-school, bare-knuckle footy fans deal with the changes imposed upon their game by Lord Vetinari and the Wizards?
It’s hard for me to filter through the sports aspect of this book, which is disappointing because it’s something that a lot of people will probably enjoy. There’s something about the devotion to a sport or to a team that is very important to most people that I just don’t get, and so my general lack of interest in this book is entirely my fault, and not Terry’s. I enjoyed the identity theme, of course – that’s always a rich seam of storytelling material. Watching Nutt come to grips with his identity as an Orc, or Glenda realize that her entire sense of self has been culturally imposed upon her, well, that was fascinating. It’s just that there was a whole thematic element to the book that I couldn’t identify with and didn’t care about.
It’s kind of like listening to Mozart and wishing someone would just shut all those bloody violins up.
So, if you’re a fan of Discworld, pick this up. If you like sports, pick this up. If you don’t like sports, well, you take your chances. As a Pratchett completist, there was no question about reading this book. But I don’t think it’ll be one that I come back to very often.
It’s not you, Terry. It’s me.
“It seems to me that we have a challenge. University against university. City, as it were, against city. Warfare, as it were, without the tedious necessity of picking up all those heads and limbs afterwards.”
- Lord Vetinari, Unseen Academicals
 I think I made it to first base once in my Little League career, and actually got hit on the head by a fly ball – which, I am given to understand, are the easiest to catch. I nearly drowned myself repeatedly trying to learn how to sail. I used to knock myself over trying to kick goals in soccer, my trick ankles pretty much meant that tennis and basketball and any other activity involving quick stops and starts were out, and I got tired of being thrown to the ground real fast in judo. If there was ever such thing as an anti-athlete, I was it. I feared to shake hands with the jocks because I thought we’d both vanish in a cloud of photons.