Category Archives: Terry Pratchett

Books by Terry Pratchett.

Review 222: Sourcery

LL 222 - SourcerySourcery by Terry Pratchett

Yes, I know – I’ve gone on a Discworld bender. Just one, I thought to myself – I’ll just read Lords and Ladies and that’ll be it. But then I saw Small Gods just sitting there… looking at me. Next thing you know I’m halfway through Sourcery and I don’t know how I got there. I may need professional help…. What am I supposed to do, though? They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re entertaining! I promise, though – after this, I’ll leave the Discworld alone for a little while.

If I can.

The Discworld, being a flat world that is carried through space on the backs of four elephants, who in turn are standing – rather patiently, I think – on the back of a great turtle, is, understandably, a world awash in magic. There are magical creatures on the Disc – trolls and dwarfs and elves – and people who know how to use the magic that infuses the world. People like wizards.

There are other ways to be a wizard, but they're not recommended.

There are other ways to be a wizard, but they’re not recommended.

If you want to be a wizard, there are ways to get there. The best thing you can do is to be the eighth son of an eighth son – that type is almost certainly destined for the more arcane arts. Once you’ve become a wizard, you dedicate yourself to one thing: magic. And late lunches, comfortable robes and your pointy hat, but mainly to magic. Wizards don’t marry. Wizards certainly don’t have children.

Except for one wizard. Ipsalore the Red, the eighth son of an eighth son, broke this law of wizardry. He fell in love, ran away from the University, and had sons of his own. Eight of them. His youngest son, Coin, was the carrier of a great power. He was the eighth son of the eighth son of an eighth son. Wizardry squared.

A Sourcerer.

Back in the old days, when the magic on the disc was much wilder, there were sourcerers everywhere. They built great castles and fought horrible wars of magic, the effects of which still scar the Disc to this day. Modern wizardry is a pale reflection of those days, and for good reason. If wizards continued to battle as the sourcerers did, the disc would be broken beyond recognition. Every wizard knows this.

And yet, when young Coin comes to the Unseen University of Ankh-Morpork, bristling with power and holding a staff possessed by the ghost of his father, the wizards are more interested in the power he can give them than the responsibility they have. A sourcerer has arisen, and a new age of magic has come, with all of the terror that implies. Coin reminds them of what wizards used to be, and the power they used to have. Through him, old men who could barely manage a simple illusion are now able to re-shape the world with their wills. With a sourcerer behind them, there is nothing these wizards cannot accomplish.

Not quite Hogwarts material.

Not quite Hogwarts material.

Only one man can stop them. His name is Rincewind, and he really, really doesn’t want to get involved.

Rincewind is a wizard (or, if you go by his pointy hat, a “Wizzard”), although he is so deficient in magical talent that it is believed that the average magical ability of the human population will actually goup once he dies. He wants nothing more than to be left alone to live a boring, mundane life. The universe, it seems, has different ideas. Together with Conina – the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian – and Nijel the Destroyer, Rincewind has to figure out how to stop a sourcerer from destroying the world.

This book is one of the early volumes of the Discworld series, and so it doesn’t quite have the depth that later books do. Oh, there’s certainly a message to be found in it – mainly on the subject of identity. Rincewind identifies himself as a wizard, despite having all the magical talent of a lump of silly putty, and cannot conceive of being anything else. The sourcerer Coin, on the other hand, has been told who he is to become, mainly by the spirit of his dead (and rather monomaniacal) father. Conina has the blood of heroes in her veins, but her dream is to wield nothing sharper than a pair of beautician’s scissors. And Nijel the Destroyer – who looks almost exactly the way his name sounds – desperately wants to be a barbarian hero, despite being about as muscular as a wet noodle.

Yes indeed. Be yourself. Whatever that may be.

Yes indeed. Be yourself. Whatever that may be.

Despite all of this, however, the characters succeed when they decide for themselves who they want to be. The ones who suffer the most are the other wizards – the ones who allow Coin to tell them who they are. They invest their entire sense of self in the inflated image fed to them by the sourcerer – an image of power and strength – and when it all comes crashing down around them, they are only left with shame and disappointment. In the end, they remain who they always were, and that is the tragedy of their downfall.

So if there’s a lesson to be had in this book, that’s it: know who you are and be it, as hard and as loud as you can. Other than that, it’s a rollicking little adventure. Enjoy.

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“It’s vital to remember who you really are. It’s very important. It isn’t a good idea to rely on other people or things to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.”
-Rincewind, Sourcery
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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, identity, Terry Pratchett, wizardry

Review 215: THUD!

LL 215 - THUDTHUD! by Terry Pratchett

I love Discworld. I knew that already, but I thought I’d put that back out there. This book didn’t diminish my love of the Discworld by a single whit, though it didn’t inflame it either. It merely reinforced my feelings. Shored it up, say, like timbers in a mine shaft….

Sorry – there’s a lot about Dwarfs in this book, and it kind of gets to you.

In fact, Dwarfs play a pretty huge role in a lot of the stories that take place in Ankh-Morpork, the great cosmopolitan city of the Disc, mainly because they’re a race that, to humans, seems mysterious and difficult to really understand. The dwarfs have their ways, which they don’t share with outsiders, and find it difficult to reconcile living in a socially diverse city while still retaining their essential Dwarfishness. Through the Dwarfs, Pratchett is able to deal with an issue that most modern countries are struggling with in the 21st century – immigration.

But why, Colonel - WHY?!

But why, Colonel – WHY?!

Take it from me, it’s tough to live in a foreign country. You grew up with a whole set of rules that worked for you and made sense to you, but you now find yourself in a place where those rules no longer apply. And the new rules you have to play by make no sense and, in some situations, may actually seem downright wrong. The difference between the culture in your head and the one in your life is what we call “culture shock,” and there are several ways of dealing with it.

The first is to simply accept it. You’re in another country – they do things differently here. Accept that you’re going to have to play by the house rules, no matter what things were like where you came from. It may feel strange or uncomfortable, but it’s your job to adjust – the world will not change to make you happy, therefore you must change to be happy in the world.

Obviously, this is the option that I believe to be the best one.

Your second choice is to simply leave. If you can’t cope with the new culture, there’s no shame in that. Not everyone is flexible enough to do it. So you gave it a try and it didn’t work. Go somewhere more familiar, someplace where you won’t have to give up so much of what you hold dear.

Obviously this is not an easy option, especially if family or work are involved, but it is an option.

And then you can take your country back!!

And then you can take your country back!!

Third, you can pretend that the host culture is inferior to your own and totally disregard it. Band together with your countrymen and form enclaves, miniaturized versions of your home culture where your rules still apply. Isolate yourselves from the surrounding culture, and do whatever is necessary to keep it from wearing yours down.

This is popular among the more isolationist cultures – in this book, certain segments of Dwarf society. The problem is that sooner or later, the host culture and yours are going to come into conflict. And odds are, you’re going to lose.

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork. A Dwarf has been killed, and they’re ready to blame their ancient enemies, the Trolls. It’s coming up on Koom Valley day, you see, the day in which trolls and dwarfs remember the only battle in the multiverse where, according to the stories, both sides ambushed each other. Trolls hate Dwarfs and Dwarfs hate trolls – that’s how it’s always been, so the logical murderer must have been a Troll.

The problem is that the Commander of the City Watch, Sam Vimes, isn’t so sure. I mean, yes – it’s obvious, but it’s a little too obvious. The Deep Dwarfs, the ones who never come above ground, believe that the murder is beyond Vimes’ jurisdiction, and therein lies the conflict. By trying to keep him out of it, they pretty much ensure that the Watch will investigate this murder, and in the course of doing so, help to uncover a secret that the Deep Dwarfs would do anything to keep from getting out.

I can't help but imagine Vimes played by Bogart...

I can’t help but imagine Vimes played by Bogart…

This one, THUD! is one of the Vimes Books, which puts it very high in my estimation. Of all the characters he’s written, I like Vimes the best. Granny Weatherwax comes a close second. Basically I really like the old, cynical, take-no-shit characters that take the world into their own hands to do the Right Thing, no matter the cost to themselves. The reason why Vimes tops Weatherwax is that, of all the characters on the Disc, Vimes has had the most growth. In his first book, Guards! Guards!, he was a drunk and a failure, the nominal chief of the shadow of a night watch. Enter Carrot Ironfoundersson and a dragon, and Vimes’ path was set.

Now he’s a Duke, Commander of the Guard, married to one of the richest women in the city and the proud father of a toddler. He has everything. In fiction, this is never a good place to be….

The themes of this book are varied. There is, of course, the theme of culture clash – how much should one be allowed to keep the culture one grew up in? How many concessions must you and society make in order to keep everyone happy? The answer, in case you were curious, is hard to pin down, but it is most certainly not “none.”

Where's My CowIt’s also about fatherhood, though that’s more of a character-building theme for Vimes. He has a son now, and he has dedicated himself to his boy. Every night at 6:00, he reads their favorite book, Where’s My Cow to his son (a book that you can also buy, coincidentally enough). He cannot – must not be late for this. Not even by a minute, and certainly not for a good reason. Because if you’re willing to break a promise for a good reason, pretty soon you’ll be breaking it for a bad one. And it is this kind of personal, rock-solid integrity that keeps me coming back to Vimes.

If you’re already a Discworld fan, you don’t need my urging to pick this one up. It’s not the best of them, but it’s certainly a good read.

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“For the enemy is not Troll, nor is it Dwarf, but it is the baleful, the malign the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good.”
– The Diamond King, THUD!
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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, peace, Terry Pratchett, war

Review 210: Interesting Times

LL 210 - Interesting TimesInteresting Times by Terry Pratchett

There is a saying, often attributed to the Chinese – “May you live in interesting times.” Usually when this is invoked, it’s done so as a curse, the idea being that interesting times are more likely to cause you trouble than nice boring times, and perhaps that’s true. The folks in Mali, for example, are certainly living in interesting times right now. The trouble is that not everybody is able to stay alive to enjoy them.

Pictured: An interesting time

Pictured: An interesting time

That’s one of the problems with life as we know it – we long for things to be interesting, exciting and thrilling, like what happens to Bruce Willis every time he’s on the screen. When those times come, however, we realize that it’s the boring, predictable times we really want. In other words, we want whatever we don’t have at the moment, which just goes to prove that we, as a species, are messed up in the head. If we had been assembled by any rational Supreme Being, it would have made us a little more accepting of the lives we lead. This mind-set may not lead us to the advanced society we have now, but it certainly would lead us to something approaching world peace.

This book is about wanting what you don’t have, and what happens when you get it.

The central character is the wizard – or Wizzard – Rincewind, one of the oldest of the Discworld characters. He’s been with the series since the first book, The Colour of Magic, and he’s grown to be a favorite for many readers. What Rincewind wants, really wants, is to be left alone. No quests, no challenges, no one trying to kill him or otherwise ruin his day. If the world forgot that Rincewind existed, he’d be the happiest man alive.

Unfortunately for Rincewind, the world hasn’t forgotten him. He has to be sent to the far-off Agatean Empire, a place so remote that few, if any, people know anything about it. A message came, asking for the Great Wizzard, and Rincewind is the only one who fits the bill. The fact that he can’t do magic is not important, really.

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with...

Very old barbarian heroes are exactly the last barbarian heroes you want to mess with…

When he gets there, he meets Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde – seven incredibly old barbarian heroes. Seven men who don’t know the meaning of the word “defeat,” though you’d probably have to repeat it very loudly before they heard what you’d said. Together, the Horde are headed to the capital city of the Empire, looking to make the biggest heist in their long, long, long barbarian careers.

Together, Rincewind, Cohen and the Horde find the Empire in the throes of a people’s revolution, borne of righteous peasant rage and the skillful manipulations of the Grand Vizier, Lord Hong.

Like so many Discworld books, this is a lot of fun to read. The Agatean Empire is a blend of ancient China and Japan, giving us ninja and samurai alongside blue and white Ming ceramics and an exam-based bureaucracy. And like most of the other Discworld books, this one gives you something to think about – what do you want to be?

Rincewind wants to be left alone, because he thinks he’ll be safer that way. Cohen wants to settle down, because he worries that his life as a barbarian hero might be catching up to him. Lord Hong wants to be a gentleman of Ankh-Morpork, or at least the ruler of such men. And the people of the Empire, who call themselves the Red Army, want to be free, even though they have no idea what being free means.

They're... they're TERRIFYING!!

They’re… they’re TERRIFYING!!

The only character who seems to change his life for the better is Mister Saveloy, the youngest member of the Silver Horde and the one they call “Teach.” He realized that what he thought he wanted – a life of educating young people – wasn’t what he really wanted after all. What he wanted was the certainty and simplicity of Cohen’s barbarian lifestyle, and found it rather agreed with him.

So what’s the lesson here? Perhaps this: Be happy with what you have, but don’t be afraid to change. Just remember that not all change is for the better.

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“…I decided to give it up and make a living by the sword.”
“After being a teacher all your life?”
“It did mean a change of perspective, yes.”
“But… well… surely… the privation, the terrible hazards, the daily risk of death…”
Mister Saveloy brightened up. “Oh, you’ve been a teacher, have you?”
– Rincewind and “Teach”, Interesting Times
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Filed under adventure, China, Discworld, fantasy, humor, Terry Pratchett

Review 201: Unseen Academicals

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.

There but for the grace of god go I…

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 [1] 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?

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.

I believe the English refer to this as “a jolly good time.”

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?

How… romantic?

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?

He’s really just misunderstood.

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.

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“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
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Now give me one of these…

[1] 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.

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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, identity, sports, Terry Pratchett

Review 197: The Long Earth

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

It is said that the population of the whole world, if packed together into a city of the same density as New York City, would fit into the current boundaries of Texas. This Texan mega-city wouldn’t be a pleasant place to live, and there’s the challenge of infrastructure and living space and waste management, but the point is clear: there’s a lot more space on Earth than we think there is.

True, a lot of it is unfriendly to us – ocean, desert, ice, mountains, New Jersey – but still, despite our habit of packing ourselves into tightly-bound metropoli, there’s a lot of room on this earth to spread out.

Now imagine there was another Earth just a step away. A simple exertion of will, perhaps aided by a small device that anyone could make at home with a potato and some spare parts, and you’re in a new world, untouched by human hands. You’d be standing in the same place you left from, but on another Earth. And if you don’t like that one, well, there’s another Earth just a step away. And another. And another. An infinity of Earths, each one so very slightly different from the one you left, each with its own story to tell.

I’ll take the fifth Earth on the left. It’ll go well with my living room.

With the potential for an entire planet per person, what would that do to the world? Who would go and who would stay? What would happen to the “original” Earth, or Datum Earth as it’s called in this book? The ramifications of the Long Earth are far-reaching and unsettling indeed, as is the quest to map it.

Of the people on Datum Earth, most are able to step with the aid of a Stepper, a small box that they can build from freely available parts using plans that were posted to the internet by a mysterious engineer named Willis Linsay. As long as you follow the instructions properly and to the letter, you should be able to step from Earth to Earth with ease and only a minimum of discomfort.

The first wave of devices were built by kids, prompting an initial missing-children panic as kids popped out of this universe with hastily-built Steppers, completely unprepared for what they were getting into. Soon, though, more and more people were stepping out, eager to explore these strange new worlds.

At the forefront of this wave of colonization were the rare few who could step from world to world without a Stepper. One of these is Joshua Valienté, who was propelled to fame when he rescued children from their first journeys on Step Day. Joshua is hired by the Black Corporation to explore the Long Earth. With the support of Lobsang Рformerly of Tibet and now an artificial intelligence РJoshua is going to step as far as he can go and see what there is to see at the distant ends of the Long Earth.

And for every one of you, there is another one with a goatee.

This is a genus of book that I really enjoy – one that takes a simple, straightforward idea and tries to find all the angles of it. To that end, Pratchett and Baxter look at how the people, governments, and businesses of Datum Earth adjust to this new reality. And some of the questions are decidedly thorny. Is America still America on all Earths? If someone commits a crime in an alternate New York, could they be prosecuted by the NYPD? What happens to the value of commodities such as wood or gold when you have a nigh-infinite supply of it? And what happens to a nation when its people start stepping out en masse?

There is a sub-plot in the book, following police Lieutenant Monica Jansson, who becomes the law’s expert on stepping, with all the challenges that come with it. For example, what can you do to stop someone from stepping one world over, taking a few steps to where a bank vault should be, and then stepping back? How do you make a space step-proof against intruders? And what do you do with the increasingly disgruntled percent of people who can’t step at all? That’s to say nothing of the scam artists, the escapees, and the people who just abandon their lives to walk the Long Earth. It’s a concept rife with possibilities.

Each Earth is slightly different, representing an Earth that could have been. Some are steaming jungle, others arid wasteland and still others are lush and perfect for agriculture. There are animals that claim descent from the megafauna of North America, from our own ape-like ancestors, and from dinosaurs, and others still that are unlike anything on the Earth we know. On none of them, however, are there humans – only the Datum Earth has those.

You can have my gun when you pry it from Anton Checkhov’s cold, dead hands!

As great as the concept is, though, I found myself disappointed by the end of it. It seemed like Pratchett and Baxter missed a lot of good opportunities for the story, failed to fire at least one of Chekhov’s guns, and let the Datum Earth plot line with Monica Jansson go woefully under-explored. Furthermore, while the Big Bad at the end was certainly big, it wasn’t that bad, and it was dealt with in a rather perfunctory and, in my opinion, unfulfilling manner. The ending was flat, with a bunch of loose ends that really should have been tied up, and there was even one question that came to mind that seemed so painfully obvious that I was shocked none of the characters thought of it: the Stepper boxes refer to the alternate Earths as being “west” or “east” of Datum Earth, and are built with a three-point toggle switch.

If there’s a west and an east, how about a north and south? What if you had four choices from any given Earth instead of two? I can understand leaving that option out for reasons of narrative simplicity, but it seems like such an obvious question that I’m surprised it wasn’t even raised.

Overall, I think the book fell under the same curse as so many of Neal Stephenson’s works: an amazing idea, done really well until the authors had to figure out how to end the book. There’s no real climax to it, no sense of fulfillment and achievement. Just a feeling like they had to stop somewhere, so they did.

That said, if they’re clever, they’ll make this a shared world project. I would love to see lots of different authors take a crack at some Tales of the Long Earth, precisely because it’s such a useful idea. There are so many stories that can be told, including the ones that got short shrift in this novel. Let’s hope we get to see that.

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[Jansson] opined, ‘Oh.’ This response seemed inadequate in itself. After some consideration, she added, ‘My.’ And she concluded, although in the process she was denying a lifelong belief system of agnosticism shading to outright atheism, ‘God.’
– from The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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Filed under adventure, alternate earth, colonization, quest, revolution, science fiction, Stephen Baxter, Terry Pratchett, travel, world-crossing

Review 189: Men at Arms

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

When last we left our intrepid Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, things were looking up. This is a nice change from the gutter’s-eye-view we had at the beginning of Guards! Guards!. Things have changed in the time between books. The Watch has a new headquarters, much nicer than its old one, thanks to Lady Sibyl Ramkin, the fiance of Captain Sam Vimes. She comes from an ancient and respectable family, has more money than anyone else in the city, and loves Vimes despite his deep-seated curmudgeonliness, if that is a word.

What’s more, the Watch is taking on new recruits, as ordered by the Patrician. Ankh-Morpork is a city with a very diverse population, and the Patrician believes that the Watch should reflect that diversity. Now we have a Watch open to anyone – trolls, dwarfs, the undead, apes, women – who wants to join, or who doesn’t want to get their heads beaten in. Carrot Ironfoundersson has become a beloved figure in the city – he knows everyone and everyone knows him. All in all, things are looking up.

But there are those who are of a mind that things would be better if only Ankh-Morpork had a king….

Of course, some kings only make things nightmarishly worse…

This is a recurring theme in the early Watch books – the irrational need for royalty. Although, that’s not entirely accurate. Pratchett is a British writer, of course, and he’s got the Queen to look up to, but she doesn’t have all that much real power. Certain people in Ankh-Morpork are looking for a sovereign – not to wave at them and make a Hogswatch speech, but to actually take over their city. They hope, in their hearts, that a king will solve everything. In that way, this recurring theme is not so much about royalty versus populism, but rather the ability to control one’s own life versus allowing someone else to control it for you. The idea that one has responsibility for one’s own actions and well-being is dominant in the Guards books, no more so than in this one.

There is a man named Edward d’Eath, and he has a vision. He is the last of an aristocratic line whose power has declined in this age of guilds and merchants. He looks to the past and sees it as better, brighter than the future. He knows that, if he can just do one little thing, Ankh-Morpork – and he – will be restored to glory. That one little thing, of course, is to put a king on the throne.

Not just any king, of course. The fools who thought to use a dragon to set up a puppet king showed how ineffectual that would be. No, this would only work with a real king, a descendant of the ancient kings of Ankh-Morpork. Find him, put him on the throne, and everything will finally be set straight.

I like to imagine it looks like this.

Of course, that doesn’t work out nearly as well as Edward hopes. He steals a mysterious artifact to set his plan in motion – the Gonne. It is a weapon created by one of the most brilliant minds on the Disc, a man kept peacefully imprisoned by Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician. It is a device that should have been destroyed, but was instead put on display so that the Assassins, the bringers of death, could look at it and say “Beware this thing.”

Like I said, this book is all about making choices in life. Vimes is engaged to be married to Sybil Ramkin, and thus his days as the Captain of the Watch are numbered. He may be in a better position than he was in the last book – having someone try to kill you is always refreshing, after all – but he knows that the life he’s giving up, with all of its pain and trouble and heartache, is the life that he needs to live.

Corporal Carrot needs to choose how best to serve the city of Ankh-Morpork. He is an excellent policeman, probably the only man on the Disc who could get in the middle of an incipient troll/dwarf race riot and shame them out of killing each other. People do what he says – he is, in his own words, “good at being obeyed.” If he wanted to, he could run the city and the city would be glad to let him do it. But is that the best thing for the city?

How could you not trust a chin like that? (art by Simon Lissaman)

The troll Detritus and the dwarf Cuddy both have choices – will they conform to the ancient animosity that stands between their two races, or will they overcome it for the common good?

And then there’s the Gonne itself. As a weapon, it is frighteningly powerful – much more so than the standard-issue crossbow – and as a firearm, however primitive, it represents a vast escalation in the way violence is done. What’s more, since this is a fantasy novel, the Gonne has something of a mind of its own. Its wielders hear it talking to them, convincing them that the only thing standing between them and what they want are a few simple deaths – something the Gonne can easily provide. It even uses the old NRA saw verbatim – Gonnes don’t kill people. People kill people.

But people have a choice, perhaps more of a choice than the characters of these books do. The Gonne controls them, the trigger practically pulls itself, and when you’re holding it, you can easily understand how a simple shot, one simple thing, could change the world. For the better, of course – always for the better.

Pratchett’s views on guns and their efficacy aside, it’s a very gripping book. There’s the mystery of it, of course – who has the Gonne, and why are they using it – but it’s also a story about characters and the choices they make for themselves. My absolute favorites in this are Detritus and Cuddy. Trolls and dwarfs have a famous antagonism, stretching back to the ancient battle of Koom Valley (the only battle in the multiverse where both sides ambushed each other) and it would be very easy for them to fall into simple, culturally conditioned roles.

They’re better buddy cops than you’ll likely to see in the movies, anyway.

While it may be a cliche to say that they found common ground, learned to look past their own prejudices and learned to respect – nay, to like one another, that’s exactly what they did. It is due to Pratchett’s skill as a writer and as a creator of characters that we come to deeply care for this relationship, investing a lot of hope in it. We know that if Cuddy and Detritus can become friends, then maybe there’s hope for everyone. This emotional investment pays off, and Pratchett reaches deep into our hearts at the end, showing that just because you start with a cliche, it doesn’t mean it can’t have depth.

Of course, if you’re not quite as analytical as I am, you can still enjoy it as a good murder mystery. Watching Vimes and company piece together the crime is always fun, because there’s always a twist somewhere that you never saw coming. And Vimes really is one of my favorite Discworld characters – he’s cynical and world-weary, but he still has enough idealism within him to carry him through those times that look like they’re trying to kill him.

All in all, a great book and one that’s highly recommended. The earlier Discworld books are largely stand-alone, so if you’ve never read any of the series before, don’t worry – you can pick this one up and you won’t really miss anything. You may, however, find yourself driving back to the bookstore to get as many other Discworld books as you can. I’m just saying….

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Generally, I meet people before they’re buried. The ones I meet after they’ve been buried tend to be a bit over-excited and disinclined to discuss things.
– Death, Men at Arms
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Review 175: The Last Continent

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

Quick – what do you know about Australia?

I reckon if you live in Australia, you probably know quite a lot. If you’ve known someone from Australia or perhaps have visited there, you might know a few things. If your experience is limited to a few “Crocodile Dundee” movies and the Crocodile Hunter, then you could probably stand to know a little more. No matter what your level of Australiana is, though, you probably know at least enough to get a lot of enjoyment out of this book, Terry Pratchett’s homage to the strangest continent on Earth.

Now keep in mind, Pratchett does state quite clearly that this is not a book about Australia. “It’s about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit… Australian.” So that’s okay then.

This adorable little thing? IT WILL END YOU.

Really, this is Pratchett’s homage to Australia, a country that he clearly likes a lot. In reality, Australia is a pretty strange place. It’s a giant island, most of which is barren desert. It’s been disconnected from the other continents for so long that evolution has given us species unlike any others on Earth. Pretty much anything that you come across, from the lowliest spider to the cutest jellyfish to the weirdest platypus, is deadly. The country is a tribute to Nature, both in its beauty and its danger, and really deserves more attention than it gets.

In one memorable scene, Death asks his Library for a complete list of dangerous animals on the continent known as XXXX, aka Fourecks. He is immediately buried under books, including Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita, volume 29c, part three. A slight exaggeration? Perhaps. He then asks for a complete list of species that are not deadly, and gets a small leaflet on which is written, “Some of the sheep.”

This book isn’t about Death, though, as much fun as that may be. This is about the worst wizard on the Disc. The classic inadvertent hero, who had seen so much of the world but only as a blur while he ran from danger. The hero who truly just wants to be left alone, perhaps with a potato – Rincewind.

What you most need to know about Rincewind is that he absolutely does not want to be a hero. He craves a boring life, one in which the most he has to worry about is whether to have his potatoes baked, mashed, or deep fried. He does not want to be chased by mad highwaymen, put in prison for sheep theft, or required to completely change the climate of an entire continent. He doesn’t want to time travel, be guided by strange, otherworldly kangaroos or fall in with a troupe of suspiciously masculine female performers. He just wants peace and quiet.

This? This is an Australian rain forest.

The universe, of course, has other ideas. And so it is up to Rincewind to once again save the day. The continent of Fourecks has never seen rain – in fact, they think the very idea of water that falls from the sky is ludicrous. But there are legends of what they call The Wet – the day when water will be found on the surface of the ground, rather than hundreds of feet below it. And while they don’t know how it will happen exactly, they do know it will happen. Lucky for Rincewind, the universe has chosen him to make sure that it does.

I really can’t list all of the Australia references because there are just too many. From drop bears to Vegemite, Mad Max to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, they’re pretty much all there.

This book is, like so many other Discworld, books, a lot of fun to read. One of the more interesting sections in the book is one that’s not strictly necessary. Exploring a strange window in the University which, for some reason, leads to a beach, the Wizards of the Unseen University find themselves marooned thousands of miles away and thousands of years back in time. On this weird little island, they meet one of the most unusual gods on the Disc – the god of evolution.

And sometimes even gods get bored.

This god isn’t interested in the normal godly things – lolling about and being worshiped, occasionally smiting a few followers here and there. As Pratchett puts it, “It is a general test of the omnipotence of a god that they can see the fall of a tiny bird. But only one god makes notes, and a few adjustments, so that next time it can fall further and faster.” This god of evolution is devoted to making life forms better, often one at a time, and lives on a strange little island where there’s only one of everything, but everything yearns to be useful. With him, the wizards are able to explore evolution and natural selection and figure out why sex is just so darn useful.

I say that this section isn’t strictly necessary because it just isn’t. It’s certainly interesting, and I suppose the god’s island is a nice echo of the real Australia, where evolution has had a long time to tinker and come up with some really weird stuff, but in terms of the story, it’s not all that important a plot point. In fact, the wizards in general don’t contribute much to the story other than to make it longer and funnier. Their exploration of evolution and Rincewind’s unwilling quest to bring rain to the barren land of Fourecks are almost wholly unrelated to each other, up until the very end.

I can’t see how a group like this would ever cause trouble.

This isn’t to say that they’re unwelcome – I love watching the wizards explore the world. The combination of personalities whenever all the wizards get together is one that offers endless hours of reading fun, and I think that without them, the book would have been less enjoyable. They’re just not essential to the plot, is all, and if that kind of thing is important to you, then you might not enjoy this book so much.

Me, I love science and I love Discworld. While the actual Science of Discworld series was kind of dry and boring in the end, I love it when Pratchett explores real-world science through the eyes of his Discworld characters. By looking at science from another perspective, he is able to make it perhaps a little more understandable to people who otherwise might write science off as “too hard.”

This book is a trip through time and space and Australia. It’s a long, strange trip, to be sure, but an entertaining one.

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“It’s not many times in your life you get the chance to die of hunger on some bleak continent some thousands of years before you’re born. We should make the most of it.”
– The Dean
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