Monday, January 02, 2006

Not With a Bang But With a Thud! or, Whither Discworld

Last year, while reading Terry Pratchett's then most recent novel, Going Postal, I remarked to my mother how strange it was that when I had started reading Discworld, the books had been about magic and eldritch creatures from the beyond, whereas now they were about telecommunications cartels. And eldritch creatures from the beyond.

It is quite fascinating to chart the evolution of Pratchett's invented universe, currently spanning some thirty adult novels, three YA novels, a picture book, an illustrated novel and any number of companion volumes. The series started out as a parody of fantasy conventions, with Pratchett reaching into a giant box marked 'fantasy clichés' and digging out something new to lambast every three pages, whether it was the novels of Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or just the hoary conventions of the genre. As the Discworld began taking shape, Pratchett shaved away a great many invented species and locations, and started telling his own stories. Strongly dependent on magic (quite often it seemed that the stories revolved around the menace of the Dungeon Dimensions breaking into Discworld), these were traditional fantasy stories--the deposed prince in disguise, the magician's apprentice, the dragon who terrorizes a city--with a decidedly Pratchett twist and a healthy dollop of his humanist philosophy. Most recently, Discworld books have switched over to the 'Discworld Does X' model--communism, Christmas, war, newspaper journalism, feminism, telecommunication booms, and, with the most recent novel, Thud!, race wars--with magic taking a back seat to a satire of contemporary popular culture and a more strident form of Pratchett's political commentary.

It's a common complaint in recent years to say that Pratchett is recycling ideas, settings and jokes, but in many ways, that repetition is the source of Discworld's strength, and the reason that this invented universe has remained strong and compelling (not to mention a tantalizing mix of bestselling and critically beloved) for over twenty years. Despite taking place in many different locations on Discworld, centering on different characters, and having widely divergent themes and tones, the Discworld novels are clearly of a piece. They are tied together with a shared mythology and history which Pratchett extemporizes with the skill of a great jazz musician. A throwaway joke becomes a recurring joke, the recurring joke becomes a plot point and the plot point becomes the lynchpin of an entire novel. This is essentially what Pratchett has done with Thud!, in which the battle of Koom Valley (first mentioned in a footnote in, I believe, Men at Arms) goes from humorous to gravely serious as Ankh-Morpork's dwarf and troll populations start raring for a reenactment. The murder of a rabble-rousing dwarf, who had been preaching the death of all trolls, is likely to ignite the city, and it falls to its Watch, led by the inimitable Commander Sam Vimes, to solve the murder and defuse the situation.

Over the last few years, Vimes has started to become synonymous with Discworld. Of the last seven Discworld novels for adults, three were Watch novels (The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!) with Vimes as the main (and sometimes only) protagonist, and a further two featured him prominently as an antagonist (The Truth, Monstrous Regiment). At the same time, other Discworld sub-series seem to be grinding to a halt. The Lancre witches' coven is making guest appearances in the YA Tiffany Aching novels. Rincewinds seems, by popular demand, to be staying put in his cushy Unseen University position. It's been a while since we've visited with Death and his extended family. Pratchett has been writing a lot of standalone novels with new characters, whom he might in the future spin off into new sub-series, but thus far they've been largely along the lines of the Watch novels--mysteries taking place in Ankh-Morpork.

The Watch series, and Sam Vimes himself, are a fan favorite, and for quite some time I had no problem with the notion of spending most of my time with these characters. What I've noticed recently, however, is that even within the Watch books there's been a thinning out of the characters. Whereas the early Watch novels were told from several points of view, each investigating the crime from a different angle and contributing vital information, in the most recent Watch novels the onus of the investigation falls almost entirely on Vimes' shoulders, with the other familiar characters acting as comic relief or simply showing up because it's expected of them.

It's plain that Pratchett no longer has any idea what to do with Captain Carrot, who can no longer play the innocent abroad and whose psychological idiosyncrasies (personal isn't the same as important) have long since been wrung dry of story ideas. Pratchett has taking to sidelining the character--Night Watch took place years before he arrived in the city, and in Thud! he doesn't even get a point of view and appears in only a few scenes--and will probably continue to do so until he finally decides to bring the issue of Carrot's kingship to a head (what a pity it is that Pratchett has made the very idea of Carrot claiming the throne thoroughly out of character for him--it would have been fascinating to watch Carrot square off against Vimes). Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs show up to desultorily repeat their tired old shtick, which even Pratchett seems to find tedious. The less said about Angua's storyline, in which her by-now painfully familiar whining over being a werewolf is coupled with an extended and ultimately pointless bar-crawl with Cheery, new vampire recruit Sally, and Nobby's new girlfriend, the better. Both Cheery and Detritus, who might have been expected to take a more prominent role in a novel dealing with dwarf-troll tensions, are given little to do--at no point have I so thoroughly regretted the death of Cuddy in Men at Arms, when his friendship with Detritus might have been the focal point of a interesting sub-plot.

The only real character left in Thud! is Sam Vimes himself, who for several books now has acted as Pratchett's mouthpiece about matters personal and political. It's interesting to note that while the early Watch novels dealt with political matters in an oblique fashion, through murder investigations of private citizens whose deaths shed light on a potential social problem (Feet of Clay raises the issue of slavery, Men at Arms brings up the danger of guns), later novels have had Vimes deal with blatantly political matters--whether he's traveling to foreign countries, as he does in Jingo and The Fifth Elephant, or staying put as he does in Thud! and Night Watch. The murders Vimes is faced with in these later Watch novels are catalysts for events that might tear the city--the entire Discworld, even--apart, and it falls to him to come up with a solution that will defuse the situation.

Which, of course, he does. It occurred to me while reading Thud! that for all of Pratchett's willingness to mess up the Discworld universe, to introduce real-world politics and political crises, he's not quite willing to take the approach to its logical conclusion. Again and again, Vimes discovers that the murders he's been sent to investigate were orchestrated for the specific purpose of sparking wars, toppling kings, and resurrecting old enmities. By bringing the murderer to light, Vimes reminds both sides that they'd rather sit down and talk, and that their hatred for one another comes not from themselves but from an outside source. Unlike our own world, which progresses and regresses in cycles, the Discworld is constantly moving forward into enlightenment and away from warlike medieval notions of how the world works. It's a pleasant fairy tale, but especially with Pratchett trying to tell more realistic stories (and using his characters to moralize throughout these stories) it feels inauthentic. Are we really meant to accept that centuries of racial tension can be overcome by the discovery that Vimes makes at the end of Thud!? I think we all know a little too much about the real-world counterparts of such struggles to believe Pratchett's easy solution.

I would classify Thud! as a lesser Discworld novels, somewhere around the Maskerade level. It's funny as all get-out, of course, and the Discworld itself is as concretely real as it has ever been, but it's clear from the book's outset that the militant dwarf's murder could not have been committed by a troll, as his fellow 'deep-down' dwarfs claim, and experience teaches us that Pratchett is almost certain to reveal a vast conspiracy aimed at undermining the future of dwarf-troll relations. The mystery, in other words, isn't terribly mystifying--the book is more of a how- and whydunnit than a whodunnit, and both the how and the why hinge on a thin Da Vinci Code satire that is too subtle to be truly funny and too prominent to save the book from sinking into irrelevance the moment the egg-timer on this pop-culture phenomenon runs out (a problem that has plagued too many recent Discworld novels). The novel deals with the history and folk beliefs of both dwarfs and trolls, but whereas the former are by now the Discworld equivalent of Klingons--an invented species whose culture has become so fascinating that it threatens to overwhelm the human point of view characters--the latter have remained underdeveloped, and Pratchett has to scramble to come up with some smidgeon of folklore for them. The result is not so much a novel about strife between dwarfs and trolls as it is about internal disputes between two different groups of dwarfs, and as such is sadly reminiscent of the superior The Fifth Elephant.

Nevertheless, there are moments of profound beauty and wit in Thud!, primarily focusing on Vimes. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes at Vimes reading a tattered, much-loved children's book to his one-year-old son, and as usual, Vimes' interactions with his family and extended household have the ring of truth and serve to remind us why we love this decent, honorable man. And then there's this little piece of quintessential Vimes-iana, tucked away in a footnote:
Vimes had never got on with any game more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks around, the whole board could've been a republic in a dozen moves.
But for most of the novel, Pratchett is less concerned with letting Vimes be than he is with letting him talk. Or, more accurately, monologue. With the roles of the other Watch characters so drastically reduced, most of Thud! takes place inside Vimes' head, and we get to watch him think about and respond to the events he witnesses in typical Vimes-ian fashion--by getting angry. Anger is unquestionably Vimes' defining characteristic--his incandescent rage at the unfairness of the world, at the strong preying on the weak, at the way that real people are used up and tossed away by those who claim to be trying to make the world a better place. To Pratchett's credit, he uses Vimes' anger as a plot point in Thud!, in which a vengeful spirit recognizes in him the potential for a champion and tries to turn him into a creature of pure rage. The way in which Vimes fights and eventually confounds this creature reveals to us the bedrock of his personality, the importance he places on his self-control and on his ability to police himself and be certain of the rightness of his actions. It is a true psychological insight into one of Practhett's most interesting characters--albeit one that largely repeats the Gonne plotline in Men at Arms--but sadly it comes swathed in hundreds of pages of cod-philosophy.
"I don't habitually beat up prisoners, if that's what you're suggesting," said Vimes.

"And I am sure you would not wish to do so tonight."

Vimes opened his mouth to shout the grag out of the building, and stopped.

Because the cheeky little sod had got it right slap-bang on the money. Vimes had been on the edge since leaving the house. He'd felt a tingling across his skin, and a tightness in his gut, and a sharp, nasty little headache. Someone was going to pay for all this... this... this thisness, and it didn't need to be a screwed-up bit player like Helmclever.

And he was not certain, not certain at all, what he'd do if the prisoner gave him any lip or tried to be smart. Beating people up in little rooms... he knew where that led. And if you did it for a good reason, you'd do it for a bad one. You couldn't say "we're the good guys" and do bad-guy things. Sometimes the watching watchman inside every good copper's head could use an extra pair of eyes.

Justice had to be seen to be done, so he'd see it done up good and proper.
As an infrequent occurrence, a way of hammering in a point at the book's climax, this sort of over-the-top rhetoric works, but Vimes goes on in this fashion for the better part of 350 pages, and has been doing so for three or four books. Whereas the earlier Watch books charted changes in Vimes' personality--from a broken-down drunk, he learns to believe again in the ideals whose bankrupcy broke his heart, and becomes a major player in the city--recent books in the sub-series have simply made Vimes more Vimes-ish, and as a result the character and its voice are at the cusp of becoming parodies of themselves. The fact that Pratchett doesn't seem to notice this suggests that he may have committed the humorist's cardinal sin--that of taking himself too seriously. Vimes' politics, which at this point we can only assume are also Pratchett's politics, are not enough to support the novel, especially when one considers how unoriginal they are. Surely, most Pratchett readers above junior high age don't need to be told that race wars are stupid and hurtful?

While Pratchett has no problem conveying Vimes' anger, and does a decent enough job of sketching the outlines of his deeper feelings for his family, he still can't quite manage tender emotions, which only contributes to the devaluation of Vimes as a person. Throughout the Discworld series, Pratchett has demurely turned away whenever his characters came close to expressing earnest, delicate emotion--romance, heartbreak or grief. Pratchett is of the Douglas Adams school of humorist writing, which means that he doesn't quite know how to marry his laugh-a-minute style with genuinely human characterization. Ten years ago, when I first started reading him, Pratchett was the only game in town if you were looking for intelligent, thought-provoking, original fantasy and didn't know where to turn outside of the mainstream, and you took his lumps with his delightful sugar. The intervening decade has seen a sea-change in the fantasy genre. Pratchett is no longer the only name to call up when asked to suggest intelligent, well-written fantasy, even within the mainstream, and in a year in which Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys so believably married humor and realistic emotions, a book like Thud! seems almost anachronistic. Like many Pratchett fans, I've long been thoroughly invested in the notion that Pratchett is worth looking at, that he says important things and says them well, but it occurs to me that as time passes, I can find less and less ways to justify this argument. I can still see myself handing a reluctant, slightly snobbish reader a copy of Wyrd Sisters or Mort with the full expectation of blowing their minds, but the later Discworld books strike me as lesser and more ephemeral efforts--half pop-culture references, half unsubtle moralizing.

The most fun I've had in Discworld in recent years has been with the YA Tiffany Aching novels, The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, which match delicate psychological portraits with exciting plots, a less strident form of Pratchett's trademark political thinking, and genuinely funny humor. Possibly the best thing about the Tiffany books, however, is the way in which they give us a fresh perspective, or rather two fresh perspectives, on Granny Weatherwax, Pratchett's second most recognizable and beloved character. The books, which might as well be subtitled The Young Esmerelda Weatherwax Chronicles, chart Tiffany's growth into what is almost certain to be the next witch of witches, the most powerful and most influential witch in her region--the next Granny Weatherwax, in other words. They give us a glimpse of the making of a Granny Weatherwax, and although in some cases they repeat storylines and ideas that we've already seen from Granny's perspective (both books owe a great deal to Lords and Ladies), there's enough freshness in them to counteract the repetition. Perhaps more importantly, through Tiffany's eyes we see Granny as others see her. Instead of living inside Granny's head, as the adult witch novels forced us to do, we see her from the outside, and although Pratchett can't quite resist the urge to give Tiffany the 'correct' attitude towards Granny, by enforcing a distance from the character he allows us to see her world more completely, without being overwhelmed by her philosophy of life.

I'd very much like to see Pratchett give the Watch novels the Tiffany treatment. It's time to get out of Vimes' head and find a new point of view character, and I have to say, the character I'm currently most curious about is Young Sam Vimes. I can't help but wonder how this young man will avoid the twin pitfalls of becoming his father and moving so far out of his father's shadow that he no longer recognizes himself (I think it's safe to assume that, with Sam and Sybil Vimes for parents, being spoiled is not something this kid has to worry about). I think it would be interesting to see Vimes through his son's eyes, but whether or not Pratchett does this I hope he moves out of Vimes' head. I've been a Discworld fan for 12 years, and Pratchett remains the only author whose books I simply can't not read, but I would dearly love to see him return to the series' glory days, and remember that it was the stories, not the sermons, that made his world great in the first place.

8 comments:

Lazygal said...

What about DEATH? I miss him. When I introduce people to Discworld, I start with Hogfather simply because it encapsulates all the mythology and humor without getting into the politics. While the Watch series are fun, DEATH hasn't really made an appearance for a while. If only Prachett would alternate mini-series.

Brixtonbrood said...

I agree about Carrot - Pratchett seems to have written himself into a corner with him. Much as I love Vetinari, the one thing I think would really stretch the Ankh Morpork books would be killing him off - having a range of really unsavoury or incompetent types challenging for the post and then seeing if Carrot could resist the temptation (or the more subtle temptation to publicly renounce the crown and stand for election or whatever).
Failing that I'd settle for a novel that turned Vetinari from an infallible plot device into a human being.
Still enjoyed Thud! a lot though - I've spent a lot of time reading That's Not My Dinosaur... recently so the bedtime story bits sang to me.

Jennifer said...

Maskerade is one of my favorite Discworld books, just because I was such a big fan of Phantom of the Opera when I first read it.

I do miss Death. But I enjoyed Thud! and absolutely loved Going Postal.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Much as I love Vetinari, the one thing I think would really stretch the Ankh Morpork books would be killing him off

Yeah, I've more or less come to the same conclusion, although it's hard to imagine Ankh-Morpork without him. I have to wonder if Pratchett has the nerve to kill him off - it's an irrevocable move that will thoroughly upend the Watch novels and possibly the entire series. Thus far, the changes he's introduced into Discworld have been gentle ones.

There's another issue as well, which is that someone as smart as Vetinari surely has some plan for what's to come after his death.

Failing that I'd settle for a novel that turned Vetinari from an infallible plot device into a human being.

Big fat word to that.

Jenny D said...

Hogfather was one of the first Discworld books I read, and I think it's still my favorite (though I do think "Lost Continent" is just pricelessly good too, in the satire-on-a-topic vein). I completely agree with you about the excellence of the Tiffany Aching books--they are wonderfully good, as good as the very best of the main Discworld sequence--I wonder if it isn't really more that we want Pratchett to be allowed to range further afield...

anne said...

Thanks, Thanks, Thanks

JohnH said...

Ah, just found your blog and have been going over old posts....

I used to be a big fan of Discworld but recently it has been harder to force myself to read one, then as I realized that I've in fact been forcing myself to read them, stopped.

I keep meaning to go back really. The Watch novels are my second-most favorite series (hey, I still have a soft spot for Rincewind). The only Discworld books I really hate are the witch sequences (mostly because I loathed Lords and Ladies). Yet I really think it has been the focus on Vimes that has driven me away, and I think you nailed why fairly well. I think Vimes is a great character, but yes, I think Vimes has been too focused upon.

It would be nice to see some of the old places again, or even some new ones, but Pratchett seems to do that most often either in standalone books (like Small Gods, still a favorite) or by having Rincewind go through them, running for dear life. Rincewind's in retirement, so....

As for Vetinari, he'd probably step down before someone killed him. It might be cool to see him take on something of an apprentice Patrician....

Anonymous said...

You obviously don't understand or appreciate satire. Stop reviewing Sir Terry's books.

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