Friday, December 12, 2008

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Nation begins with the arrival of a ship, the Cutty Wren, on a cold, snowy night, at an English port, where its crew is forbidden to disembark, its body is soaked with disinfectant, and its captain is informed that he must turn around at once on a matter of national importance.
The captain shook his head. "This is not good enough, Mr. Blezzard. What you are asking--it's too much. I--Good God, man, I need more authority than some words shouted through a tin tube!"

"I think you will find me all the authority you need, Captain. Do I have your permission to come aboard?"

The captain knew that voice.

It was the voice of God, or the next best thing. But although he recognized the voice, he hardly recognized the speaker standing at the foot of the gangplank. That was because he was wearing a sort of birdcage. At least, that's what it looked like at first sight. Closer to, he could see that it was a fine metal framework with a thin gauze around it. The person inside walked in a shimmering cloud of disinfectant.

"Sir Geoffrey?" said the captain, just to be sure, as the man began to walk slowly up the glistening gangplank.

"Indeed, Captain. I'm sorry about this outfit. It's called a salvation suit, for obvious reasons. It is necessary for your protection. The Russian influenza has been worse than you can possible imagine! We believe the worst is over, but it has taken a terrible toll at every level of society. Every level, Captain. Believe me."
It is difficult to imagine an opening better suited to wrong-footing and confounding the expectations of long-time Pratchett readers. Even taking into account the well-publicized fact that Nation is not a Discworld novel, its setting takes some puzzling out. The references to Russia (and, earlier in the chapter, Liverpool and San Francisco) set the action in our world, but there's a foreignness to the characters' speech and manner that seems to resolve itself when they refer to the recently concluded Crimean War, and then resurfaces when they refer to a king instead of a queen. Before its action even starts, then, Nation establishes itself as an alternate history, and it veers further into the unreal with talk of a global epidemic with wide-reaching geopolitical implications. Then, of course, there's the tone: the near-total absence of humor (though as it turns out the shipboard interludes in Nation are its most humorous segments), the almost Steampunk-ish touch of the salvation suit, and most of all the sense of impending doom. Between the darkness, the snow-storm, the plague, and the urgency with which the ship is dispatched on its errand, Nation's first chapter creates the expectation of a world-shattering disaster poised to crash down on the characters' heads.

Of course, most Pratchett fans will find all of this wrong-footing terribly exciting. Especially if, like myself, they've been drawing diminishing returns from his novels for years, finding them increasingly repetitive and predictable. Even more so if they've noticed the buzz calling Nation not simply a return to form but an entirely new direction for Pratchett, and his best novel to boot. Which just goes to show, once again, how important it is to manage expectations before cracking open a book, and particularly one by someone who was once one of your favorite authors. Nation is undeniably an unusual Pratchett novel, and at points quite a fine one, but it isn't a new direction for him so much as it is a new recipe, a new mixture of the same familiar ingredients. Despite the gloss of newness--and the very real newness of its un-humorous tone--longtime Pratchett fans reading Nation will very quickly find their equilibrium restored and their expectations met.

When the end of the world comes, it comes not to the crew of the good ship Cutty Wren, but to the villagers of a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It does, however, come crashing down on their heads, in the form of a tsunami that washes away everything and everyone in its path. The sole survivor is Mau, a village boy on his way back from his rite of initiation into manhood. Instead of being greeted by a feast and the proper ceremonies to usher him into the next phase of his life, Mau finds the bodies of his family and friends. And there lies the true difference between Nation and everything else Pratchett has ever written--Nation is grim. There is still a lightness to Pratchett's tone, not quite humorousness but a sort of ironic detachment, and his approach to characterization and emotion is perhaps overly cerebral. These combine to set Nation apart from other catastrophe novels like The Road or Blindness or even Watership Down, but the horror of what Mau has endured and the enormity of what he's lost are never downplayed.
Everyone would have been on the shore, around the big fire. Would they have heard the roar of the wave above the crackle of the flames? Would they have known what it meant? If they had been quick, they would have headed up Big Pig Valley, to the higher ground beyond the fields. But some of the wave would already have been roaring up the eastern slope (all grassy there, nothing much to slow it down), and they would have met it pouring back on them.

And then the roaring cauldron of rocks and sand and water and people would have broken through the west of the reef and into the deepwater current, where the people would have become dolphins.
As Mau, and we, soon discover, he isn't the only sole survivor on the island. Ermintrude is the daughter of a colonial governor, and the ship taking her to meet him is wrecked on Mau's island. Before the two of them can fully scale the barriers of language, culture, and racial prejudice between them, they become the effective rulers of a new community, as survivors of the tsunami from neighboring islands begin arriving in ones and twos, starving, tired, and terrified. As the only surviving member of his clan Mau, though not officially a man, is the chief of this new nation. Ermintrude, who quite sensibly takes the earliest possible opportunity to change her name to Daphne, is cast in the unlikely role of alpha female when she successfully delivers the baby of one of the first refugees. Together they shepherd the new community through the mundane crises of ensuring their survival and the more exciting ones of preparing for a cannibal attack and puzzling out the secrets of Mau's heritage.

The true business of Nation, however, is the emotional and spiritual aftermath of Mau and other survivors' ordeal. Nation's prologue lays out the fairly straightforward creation myth ascribed to by Mau's tribe, complete with the promise of life after death. As the full scale of the calamity visited on him become apparent, this myth ceases to be a comfort to Mau and becomes a goad. He rages at the gods who failed to save his people, constantly chewing away at one of the core questions of religious belief--if the gods are real, why do they let people suffer and die? And if they aren't real, what is the point of the rituals and sacrifices which have bounded and regulated Mau's entire life?

Against Mau's furious agnosticism, other characters in the novel embody other attitudes, more and less accepting, more and less thoughtful, towards this ageless question. Chief amongst them is the priest Ataba, with whom Mau develops a prickly and fractious relationship. Though well meaning, the two can't seem to help pushing each other's buttons, whether it's Mau challenging every one of Ataba's expression of faith and assumptions about the way the universe works, or Ataba, who only half-jokingly takes to calling Mau 'demon boy' (because of the precarious disposition of his soul, which is trapped between boyhood and manhood), insisting that Mau's enraged denial of the gods' existence is itself a form of belief. As Mau, spurred by aspiring naturalist Daphne, embraces rationalism, Ataba insists that at heart the boy still craves proof that there is something more to his existence. Providing a counterpoint to both is Daphne, who before arriving on the island endured her own share of personal tragedy, which has burned out whatever apparatus of belief she once possessed.

Since this is a Pratchett novel, its characters have to negotiate not only with their own doubts in order to formulate a spiritual attitude, but also with what may be the provable existence of God--both Mau and Daphne hear the voices of his tribal gods, Mau repeatedly has conversations with the god of death, whom he forbids to take any more of the refugees, and Daphne travels to death's realm to save him when he pushes said deity too far. These glimpses of divinity pose as much of a challenge to the believer Ataba as they do to the agnostic Mau and the atheistic Daphne. This is in keeping with Pratchett's last major foray into the topic of religion, Small Gods. In that novel, the god Om is the focus of a religion whose adherents number in the millions, and yet still finds himself powerless, a voice on the wind heeded by only a single believer. Despite directing their prayers to him, what Om's other followers actually believe in is the edifice erected around him. Like Small Gods, Nation is a novel that is less about religion than about the uses religion is put to.

Against Mau and Ataba's frantic seeking and Daphne's wholesale abdication of faith, the other survivors' approach is more traditionally unquestioning. Some thoughtlessly return to the rituals they followed before the tsunami, refusing to ask for a reason for their seeming abandonment by their gods. Some try to prove that the tsunami was caused by a lapse or error in proper observance. And some make a new god of Daphne's ship, which provides the fledgling community with much-needed raw materials and supplies. It would be easy to treat this thoughtless shadow of faith with disdain, but Pratchett takes it seriously, as an expression of the universal human need for narrative and order. The refugees on Mau's island are bolstered by their faith, not necessarily because they truly believe but because it provides them with structure, a set of rules and conventions of thought that allow them to make sense of what would otherwise seem a capricious, chaotic life.

It may be Nation's greatest accomplishment that it maintains, throughout the entire course of the novel, the tension between understanding and respecting this need for structure and distrusting both it and the habits of unthinking acceptance and intellectual malaise it fosters. The same ambivalent attitude is taken towards rationalism, which is the salvation of Daphne, her father, and possibly Mau, but which is expressed as monstrousness in the character of Mr. Cox, who plays the part of villain in Nation's final chapters. The first mate on the ship which brought Daphne to the island, Mr. Cox is nihilism personified. He immediately locks horns with the ship's powerfully devout Captain Roberts, in a sort of dark parallel to Mau and Ataba's relationship. Long before he incites the crew to mutiny, Cox makes it his goal to undermine Roberts's faith--whom he wants, the narrative tells us, to "shoot in the faith"--even as the captain makes it his furious, disgusted mission to save Cox's soul. His presence on the island is felt long before he sets foot on it, in the form of the ship's parrot, who reiterates the argument between Cox and Roberts by regurgitating both expressions of faith and needling challenges to it, some of which, like "What about Darwin?" use rationalism as a weapon.
It began with Cox sitting up straight during the prayer meetings and shouting "Hallelujah" or "Amen" every time the captain finished a sentence, and clapping loudly. Or he'd ask puzzled questions like "What did they feed the lions and tigers with in the Ark, sir?" and "Where did all the water go?" Then there was the day when he asked Cookie to try to make a meal for the whole crew out of five loaves and two fishes. Then when the captain said the story was not meant to be taken literally, Cox gave him a smart salute and said: "Then what is, Cap'n?"
Small Gods is a book that has been mentioned quite often in reviews of Nation by Pratchett fans, who have noted similarities not only in the two books' topics but in their quality. 'The best thing Pratchett has written since Small Gods' is a sentiment which has been bandied about quite liberally. I can see the similarities in topic, but not in quality. Though Nation is as fine a discussion of the nature and varied expressions of religious faith or its rejection as Small Gods was, it is nowhere near as fine a novel. Small Gods finds Pratchett at the top of his form not only as a thinker but as a writer and a crafter of stories. Writing about it just recently, Jay Lake quite correctly pointed out that the main character Brutha "has one of the most amazing character arcs I've ever seen in fiction," going from an unformed, unthinking lump to a furious, devout, humanistic, compassionate, sly prophet. As a story, Small Gods is also a delight, juxtaposing Om's search for an explanation for his predicament and Brutha's blossoming, through which Pratchett expresses his ideas about religion, with a rollicking, twisty plot involving war, political intrigue, revolution, and one of the finest villains Pratchett has ever thought up. On both of these counts--character and plot--Nation falls far short of the standard set by Small Gods, as well as many other Pratchett novels.

Despite their similar topics, Nation's plot reminded me less of Small Gods and more of another non-Discworld Pratchett novel, The Carpet People. An odd entry in his bibliography, it was originally (and quite astoundingly) published when Pratchett was only 17, and soon went out of print. When the Discworld series took off the idea was floated to reissue it, but Pratchett was unhappy with publishing his juvenilia as it stood, and reworked the novel. "It's not exactly the book I wrote then. It's not exactly the book I'd write now," he says in the introduction to my edition, and though it's impossible to tell exactly where the teenage Pratchett ends and the adult one begins, The Carpet People is clearly a journeyman work. Whereas later Pratchett novels parodied well-known or influential fantasy works, The Carpet People is simply derivative of them. At the same time, its setting is wildly inventive and brilliantly realized. As its title suggests, The Carpet People takes place amidst the fronds of a carpet--a rainbow-colored, shaggy carpet, to be precise, which is populated by microscopic beings to whom a burnt match is a near-endless source of coal, and a penny a sheer copper edifice stretching up into the heavens. Pratchett populates this square of fabric with monarchs, tyrants, mystics, philosophers, and monsters, a feat of wild imagination that presages the Discworld itself.

Like Nation, The Carpet People tells the story of a young person who is thrust into adulthood and a leadership role when their home is destroyed by a natural disaster which puts paid to their cozy way of life and sheltered habits of thought. The Carpet People is a more lighthearted novel than Nation, and therefore the loss experienced by its protagonist, Snibril, the younger son of the chief of the Munrung tribe, is less complete than Mau's. Though his village is destroyed, most of its inhabitants survive, including Snibril's older brother and current chief, Glurk. But like Mau, Snibril is transformed by this loss. He gets to see more of the world, and learns to think about what he's seen in new ways. One might argue that Nation is The Carpet People grown up--though I am very fond of it, there's no denying that The Carpet People is a flimsy work, more enjoyable for Pratchett's feats of inventiveness than for anything he says with them. But it is also, and despite the derivative quality I've mentioned, a damn fine piece of storytelling.

The elements Pratchett uses to assemble his story are a little shopworn--the exiled wizard, the great warrior disguised as a wanderer, the witch hidden in the deep forest--but what he makes of them is fresh and lively, seasoned with his trademark irreverence and the originality of his setting. For much of his career, Pratchett continued this approach to plot, lampooning or refurbishing fantasy tropes, and in the process making them his own, and never less than enthralling. Some books back, however, he seems to have decided that plot was getting in the way. In many of his recent novels, the plot feels familiar--in the Ankh-Morpork novels, the villains are always a shadowy conspiracy striving to regress the city to a less enlightened state; in the Granny Weatherwax novels, they're a magical menace that threatens human agency--and bloodless, a scaffolding for ideas rather than a method of expressing them. Pratchett's YA novels, and the Tiffany Aching books in particular (though not so much the first one, The Wee Free Men) seem to suffer from this malady in particular, being a great deal more episodic than most of his 'adult' novels. Nation is cut from the same cloth. The challenges that face the tsunami survivors show up in neatly demarcated installments, and though all of them feed into the central mystery of Mau's heritage and the truth about his religion, the process of unraveling that mystery feels less like a story or an adventure and more like a lesson--one that characters and readers are learning simultaneously. Despite the overwhelming grimness of the book's premise, the individual chapters, and the ordeals the characters undergo within them, are rather mild, and even the main antagonist, Cox, is only introduced late in the novel and feels less like a villain than a representative of everything Pratchett finds odious.

At the root of much of Pratchett's character work there has always been a fascination with how human thought processes work--the rationalizations, prejudices, and fictions that cloud reason, and the way that an awareness of them can foster rational discourse. This came to a head in The Wee Free Men, in which Tiffany Aching is informed that she has 'the second thought'--the ability to think about the way she thinks, and identify the fallacies and errors that trip her up. In Nation, Pratchett takes this approach even further, and much of Mau's internal monologue is taken up with his charting the ways in which his mind is changing and growing.
he did not like to admit that the Nation was behind the trousermen in any way, but the toolbox had impressed him. Oh, everyone could invent a hammer, but there were things in that box--beautiful, gleaming wooden and metal things--that not even Pilu knew the use of. And they spoke to Mau somehow.

We never thought of pliers because we didn't need them. Before you make something that is truly new, you first have to have a new thought. That's the important thing. We didn't need new things, so we didn't think new thoughts.
Where Tiffany's second thoughts illuminate her (ornery, stubborn, fiercely loyal) character, however, Mau's are generic. They are thoughts about how people work, not how Mau works, and little by little Mau is flattened--not a particular boy stepping up to fill a role because there's no one else to do it, but an everyman coming into his inheritance of knowledge, thought, and reason. If Brutha is transformed, Mau is ascended--into something that is part hero, part saint, but not really human any more. Though admirable in his devotion to his friends, his community, and the humanist ideals he embraces after the tsunami, Mau is missing the flaws and foibles that make a character lovable or believable as a human being. He's too busy being a mouthpiece to be a person.

The flaws that have marred my enjoyment of Nation--the flat characters, the episodic plot, the didacticism--could be the result of an author of adult fiction trying to talk down to a juvenile audience, but I'm more inclined to think that they are what happens when author with an agenda just happens to have written a children's book. Which sounds bad, but the fact is that when Nation is compared to other children's books with an agenda, and particularly an agenda having to do with religion, it comes away looking very good. This is a book that truly does encourage its readers, of any age, to question the role of religion and rationalism in their lives, rather than hammering them over the head with a prepackaged point of view, a la the His Dark Materials books or, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Narnia series. It rejects easy solutions to the conflict between the two, and embraces the messiness of human attitudes towards both. The present day coda, in which a character who is quite obviously a blatant authorial insertion speaks directly to the readers' stand-ins, bemusedly notes the resilience of magical thinking even in our rational age, and leaves it to the readers to decide whether this is a good thing. That's something worth reading for, even if you're an adult and familiar with Pratchett's more substantial, more accomplished writing. It's a shame that Nation isn't the return to form that its ecstatic reviews had led me to hope for, but for all its flaws it does demonstrate that even in a degraded, didactic form, Pratchett says things worth listening to.

10 comments:

Nix said...

Pratchett's done grim before. _Night Watch_ is grim (and excellent), despite the _Les Miserables_ references and the barricades. (It's not as if _Les Miserables_ was exactly a barrel of laughs either.)

(But, no, I don't think _Nation_ is quite as good as his other stuff.)

Mae Travels said...

Interesting to see your current take on this author -- I recall that you were a fan when I visited you in 1998.

Anonymous said...

Someone please tell me wat chapters 9 10 11 and 12 were about seprately i have to know tonite

Anonymous said...

It was cool, the ending could have been MUCH better, but it was overally great!

Anonymous said...

WORST. BOOK. EVERR!!
thank you terry pratchett for writing this; because of you, i had to waste my summer reading this trash!!!

Steve said...

I believe it was around the time this novel came out that Terry Pratchett stated, publicly, that he had developed Alzheimer's. It's callous of me to say this but I'm pretty sure it affected his writing ability - "Nation," "Making Money," "Unseen Academicals," "Wintersmith" and "I Shall Wear Midnight" show a downward slide. I still read his new books because, well, he's Terry Pratchett, and he's my favorite author. But the old spark, it is-a-going.

Anonymous said...

Nation was a great departure from his previous material, and I did enjoy it. But what bugged me was this pervasive dark undercurrent, a sober feeling that humour is short-lived and that there are no happy endings. This was quite different from his other Discworld novels - look at the Rincewind series, everything was hilarious - and I understood this as his way of dealing with Alzheimer's and thoughts of death. But I'm still a die-hard fan. Going Postal, Night Watch, Thud, Monstrous Regiment... That was the golden era of Pratchett and nothing changes the genius in those books.

slunce said...

If you have paid attention in your history classes, you will know why this book is so amazing.

Sydney Thomas said...

I know I'm missing a ton of history references. Is there a site that talks about them?

Sydney Thomas said...

I know I'm missing a ton of history references. Is there a site that talks about them?

Post a Comment