Reread: Unseen Academicals, Going Postal, and Night Watch, and Read: Snuff, all by Terry Pratchett

Coinciding with the start of the Uefa Euro 2012 Finals I decided to give Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals a second try. I didn’t like it very much the first time around but even back then I thought part of that might be because of the format – I chose to listen to it, rather than read it.

So, it was with some trepidation I opened it up for the first chapter. And instantly I realised that I remembered absolutely nothing of the book – nothing.  This was no loss because of all the Discworld world novels that I’ve read – which is practically everyone – this is definitely one of the weakest.

Normally I have no problems with multiple viewpoints but in this case the end result is a  lot of chop and no real storyline, as far as I can discern. A bit of fun for the football pieces and a bit of message regarding tolerance and human value/rights (or orc rights), nothing more.

Despite this I felt it had been a long time since I last read some good Discworld, and as I’ve reread the earlier ones multiple times already I decided to reread something that I hadn’t already reread before.

This, and the fact that I have since gained some insight into the Swedish Post, made me chose Going Postal.

I remember not being too fond of it but this time around I found it rather fun, even if quaint. Now, in 2012, the issue is not so much the internet versus the old letter-carrying post but rather the other theme; that of robber capitalism and its disregard for humans and for long term businesses. The arch-capitalist Reacher Gilt of Going Postal may be a parody but as most good parodies there’s a core of truth in there – a con man, through and through.

A much more funny book than Unseen Academicals, even if not top notch Pratchett either. And in search for the Fun in Discworld I read yet another one, this time a much reread favourite – Night Watch.

Did it hold up to time?

Yes, and no. The book is darker than those that had come before it, but it also heralded something new – a change in tone; a grittier Discworld. The story uses the Time Machine Ploy, albeit sans machine as such, to take us to a pre-Vetinari Ankh-Morpork where we meet the effects a paranoid and brutal leader has on society. Sent back 30 years in time Sam Vimes is forced to masquerade as “John Keel” as a younger version of himself is already there. To be able to go back he needs to ride out a historic event that saw the original Keel dead. Will he manage? (Of course he will, there’s never any real doubt!)

A highlight, to me, is meeting the young Vetinari, his aunt, and future Guild leaders. Verdict? I still like the book but somehow the story feels kind of empty of real meaning.

Which takes me to Snuff, which I purchased lately. The books following Night Watch persuaded me to give up on Discworld; I did not like Monstrous Regiment, I thought the politics too in your face, Thud! was a dud, the others so and so. Unseen Academicals was the final nail in the coffin – I haven’t touched anything Discworld for many years. Too many books out there, waiting to get read, to spend time reading things you don’t enjoy.

But. I confess. I made the wrong decision. Snuff is GOOD! Overt politics, yes (about slavery, and about not bending to your “superiors”, because they aren’t) but also better written and better told than Unseen Academicals. We get to meet /yet another/ race subject to exploitation – the goblins – as Sam Vimes is grudgingly sent on vacation at his, or rather his wife’s, ancestral rural estate. I guess there’s many a thing I miss out on, here, as I suspect the story is richly salted with scenes or almost-scenes from the British literary canon. For some reason I think Jane Austen but as I haven’t read any I really can’t know… but you get the idea, surely. It is wittily written, with the odd glimpse of old Discworld bizarre inserted, here and there, and so feels a bit like back to the old school.

Absolutely recommend it – both message AND fun!

However. Considering how Discworld have evolved over time it is possible to perceive a shift. Initially the characters were quirky and cartoonish. This fitted the format well – cartoonish is a good way to make fun and deliver a message at the same time. Many personas featuring in the classic revue is just that – caricatures illustrating the bizarre or weird of the commonplace or present-day “common sense”.

But by now in Discworld-verse some of the people that we meet have left the power of the author and started to form their own independent lives. Copper Vimes is a family father, Vetinari is losing his thoughts over a musical performance, Ridcully is smart. Step by step allegory and comic effect has been put aside, in favour of a written sitcom where we, book by book, revisit old acquaintances rather than get a look in the mirror. The sitcom might be political, or at least topical, but still more of a cosy than a releasing laugh over the idiocies or our time.

Perhaps this is just me, perhaps it reflects the author’s relationship with his characters,perhaps it illustrates how the fantasy genre has changed over time. But good or bad the quirkiness that was the hallmark of Discworld is gone.

I guess it wasn’t possible to sustain it, and perhaps the mess that is Unseen Academicals is a showcase for why it shouldn’t even be tried. In that case, R.I.P., and thanks for all those good times.


Review: Persepolis (complete), by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi‘s biographical graphic novel Persepolis is, in all its nakedness and despite its heavy themes, a fast and delightful read.

Satrapi doesn’t shy away from the things that she did that are less than glorious and this is one of the things that makes Persepolis such a good read – she has a keen eye for the events that both move the story ahead and shows why things turned out the way they did.

Another thing is the way it shows that humans are humans, everywhere, whatever the propaganda says, and that no nation is homogeneous. The latter is obvious if we think about the place where we ourselves live but looking at other countries most humans tend to generalise, to think everyone is the same as long as they’re born within the same national borders.

Alone none of these are reasons to read the book. The first would only be of interest if she was a famous person before she published the work – the latter border on billboard politics and as such is uninteresting. No, what makes the book worth reading is that the core of her story hits straight home on the central themes and angsts of growing up (as a girl). Picking up the sentiments of ones parents and making a caricature of them when interpreting them too literal for adult society. Anxiousness over not fitting in. Trying to live up to what you think is expected of you.

That she do these things under circumstances very different from what western kids expect out of everyday only emphasises the universality of the experiences, and to me this is the real value, the real reason to read this book.

Highly recommended.

Review: Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond & James Moore

Darwin’s Sacred Cause distinguishes itself as being the first biography that I find readable, and the reason for this is probably that it is not a biography in the purest sense. Instead of chronicling the details of Darwin’s life it tell about how his two famous books Origin of Species and Descent of Man came to be.

To do this the authors has had to explain the political, economical and ideological climate of Darwin’s time and because of this the book interweaves history of the 19th century British Empire, slavery and abolition, political discourse, economic and political change, and history of science.

On reading the book my mind set off on various tangents, exploring ideas and making new connections with pieces of knowledge laying strewn about the floor and desk of my brain –

– We who grew up in the wake of WWII are, at least in Sweden, saturated with images from those wars; public service TV, which was the only TV we had, showed lots and lots of WWII documentaries. The atrocities of the concentration camps and the siege of Stalingrad was standard fare.

Until I read Darwin’s Sacred Cause I had not fully understood how intrinsic stratification and racism is to our culture, to the very social fabric holding western society together. Growing up during a period when outrage over the possibility of places like Auschwitz and Dachau was mandatory I had no real concept of a society were treating humans as less valuable than a good work-horse or a car was acceptable.

Mind you, I was well aware that the racism of the Nazis wasn’t conceived out of thin air. Intellectually I knew they were children of their time. And economic stratification is one of the most important mechanisms of capitalism. But reading this biography I got the instruments to understand how ingrained both stratification and racism is to our culture, as is now aptly demonstrated by the revival of nationalist movements across Europe. It makes the post-WWII part of the 20th century look like a parenthesis when shame forced us to at least pay lip service to the idea that every human had equal value.

Darwin, of course, did not think every human had equal value. Very few of his contemporaries did. And I did say this was tangential to the book. But as the book touches on the American Civil War, on slavery and abolition, and on the birth of anthropology and ethnography in all its colonial splendour, I could not ignore that my train of thought ran off towards personal experiences of for example LA’s South Central or downtown New Orleans, as experienced in the late 1990’s, or by segregated suburbia in present-day Stockholm.

Much as we want to be upset over the way plantation slaves were treated and much as we want to put distance between ourselves and the attitudes of Darwin’s contemporaries and their colonial mindset we – humanity as a whole – need to ask ourselves if these changes we perceive are just superficial, veneer, difference in dressing rather than context.

Much as we want to distance ourselves from the atrocities of the concentration camps we as humans have not yet managed to face why these things happen. We want those things to be the result of aberrant behaviour in individuals. We want those things to be the result of skewed minds manipulating the well-meaning and innocent.

They aren’t. They are the fruits of our blind spots, were we don’t see – don’t want to see – what consequences our theories about individual freedom as sacrosanct for the successful have on the exploited; an exploitation necessitated by our demand for more. We don’t want our well-deserved vacation to a tropical island to be possible because children labour to produce our iPhones and our Nikes.

Neither did Darwin, despite his same blindness. And this biography of his set me thinking, and that is a value in and of itself.

Easily one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in a long long time.

Highly recommended.

Some prior knowledge of the history of science makes the text easier to parse, though, because there’s lots and lots and LOTS of names and it is easy to lose track of who had what opinion.

 (…and by coincidence a friend posted a link to this New Inquiry essay the other day – related, in my view, to my musings above.)