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.