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.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

…or does it? In my occupation as UX Designer I often encounter opinions in the vein of “X (or, everyone) does this so it must be right”. Substitute X with Microsoft or IBM or whatever you like; even Facebook will do – bad behaviour gets copied faster than your heart beats on overload.

I’m not going to discuss the exact issues here, that’s for another place, but I do like to vent my irritation over the basic argument and the mentality that feeds it. Because it sounds very much like “he did it, too”, the way kids use it to excuse things that went wrong.

The kids don’t get excused, and so shouldn’t those adults either. “Just because” is no reason why you should do so too, at least not without prior thought. Just because every one else was anti-semitic in Europe during the early 20th century it was easy to gas not only jews but other undesirables too. It may seem a harsh parallel but I see a basic human behavioural trait which goes uncontested, which makes us proceed through life without actually learning anything from either or own mistakes or from history – be it the placement of buttons or labelling of fields over book burnings to genocide.

The average person can go through life without ever asking herself WHY anything. In fact, most business ventures and governments are based on the premise that most people don’t much question conventions or success or prejudice. And see where that has taken us.

Fivehundredbillionbillions of horseflies can be WRONG. Cow-dung DO taste like shit. To do a thing solely because everyone else does is a bad habit. Please – BREAK IT. And the world might be a better place…

Who are you?

Away from cyberspace we mark our identities with clothes, hairstyle, shoes; showing (or NOT!) off ourselves to others by visual cues, shaping our outward representations; our public selves.

Not everyone do this in a conscious way. A lot of people don’t even understand they are wearing the equivalent of uniforms, just as others are very much aware that they are in the business of making personal and sometimes political statements.

These visual cues support the individuals within a society in their need for organising their surroundings – which people to feel linked to, which people NOT to feel linked to. Who to listen to and who to dismiss.

This leads to a very prejudiced way of sorting people and their opinions. But, as the proverb goes – “prejudice is the foundation on which society rests”. We need short cuts, or the brain goes down from overload.

So, even while the internet was originally hailed for providing an environment where people were NOT judged based on gender, colour or clothing style we are now witnessing a plethora of ways to differentiate the self from the anonymous collective.

So, at places like Facebook people join groups not to be active parties in a community but to tell others their preferences – a kind of personal tags. And we blog and bedeck ourselves in profile pictures seldom picturing ourselves but rather picked for their subtexts and metaphorical meanings.

I’ve read, in a text not available on-line so I can’t link to it (Reload – rethinking women and cyberculture), that in internet communities where people were free to take on other identities than their own the identity most commonly used is ‘white caucasian male’. Because whatever the social construct those are the people other people listen to without being biased.

So. We need to tell the world where we want to belong, and when what we are don’t coincide with what we need to be to be taken seriously we lend an identity the shape of with fits our needs.

In the on-line world or in the flesh and blood world judging the correctness of those projected images is equally difficult.

But it’s fascinating to see how humans always find a way to satisfy those basic needs. Like announcing identity.