Yet another installment in my ongoing complete Discworld re-read project.
Well, I can see what he was aiming for.
The Discworld series began with the adventures of Rincewind the Wizard. This may not have been a good idea. Don’t get me wrong – The Colour of Magic was a good book, better than I had remembered it being and better than many fans of later Discworld give it credit for – in its singular way it was just as impressive as some of the later installments. And the character of Rincewind perfectly suited that book. But it was indeed a very singular book, and it clearly wasn’t immediately apparent to its author how (or perhaps even whether) a series of books could be wrung out of that setting (none of Pratchett’s novels to that point had had a sequel). The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery, and arguably Witches Abroad were all attempts to break away from the initial premise, while retaining some of its spark. You could even argue that the whole arc of Discworld has been a gradual dilution of that original zany, wild, unpredictable and magical world with increasingly large helpings of realism. A big part of that, unfortunately, was ditching the appealing but limited character of Rincewind. After 1988’s entertaining but inessential Sourcery, the character was ditched (apart from 1990’s short illustrated novella, Eric, later retrospectively shoehorned into the sequence) – virtually killed off – and Discworld rose to greater and greater heights in his absence.
It’s my hypothesis – the model I’ve been construction as I’ve gone through this re-read – that the second era of Discworld forms a thematic arc in which Pratchett attempted to say something he felt was important, until finally achieving this with his magnum opus, Small Gods. This involved not only a concentration of message, but also a honing of his skill. At the height of his powers, and free from the thematic impulses that had been driving him, he then looked around for some stories to tell, and this often involved going back and taking on older ideas with his new abilities. Lords and Ladies returned to Lancre, Men at Arms returned to the Watch, and Soul Music looked back to some extent to Reaper Man but to a greater extent all the way back to Mort, while also being a story he clearly wanted to tell about a subject close to his heart (rock music).
And that’s where Interesting Times fits in. Because now, finally, 11 years after The Colour of Magic and 6 years after Sourcery, Pratchett would try again to return to where he began.
And the most obvious thing is: it’s not just Rincewind. Pratchett clearly realised that Rincewind just didn’t fit in the world of Angua von Uberwald and Susan Sto Helit… so Interesting Times isn’t set in that world at all. It’s set in that strange mirror Discworld that we saw in the early novels – at least, that’s a passable theory if you want to go down that route. Add Interesting Times to the pre-Witches Abroad novels and it fits right in.
And you know that’s not entirely a bad thing. Because although we all, in hindsight, like to look down our noses at those books, I really enjoyed them. There was a sense of fun in them that later books rarely quite grasped, a sense that anything could happen, and they were also in my opinion with some exceptions funnier (they were also probably smarter, or at least more erudite). And I was reminded of this as soon as I opened Interesting Times. Oh good, I thought, we’re back to that kind of book – I may be glad we don’t live there anymore, but it sure will be fun to visit. The rules are relaxed a bit in those books. A scene like Rincewind’s introduction, where a castaway is confronted with a canoe of beautiful buxom Amazonian warrioresses who (very politely and a little awkwardly) beg him to help them repopulate their race one baby at a time after a strange a highly specific plague has mysteriously wiped out all their menfolk… that doesn’t happen in books where Susan and Angua and so on are there to look on disapprovingly. It casts us right back to a world that may not be entirely a parody of Sword and Sorcery novels, but that is in some way a contorted image of those settings.
And as stupid as it is, it’s funny.
And now I’m starting a fifth paragraph in a row with ‘and’, and part of me wants to celebrate that personal record while part of me wants to curl up with shame – but strictly speaking that’s nothing to do with the novel.
Interesting Times is funny. It’s funny even when it shouldn’t be – enough audacity and you can get away with a little stupidity, even a little offensiveness. My personal highlight? The scene with the sumo wrestlers. It’s idiotic and culturally insensitive, but I still laughed out loud.
Rincewind and the silly world he inhabits gives you the chance for that humour – the unsophisticated slapstick that’s always under the surface in Pratchett but seldom given free reign. It can also give you great pace and panache and jolly good read.
The problem is: how do you integrate Rincewind with the more conventional, more staid world that Pratchett has gradually been constructing? The answer of course is that you don’t. Pratchett wisely chooses to make the link between this novel and the rest of the ‘modern’ Discworld very tenuous – the only two major recurring non-Rincewind characters in the main plot were first introduced in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic respectively, and neither has been seen since Sourcery. He also recognises that a Discworld book in that era did in some way need some link to the main sequence, and he very cleverly turned to the Faculty to provide that connexion. The Faculty don’t get all the love they deserve, in my opinion, because they’re not just great by themselves, they’re the sort of great that can go with anything. They’re in a broad parody-adventure in Moving Pictures, they’re in the most lunatic subplot in literature in the otherwise very sombre Reaper Man, they’re both comic and tragic (and tragically under-used) in the melancholy but thrilling Lords and Ladies, and they provided both silliness and humanity in Soul Music. They’re the one part of post-Small Gods Discworld that can fit in Rincewind’s world without difficulty, and here they provide key plot impetus, a grounding secondary plotline, and also considerable humour.
So where does it go wrong? It’s not the fact it’s all utterly ridiculous, nor the fact that much of it is culturally insensitive to the point of arguable racism. No, not at all. The problem is that it’s not stupid and insentive enough.
If you want to identify where Pratchett went wrong, it’s not in this book at all. The problem, you see, is a short story he wrote three years earlier, back before Small Gods, a story called “Troll Bridge”, which brought back Cohen the Barbarian for a meditation on the aging of individuals and of worlds and of genres. And there is very little wrong with it. It’s a brilliant little story – it made me laugh out loud and it brought a tear to my eye.
The problem is, Interesting Times isn’t Troll Bridge: The Novel. And it would like to be. The problem is, Cohen works in Rincewind novels, and Cohen works in “Troll Bridge”. But Rincewind does not work in “Troll Bridge”. In part, that’s because Cohen shouldn’t there either, and that’s the whole point. The story is all about how heroes like Cohen don’t have a place anymore, and it’s OK presenting a world, and a tone, where Cohen is out of place when the whole point is that he’s out of place. But put Rincewind in that world, and you have someone who’s not just out of place, he’s out of place in a non-symbolic, fundamentally pointless way.
When Pratchett goes wrong it’s almost always because he’s too damn ambitious for his own good, and that could certainly be said in this case, because here Pratchett tries to write three different novels at once. In one novel, Rincewind the silly cowardly wizard goes away and has some silly, hilarious adventures in parody-land. In the second novel, Cohen the Barbarian comes to terms with aging and confronts the fundamental insanity of his existence. These two novels simply cannot peacefully co-exist. Oh, sure, there are some nods between them thematically – Cohen does his share of silly things, and Rincewind gets the odd moment of reflection where we see how much he’s changed since, and because of, his adventures of the earlier novels (having gone back and re-read those outings and found a much more well-rounded and human Rincewind, I was a bit disappointed by how he turns out, and was greatly pleased to see that change explicitly addressed: Rincewind’s character arc itself parodies serious literature, because his bowel-wateringly terrifying world-saving adventures have actually caused character regression into a avoidantly post-traumatic weasel of a man). But fundamentally those two tones just don’t work, and each one undermines the other.
That’s what I mean about not being silly and offensive enough. You can get away with some quite offensive jokes, and some quite stupid jokes, if you make clear that you know how silly you’re being, if you make clear that you’re being ironic, and if you’re just damn fun enough and funny enough. If Pratchett had gone all out, he could probably have gotten away with more. But once you start looking serious about what you’re saying – as Pratchett has to whenever Cohen wanders on screen with some meditation about dying – the degree of difficulty in landing those troublesome jokes soars. Comedy is like a card trick – you need to distract your audience from what you’re doing, and Pratchett is giving himself dramatic close-ups at exactly the wrong time. And contrariwise, trying to reconcile the inherent silliness of Cohen’s character with the seriousness of his themes is a delicate balancing act that becomes impossible when you’ve got blunt instruments like Rincewind running around. [Meanwhile, the desire to have Rincewind in a semi-serious plot with little moving about means having to shove the Luggage off-page almost entirely – further evidence that Rincewind just doesn’t belong near this sort of story]
So those two novels don’t go together. And then on top of that there’s the third. The third one could be summarised: “Where Mao Zedong Went Wrong (And Why Everyone Else Is Wrong About Politics)”. This basically involves taking a bunch of stereotypes of Asian people and having Rincewind and/or the narrator lecture them about how stupid they are for their genetic trait of thoughtless antlike obediance, in a way that expands to take in everyone else in the world as well.
I have to admit, I often find Pratchett least effective when he’s talking about politics and political morality. His complexity and nuance sharpen to a hammer-face on these subjects. Perhaps he could have pulled off the politics lecture. But trying to add that extra level to a work that already feels torn in two thematically was just begging for failure. Failure that he gave himself no safety net to avoid, and failure that because of the way the book is set up is likely to give many readers an unpleasant aftertaste of racism.
In Pratchett’s defence, I don’t think he’s intentionally being racist. His Agatean Empire isn’t really China, it’s the bundle of tropes and clichés and assumptions that make up the common impression of The Orient; he’s not trying to explore what that lazy thinking really tells us about the Chinese (or Japanese, or Vietnamese), he’s trying to explore the role those tropes have in our own culture – he’s taking the parts of ourself that we project onto other cultures and analysing what they tell us about ourselves. He’s talking about ‘China’ that great mythical empire that lies within the European mind, not the China on the map with actual people in it. Now, maybe that falls into the sort of racism (well, one of the sorts of racism) Achebe accuses Conrad of, the racism of telling stories using other races without them being stories about other races – the racist assumption that the rest of the world is just there to let us learn about ourselves. I do see Achebe’s point here (though largely not elsewhere…), and I see how that argument works, and I can see that as a possibility that we should be aware of when we think we are contemplating any ‘Other’. But the thing about the Other is that it is Other, and all our attempts to tell stories about it will to some extent use it as a mirror for our own projections – unless we want to confine ourselves to autobiography (and even that underestimates the Otherness of our own lives, in my opinion), that by itself can’t be enough to condemn a book or an author. It is in the nature of mankind to make use of the world, including the other people in it – all our institutions are founded on the idea that people can be useful to one another. Perhaps the point is that there’s a difference between using someone for our own purposes and just using them for our own purposes – Achebe is wrong about Conrad because any knowledge of Conrad’s wider oeuvre, or his life beyond his fiction, or even an impartial and careful reading of Heart of Darkness itself must lead us to dismiss the idea that Conrad sees non-Europeans just as means to address European issues. [The SEP makes a similar point regarding the original Kantian injunction: “First, the Humanity formula does not rule out using people as means to our ends. Clearly this would be an absurd demand, since we do this all the time. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any life that is recognizably human without the use of others in pursuit of our goals... What the Humanity formula rules out is engaging in this pervasive use of Humanity in such a way that we treat it as a mere means to our ends.”]
Pratchett’s problem, however, is that at least in this novel there is little to the Agateans but puppets for his political theory lectures. He does not humanise his Agateans in the way that Conrad humanises his Congolese – and while he does criticise his Ankh-Morporkians, he does so in a very self-congratulating, glossy way (we’re better than them because we’re free-spirit and commit crime unlike those lawful spiritless apparatchiks) that feels a lot more smug and precarious than the savagery Conrad shows to his Europeans. Perhaps most importantly, he gives them no real agency: the Agateans, with the sole exception of the villain, are naive idiots who have to sit around waiting for a well-meaning Westerner to get them out of their problems. I mean, the problem is ‘solved’ literally by having someone pick up and use some stuff that was literally just lying around and that anyone could have used if they’re been a free-thinking Westerner instead of a poor Agatean drone. Even the villain is made to intentionally ape Ankh-Morporkian ways: sure, the ancient families of Hong, Tang, Fand, Sung and McSweeney (very old established family) are able to bring misery and slaughter to the continent for hundreds of years, but if you want some inventive villainry of course you need a European spark… in fact it’s striking just how little Pratchett concedes to the very idea of not looking like a bigot. I do think that Pratchett is being merely culturally insensitive, rather than racist, but in this particular book he does very little to help his case. The comparison between this and a book like Witches Abroad is stark. Or rather, it isn’t – Interesting Times is an entire book at the level of cultural observation of the first, pre-Genua half of Witches Abroad. But in Witches Abroad we do get to Genua, and we find a rich and complex and narratively powerful culture of heroes and villains and people in between; in Interesting Times we remain firmly stuck in a cross between elementary political history and kung fu B-movies. Even the Race of Magic-Jews in Feet of Clay is less tone-deaf.
[It may not be good that I’m reading this out of order, straight after Feet of Clay – a fine book in its own right, but one that primed me to look at the politics in Pratchett.]
Or hell, he could stick to his guns and attack Chinese culture wholeheartedly. Some of those tropes do have a real origin, after all (and Pratchett, as always, is perpetually toying with historical as well as literary allusions). But he can’t very well do that when he’s dealing in such broad and unexamined clichés.
It’s also worth talking about what those politics of his are exactly. I’ve pointed out several times the echoes of Chesterton in Pratchett’s work, but this time out it was almost as though he were channelling the old reactionary. And channelling someone who was reactionary in 1910 doesn’t play well in 2010. Don’t misunderstand me: there’s a great deal to be interested in in Chesterton’s political and moral views, and it’s no coincidence that there’s currently something of a revival in Chestertonian ideas on both the right and the left. But Pratchett here is doing Chesterton no favours, and singing the most fingers-in-ears conservative of Chesterton’s songs. Revolution is always bad just because the people would rather be left alone. Sure, liberal do-gooders may tell you that the starvation is unfair, that the dysentry and systematic rape and pillage are bad things it’s worth removing, but if you ask the average man holding a yak on a piece of string what he’d like, most of all in the world, and he’ll tell you he just wants a longer piece of string. The common man is Diogenean, it’s only the champagne-socialists who care about the ‘suffering’ of the poor, and they’re only pretending to care so they can do the oppressing themselves… Pratchett has always adored the hardworking, resilient poor (especially if they’re also enterprising criminals), but that attitude works much, much better close-up, dealing with people face to face (as in Vimes’ recollections of early life in the slums in Feet of Clay) than it does in the big picture. It’s one thing to admire people who are suffering, and quite another to use their virtue to justify suffering. That sort of partly works on the theological level – God tests us so we can show our virtues, evil exists because of the good of free will, etc – but it really doesn’t work when we’re talking about human social planners. Because in the end Pratchett may criticise the progressives for using the image of the poor (at arm’s length) to justify their own policies, but Pratchett is doing exactly the same thing only in the opposite direction.
The idea that the virtues of the suffering justify the existence of suffering is one of the places where three fin de siècle men who hated (or would have hated) each other come together: it’s a theme in Wilde, in Chesterton, and in Nietzsche. Pratchett doesn’t go near Wilde here, but alongside Rincewind’s Chesterton we get plenty of Nietzsche from Cohen. Cohen and his Silver Horde are the embodiment of Nietzsche’s master race, his ‘blond beast’, and Pratchett jokes happily about how many people they’ve raped and how fun rape is and isn’t butchering innocents great and isn’t it really the peaceful lawful people who are the true monsters. There is, of course, something powerful in Nietzsche – he wouldn’t have appealed to generation after generation of teenagers otherwise – but Pratchett take Nietzsche at his most abhorrent, and delivers his views with little subtlety. I think, perhaps, that Pratchett is assuming his readers will all be able to give the conventional-morality side of the argument themselves, with Teach to give them the occasional prod in the right direction, but frankly it comes across as almost complete glorification of this world-view. Particularly, of course, since this lecture is playing in the same theatre as the Chestertonian one Rincewind is delivering next door. It’s worth pointing out again the contrast between this and “Troll Bridge” – in the earlier story, Pratchett is able to achieve that melancholy grandeur, that paradoxical nostalgia for a world of fear and barbarity, precisely because it is clear all along that Cohen and his way of the world are obsolete, are destined for oblivion before too long. That’s I think meant to be how Interesting Times plays as well – but because there’s meant to be an actual plot with suspense there’s far too much of a feel that Cohen may actually be right. It’s not helped by the plot necessitating that Cohen has to often not just be right about things but right in a common-sense ‘guy who has his head screwed on’ kind of way. It’s interesting to contrast how this plays out with how Tolkien handled similar material. Tolkien (pace Moorcock et al) succeeds in hitting melancholy lament rather than reactionary screed in large part because while he acknowledges that something precious is being irrevocably lost when the great powers and beauties of the past “diminish, and go into the West” he also accepts that this is not only inevitable but actually good for the world, that domestic comfort is better than the bright lights and deep darks of the older world. I think Pratchett also hits this tone in “Troll Bridge”, but misses it in Interesting Times, and we are left with too much Nietzscheanism to excuse, but not enough to actually argue its own case.
What we have in Interesting Times, then, is an attempt to put forward two distinct but similarly controversial reactionary ideological platforms, at the same time as giving us a melancholy meditation and at the same time as providing us with a zany, silly comedy adventure, all against the backdrop of a poorly-realised setting that at best must be considered culturally insensitive. Any one of those ambitions, maybe any two, Pratchett could probably have achieved impressively, but all of them at once is a hurdle that’s just too high for any author, even him. Perhaps most damagingly of all, however, he’s trying to do all this in a book that’s much too short for the thematic content, but already too long for what in essence is a quick and simplistic plot. As a result, the book is both crammed and stretched, and the result is that it bogs down considerably for most of its length before petering off into a stop-start finale that fails to satisfy.
Of course, this is Terry Pratchett. No Terry Pratchett novel is a waste of time. This is OK-enough light reading, particularly if you switch your brain off. Indeed, just in case it got lost in all the criticism I’ll re-iterate: I thought the book started off very well – different from the books around it in the sequence, but nostalgic and very funny. Unfortunately then the plot kicks in. There’s more than enough material here, both dramatic and comedic, but in my opinion this book ought to have ended up a breakneck adventure half the length with a great deal of the sightseeing and the lecturing stripped out. More like The Colour of Magic, in other words. The book that resulted from that might not have been a literary classic, but it would have been extremely fun. Instead we got a book that has glimmers of a great wit, but a great deal of objectionable content… and its worst sin is that it bogs down too heavily to be great fun. Some Pratchett books can survive close examination; some avoid it by being smashing read; unfortunately, this is a book with a vulnerable underbelly that has also chosen to roll over and sleep on its side in front of the audience. It’s not a good combination. The attempt to unify later-Discworld didactic storytelling with early-Discworld whacky hijinks was given the worst possible chance by the other narrative choices, and unsurprisingly it mostly failed.
To sum up: if you’re a Pratchett fan who has read everything else, you don’t need to actively avoid Interesting Times. It has some good lines, some good scenes, it’s not a disaster. But it’s not exactly something I’ll be recommending casual fans rush out and read.
Adrenaline: 2/5. There are some gripping scenes, but there’s just too much filler in between.
Emotion: 3/5. OK, so the melancholy elements do touch a bit of a nerve. A bit.
Thought: 2/5. Honestly, this is one that’s best not thought about. It does, to be fair, raise some interesting questions, but they’re questions that for their own sake would be better not raised until the raiser has a bit more material assembled re: answering them.
Beauty: 2/5. What’s beautiful here? I guess there’s a bit of heroism and sacrifice. There’s also some blunt stereotyping and some ham-fisted characterisation and a lot that seemed tired and uninspired.
Craft: 3/5. OK, so there really are some great lines. And a clever element to the plot (although the rest of it was both predictable AND unapologetically reliant on wild coincidence). And Rincewind is an impressive character in his own way, and so is Cohen. And the Faculty stuff was all good. And I liked the beginning. But… yeah, there are some problems.
Endearingness: 2/5. I can cope with annoying and I can cope with dull, but at times this book was both dull and annoying. Of course, there was also enough here that I can’t write it off entirely – it was funny in places.
Originality: 3/5. Felt somewhat derivative both of his own work and of wider tropes. I suppose its very audacity, however, makes it a little bit distinctive.
OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. Numerically, the above review puts this equal-worst of all the Discworld books so far, level with The Light Fantastic. Let me be clear: this is a better book than The Light Fantastic. Is it better than Eric? Debateable – there’s more good content here than in Eric, but it’s also a longer book and less able to get away with the ‘quick fun read’ excuse. Is it worse than Sourcery? I… think… probably, yes. It’s more professionally done than Sourcery, and more structurally sound, but Sourcery was also really good fun, despite its flaws. Sourcery really committed. And Equal Rites – if you think of Equal Rites as a book for older children, I think EQ is indeed better than IT at what it does.
Overall, I think I’m maybe being a little harsh here. It’s not a wreck of a book. Unfortunately, coming after a run of Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, Men at Arms and even the flawed but enjoyable Soul Music, and indeed coming before a run of Maskerade, Feet of Clay, and Hogfather, this just isn’t up to expectations. And that’s a great shame, because I wanted to see what Pratchett would do with this material. Saying as some might that Interesting Times is a lazy book phoned in for the paycheck would be doing it a disservice and failing to understand the nature of its flaws. Pratchett was actually trying to do something different here. It just didn’t really work.
Still, as the headline says: in the wider scheme of books, compared to things that aren’t Pratchett novels… it’s not bad.