Reaction: Unseen Academicals

I’m not going to spend much time talking about this book. There’s many reasons for that. Partly because it didn’t really strike me as unique enough to provoke any interesting reactions. Partly because to give the book credit I would have to say an awful lot of things about Discworld as a whole, which are better saved for some future occasion when I comment either on the series overall or on some particular highlight of it. Partly, and probably mainly, it’s because you’ve all read the book already, or if you haven’t, you’ve read the others and will read this one eventually. There’s not a lot that really can be said about it that you don’t already know or suspect. The same goes for me, seasoned reader of Discworld: there’s not a lot for me to think about it that would genuinely surprise me at this point.

So, a few quick comments on it. Firstly, it’s really quite good. It’s not up there with the best of Discworld (or how I remember the best of Discworld), but it’s far from the worst, and better than I was expecting. I think it’s certainly the best main-sequence book since Night Watch, and in some respects it’s one of his most sophisticated.

It is not, however, funny. I laughed out loud once – and even that was a clever little joke I was impressed by, not a real moment of hilarity. That’s pretty funny for an ordinary book, but not for Pratchett. I think I’ve heard all his jokes now. I sighed when I read the first page, with its political footnote, because I was sure I’d read exactly the same joke in another book. Before long, he’s abandoned comedy altogether, replacing it with the odd sly reference and a continual tone of flippant Englishness, which is appealing in small doses but can become repetitive.

However, it should not be said that Pratchett is unaware of his flaws. I think that, on some level, he realises his jokes are running stale, and increasingly he tries to compensate with seriousness – it happened in Night Watch, and it happens again here.

Unseen Academicals is, despite its simplicity, really quite complicated. For a start, the man is immensely erudite, and every page is crawling with homages and allusions – I’m certain I got man that most people would not get, and I suspect there are others, too. These allusion spans a gamut from one-line throwaways to entire plots, and he uses them to cunningly build up and subvert expectations. It’s not a new technique (going back, I think, to Wyrd Sisters and its shadowing of Shakespeare), but it’s worked out with greater complexity and fluidity here – rather than simply tracing one paradigm, competing myths are interwoven in a really quite impressive way. Unfortunately, this means that perhaps too much of what is foreshadowed never ends up happening – which may be intentional, but left me with a degree of a sense of irresolution.

The ‘issues’ the book deals with are twofold – one personal, one social. On a personal level, the message of the book was engaging, but not stunning – more complex and nuanced than an ordinary feel-good novel, but still not really saying anything too challenging. It was certainly better handled than some previous attempts – there was far more sophistication here than in the often ham-fisted personal-ethics preaching of Night Watch, for example.

UA attempts to surpass Night Watch in social message as well – but I feel it fails badly. The attempt to deal with the modern British lower classes feels forced, and only draws attention to how resolutely bourgeois the rest of the series has been. In any case, it fades almost instantly. The opening sections let us know that we’ll be dealing with, not to beat around the bush, chavs – they speak in the patois of chavdom (in which Pratchett fails to be convincing, even to my own sheltered ear), the women are brain-dead and read celebrity magazines, while the men are lascivious, drunken, and entirely indolent, avoiding all possible work. While it’s admirable that he’s chosen to update his series, it’s almost painful listening to the bourgeois writer attempting to imitate ‘popular’ culture, and it’s impossible not to dislike the characters. Naturally enough, Pratchett intends to challenge our preconceptions and make us end up liking them – but he cheats. By halfway through the book, they’ve dropped their ‘innits’, the heroine is showing unexpected perspicacity and a fine judgement of character, and even unknown talents and hard work, and the hero has turned out to be a rogue with a heart of gold, even if he has some rough edges. These aren’t the modern working class at all – these are lovable scallywags and rapscallions. It simply brings home how close much of the series is to a bad period adaptation – all the characters are either upper class and educated, or else charming cheeky scamps out of the cast of My Fair Lady. This works fine when he’s only talking about the former, but when, as here, he tries to talk about the common man it simply does not ring true. He is unable to make the people he is talking about sympathetic because he refuses to deal with any of their dark side. Nobody is genuinely lazy or hate-filled or stupid or dangerously short-tempered. The solitary villain seems motivated entirely out of slavering Evil, not out of anything recognisable from real social problems.

Pratchett does do better with the other half of the book: the story of the upper class. I’m very grateful for the focus on the University, which has not had so much attention since… well, maybe never, but certainly not since The Last Continent. The style of the series had moved on, and I had some reservations about the ability of the Wizards to fit into the grittier, more realistic world, but it is managed very well, and a greater sense of continuity is given to the institution (the events of Sourcery are finally acknowledged). Largely this is done by focusing the attention on only two characters, Ridcully and Stibbons, the former in particular benefiting greatly, while the minor characters fade into anonymity. Similarly, there is far more screentime than usual for Vetinari, who often is employed as a pop-up-from-behind-the-desk-to-explain dues ex machine, but who here is treated more sympathetically, and more realistically. I think a part of this is that, for once, we see Vetinari not as towering over others, but in the company of equals – Ridcully and Lady Margolotta – which makes him seem more a man and less a plot device.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of praise, and I’ve got three criticisms left over. Firstly, not only the jokes but the whole of the writing style now seems flat – has Pratchett grown stale, or have I just read to much of it? He tried to inject novelty in places (and I noticed quite a few surprisingly unusual sentences in the book, where earlier we would have expected a simple familiar idiom), but often this failed. In particular, the character of Andy Shank felt pieced together from elsewhere, not only in personality, but in every sentence that took place when he was around. It felt lazy. More generally, Pratchett is not good at innovating characters, many of whom feel like old friends when they should not be – this is not as bad as in the recent Moist books (as I find Moist repellently reconstituted), but it did stop me from empathising with some characters as much as I should have liked. Glenda, for instance, is perfectly likeable, but she also feels a bit like half a dozen other characters that have been put in a blender to find the average (Agnes and Susan probably being the two largest components, with a dose of Magrat, among others).

Surprisingly, the opposite happened with old characters. The book was full not only with in-jokes but also with cameos of past characters, which in general I felt worked poorly. Sometimes this was not surprising – Dibbler hasn’t been engaging since, well, a very long time ago – but I was shocked by Vimes, who is a pale shadow of himself, even compared to his appearances in Monstrous Regiment and The Truth. Most problematic, however, was poor Rincewind, whose role was too large for a cameo and too small for a real character, and who never felt any of convincing, interesting, or actually the same person that we knew in the past.

Finally – whether because of these complaints of independently – I never really felt engaged emotionally. Oh, the conclusion is tense, and I felt a little for some characters at the end, but there was none of the real pathos that made Night Watch. This, I think, is the biggest reason I feel Pratchett is increasingly tired – the rich emotional engagement with characters that I felt in many earlier books just isn’t there. Meanwhile, the plots feel more contrived than they have done since the early days – although it should be said that the ending of this one isn’t that bad. It is, admittedly, not good, in its execution, but it isn’t the disaster that some of his recent books have turned into (most notably Monstrous Regiment, but also Going Postal, Thud, and Making Money, in my opinion).

That said, there are some promising signs. As I say, Pratchett is compensating for some of his weaknesses with other developments, and if future novels (however many they may be, and let us all pretend that there is no end of them in sight) retain the confidence and ambition of UA, the series will go on to new heights. If the book displays many of the faults that have emerged in the series (and it is to the credit of what is surely one of the greatest series of all time that anything at all is left of it after a staggering nearly forty volumes), it also shows us that those faults need not necessarily be fatal. Pratchett can do better than this book – and the fact that I can say that with confidence at this stage is, in a way, a great compliment to the promise the book shows. Before this, I admit I was beginning to suspect he could no longer do better.

—–

This was really just for me to voice some thoughts about how the series is going… but while I’m here I may as well give some scores for the book:

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. To be honest, it’s mostly fairly slow and plodding. That said, by the time we reach the climactic sporting sequence, I was hooked. That section of tension and excitement lifts the book as a whole from a 2 to a 3.

Emotion: 2/5. Never really felt too great an investment in any of the characters; no great pathos. That said, I did at least feel I ought to be feeling something for them.

Thought: 3/5. It deals with Issues and Themes. It does so more subtly than you might expect. It doesn’t do so in much depth, or in a particularly challenging way.

Beauty: 3/5. Much of the prose is worn and cliché. There are, however, a lot of good lines in there, and one or two well-constructed scenes and clever mirrorings. The highlights, for me, were the psychiatry scene (which briefly rose to the level of ‘genuinely a little chilling’), and Vetinari’s moment of drunken honesty, at which I’m sure many fans will have cheered.

Craft: 3/5. In some ways, I’d have liked to have given it a 4 – the overall plot, the foreshadowings and allusions, were all very skilled. However, it’s let down by a certain lack of fizz on the sentence-by-sentence level.

Endearingness: 3/5. If anyone criticises it, I’ll stand up to its defence. I enjoyed reading it, and did so swiftly. That said, the lack of emotional engagement damaged its score here – if I had to curl up to a Discworld book, it wouldn’t be this one.

Originality: 3/5. I can honestly say that as I was reading through it, I didn’t expect it to turn out as it did. Well, some parts, clearly, but not all of it. In some ways this damaged its ability to appeal, but at the same time it gains marks for novelty. Yes, a lot of it is typical Discworld, but you can still see that he’s out there trying to do new things. Anyway, it seems unfair to judge a man by the standards of his other books – Discworld is still charmingly unusual in many ways, even if some of those ways remain constant between books. At the same time – nothing really ‘wow’ about it.

 

Overall: 4/7: Not bad really. Wouldn’t recommend it to somebody starting Discworld. Would recommend to somebody who had read up to Night Watch and was doubting whether there would be anything new in the later books. Unreservedly glad I read it; not earth-shaking in any way.