When I recently read Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals and found in myself a sense of tiredness, I had to wonder how much of it was my own tiredness with the author’s style, and how much was genuinely a loss of vitality in his work. Well, for a quick read a few days ago I grabbed his Only You Can Save Mankind – and now I have no doubts at all. The vital, fizzing Pratchett of my memory was not only nostalgia speaking. He really was good.
Only You Can Save Mankind was a stand-alone short novel, later the base of a trilogy (with unrelated plots, but the same characters), currently marketed for younger readers. The youth, however, is mostly in the characters, rather than the book itself, which is almost suitable for all ages – the exception perhaps being some simplicity in plot resolution that seems more fitting in a children’s book. It’s not a well-known book, I don’t think – Discworld has become synonymous with Pratchett, and any additional readership is primarily drawn to the Bromeliad trilogy. The three Johnny Maxwell books are therefore often forgotten – but, in this case at least, that is a terrible shame.
Mankind is set in the here-and-now (or, strictly speaking, the here-and-then of the early nineties), and it honestly feels it – not only is the atmosphere authentic, but it deals with modern concerns (computer gaming, the Gulf War, the postmodern condition, family breakup) in a way which feels natural, not the forced modernity that certain writers adopt. It is the story of Johnny Maxwell, a ‘nerd’ or ‘dweeb’ – a social outcast by virtue of his patheticness and slight weirdness, whose parents are undergoing Trying Times. The chief background characters are his outsider cohorts: Wobbler, the fat computer geek who loves breaking game encryption; Yo-less, the uncool black boy who dreams of being a doctor and who speaks like a lawyer; and Bigmac, the war-fixated kid from the estates who is secretly brilliant at maths but who hangs around with car thieves getting drunk. Appearing later is the slightly older, and entirely un-dweeby, Kirsty, a born competitor who lives in a perfectly tidy room in a perfect mansion, surrounded by trophies in everything from chess to rifle shooting to long jump, and who keeps all her pencils sharp, but who fantasises about being Sigourney Weaver and shooting aliens. These five children, theoretically aged 12 to 13, but who actually feel several years older, are almost the only human figures in the novel.
One day, Johnny is playing a computer game, ‘Only You Can Save Mankind’, in which he plays a fighter pilot shooting down alien attackers – only this time, they stop shooting at him, and try to communicate. In games, dreams and hallucinations through the following days, Johnny is confronted with how grimly real the game is for the aliens, and eventually determines to save the alien fleet from humanity single-handed – and though the humans have a word for the aliens, the aliens themselves use a word best translated as ‘mankind’. Meanwhile, his friends deal with the dichotomy of their self-images and their real place in their world, Johnny’s parents’ marriage collapses, the boys suffer through an almost ritualistic schooling system (Johnny has a standard ‘what it was/is like to be a peasant in X’ essay that he reuses between subjects), and they are constantly bombarded with images of “Stormin’ Norman” and his computer-guided smart missiles, night after night.
This may be a novel for children – it’s very short, its protagonist is a child, it’s clearly didactic, and it’s quite simplistic in execution – but it is not only that. This book has Themes, and Issues, and other things so often missing even from adult popular fiction, let alone books for children. Mankind is a book about reality and simulation – all sorts of simulation, from the strange dreams Johnny has, to the simulated learning at school, to the simulated personalities of his friends, to the games that simulate war, to the war that itself appears more like a simulation. Everywhere, Pratchett says, the line between simulation and reality is becoming thinner – we are entering, if you’ll forgive the jargon, a postmodern world of the ‘hyperreal’. If this is postmodern, Pratchett’s response is taken directly from Nietzsche: maybe even dreams should be taken seriously; perhaps even what we do in games matters. If there is no distinction any more between the real and the unreal, all there is is what we do, and what we do not do, however real or unreal the place in which we do it. Suitably for these themes, Pratchett adopts what would in other places be considered a magic realist approach: he makes no clear claims regarding what part of Johnny’s experiences are real. Indeed, whenever one conclusion seems to be advancing, he adds a complication that makes us think again. Many of the important sequences therefore occur in a perspectivist demi-world where reality and experience are ontologically unclear, and seemingly pliable; and we see how irrelevent such details of reality are to our moral and emotion engagement with the actions of the protagonists. Many of Pratchett’s books dabble in philosophical idea and pretend to elevated themes: Mankind is one of the few where these concerns are legitimately central to the book, and do not appear tacked on.
Alongside the sophistication of theme, Pratchett gives us his inimitable prose – and in this book it’s the real thing, the original that some of his later writing seems to be a simulation or an imitation of. It has wit, it has acuity, it has feeling and fizz. It isn’t the most uncompromisingly hilarious book he’s written, but it is genuinely funny, and employs its humour throughout in a way that keeps the reader on their toes. Where sometimes Pratchett seems to seek to be biting and urbane for the sake of it, here the irony seems to serve a critical, almost Socratic, purpose. It isn’t a relaxing, fluffy humour – it’s a high-volume, on-edge humour that drives the book along.
The book is let down in two areas: the weakness of the antagonists, and the weakness of the ending. Both could be put down to the intentional simplicity of a children’s book, rather than to inability. It is only really the children around Johnny who have flesh and bones – neither the aliens nor the enemy human pilots are really explored. In particular, the final antagonist is neither as frightening nor as sympathetic as they would be in a better book – it rather feels as though somebody has been elected by lot to become Final Villainous Enemy, and been given a moustache to twirl, which is a betrayal of what little characterisation they had been given. In terms of plot, there are really three endings: the resolution of the overall dilemma; the resolution of the outstanding personal issues; and the epilogue (which is not marked as such). These improve in quality: the epilogue is good (the unexpected final page is brilliant), while the personal climax is rushed but generally satisfactory (the worst element is the slight anticlimatic hiatus between the high point and the epilogue); the resolution of the ostensible plot of the novel, however, is frankly terrible, and is a waste of a good opportunity. I don’t wish to say what happened, but I was left wondering why it had not happened earlier – and there was not even the slightest attempt at an explanation offered.
These problems let down what could otherwise be a great – if simplistic – book, but they do not ruin it. I greatly enjoyed reading it again, and now regret that I don’t have immediate access to my copies of the sequels; I may even have enjoyed it more than when I read it as a child, or at least I enjoyed different elements of it. It’s inspired me to read (or, mostly, re-read) more of Pratchett’s earlier work – certain key Discworld novels, certainly, but also his less famous books, where he seems to write with greater freedom and vitality.
Adrenaline: 3/5. It’s fairly simple in plot, and the ending is weak; consequently, my heart wasn’t racing. However, my interest never sagged for a moment.
Emotion: 3/5. There are some affecting moments, and in general I sympathised greatly with the characters; but I’d be lying if I said I was choked up at any point. There’s always too great a distance to the characters – the simplicity makes it feel less real and immediate. The entire novel is a simulation, and does not hide that.
Thought: 3/5. As I hope I’ve explained above, the novel does address interesting philosophical issues. Unfortunately, although it does so with sophistication, it does not really do so with depth; nor with breadth.
Beauty: 4/5. Feels a bit odd giving this score, since the book is hardly a work of art – but beauty is about more than high art, and Pratchett is an appealing stylist, when he’s actually working at it and not just reciting. Some of the overall concepts are also aesthetically pleasing to me.
Craft: 3/5. Again, Pratchett’s prose can rarely be criticised, and for once he seems completely to have mastered the subplots; unfortunately, the book is let down by the plot itself, which not only ends weakly, but also seems uneven in pacing throughout the novel. If anything, a little too much time is given to the background elements, and not enough to the plot itself.
Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked this book. Although I can’t identify myself with any individual in Johnny’s group, it does speak to me, as a book written for, and to a degree about, me. I like the audacity of the plot and its blasé approach to reality; I like the perspectivism of it; I like the fact that it feels honest, rather than written to please.
Originality: 3/5. The central conceit is the sort of clever idea that Pratchett is so good at, and that few others would have thought of; the plot direction, however, is a little too sturdily conventional, and the characters, while convincing, are not memorably original.
Overall: 5/7: Good. Yes, I do feel a little silly giving this the same overall score as Dhalgren, which is clearly a work of much greater scope and artistry. On the other hand, I think it is important not to get fixated on ambition: Only You Can Save Mankind may only attempt a fraction of what Dhalgren does, but it does what little it does extremely well. Surely it is right to value execution as much as ambition? In some ways, it reassures me in my scoring system, that two such diametrically different (in style and form) books should be given the same score.