Johnny and the Bomb is the concluding volume of a trilogy begun by Only You Can Save Mankind and continued by Johnny and the Dead – but to be honest, that doesn’t matter much. There are no continuing plot elements, only recurring characters, which get about as much definition in this volume as they did in preceding instalments (ie very little).
If you don’t remember my views on the first two books, here’s a quick summary: OYCSM is, in my opinion, an imaginative, funny, surprisingly mordant novella that deals with an off-the-wall and curious SF concept against the background of a realistic, well-characterised satirical portrayal of the 1990s, and is let down only by its overly simplistic, almost lazy plot resolution, and its general not-quite-under-controlness; Dead, on the other hand, is a more polished but also more lifeless novella, using the same trope (genre concept in 1990s small-town Britain with a cast of teenagers), without the accuracy or complexity of characterisation, without the darker undertow, without the same bite to the comedy, without the inherent interest and sophistication of the central conceit, and without much of the joie de vivre. Tastes may, of course, vary. But assuming my views on the first two novels aren’t wholly idiosyncratic: where does the third volume fall on this spectrum?
Somewhere in between. There is an exciting, enjoyable pace to this, and the conceit is a little less plain. On the other hand, it doesn’t really make any sense. The fact that it doesn’t make any sense is mostly covered up by the manic pace and the intentional confusion, but the fact does remain. Characterisation is rather better than in the second book, but not as good as in the first (although more realistic in terms of age-suitability). The writing is, throughout, excellent, particular in the earlier parts, where I found myself laughing out loud several times. Sometimes I feel that Pratchett’s dialogue is what Aaron Sorkin wishes he could write. The humour is also pleasantly uncomfortable at times, thanks to the racial component, which Pratchett deals with extremely well, neither condoning racism nor preaching too overtly. [The less prominent attempts to deal with sexism came off rather less convincingly]. However, where OYCSM was based in reality and used the genre elements for counterpoint, Bomb is an all-out SF adventure romp, which makes it all feel rather safer.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Not an awful lot happens, but it happens very quickly, and I was quite carried away by it – although the air of safety, lack of real investment, and underlying nonsensical silliness prevented it from being thrilling.
Emotion: 1/5. Never actually cared about any of it. The characters are too cardboard and the peril too remote.
Thought: 2/5. The fact that it makes no sense, and the pace, forced my brain to keep active working out what was going on.
Beauty: 3/5. Funny, elegant prose, a clever idea… it’s all very pretty, I suppose. Lightweight, but pretty.
Craft: 4/5. As I’ve said before, Pratchett is a true master, when he wants to be. This feels a little slipshod, a little light, not quite satisfactory at the end, and generally not quite an inspired or diligent effort – but there’s almost nothing that’s actually wrong about it, nothing inept. I think the plot holes are a bit too big to give a perfect score.
Endearingness: 3/5. I found it likeable and enjoyable, but not a must-reread, because it was all a little too light.
Originality: 2/5. Large parts feel too familiar – the conceit has been pretty much worked over in the genre, and the execution is a bit too Prachettian, a bit too reheated. No surprise, I suppose – by this time, Pratchett had written The Carpet People, The Dark Side of the Sun, Strata, Truckers, Diggers, Wings, Good Omens, the first two Johnny Maxwell novels, and the first 18-20 Discworld novels. If sometimes he seems to be re-using characters and ideas, we should bear in mind just how many books he’s had to fill. [Tangent: has any modern author had a more stunning three years than Pratchett’s 1990-1993? Beginning with Moving Pictures, we got Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, Men at Arms, Only You Can Save Mankind, the entire Bromeliad trilogy, and Good Omens! Eleven novels in a row and it’s hard to pick a bad one – a record that many authors would be pleased with for a lifetime, let alone three years work.
Overall: 4/7. Not Bad.