Read as part of my lengthy Complete Discworld Reread…
The problem with The Last Continent is that it’s a fantastically funny, if rather light, novella about the Faculty of Unseen University.
This is a problem because it is actually a novel about Rincewind.
Pratchett often does this thing where his books are split between different plotlines that have little or nothing to do with one another. But part of the genius of Pratchett is the way he’s able to weave his plotlines together to make them feel as though they do belong together.
He does not do this here.
Instead, we get two entirely unrelated stories: one about the Faculty and evolution, and one about Rincewind and Australia. The fact that theoretically the former is integral to the resolution of the latter is irrelevant… because, like many Rincewind stories, this story is built around a plot that makes no sense whatsoever anyway, so who the hell knows what’s going on or what the point of it is.
The Faculty story is funny. In fact I think it’s hilarious. I was audibly chortling for a good deal of it. It is, unfortunately, too long, and it does use too many easy jokes, and its jokes become more and more recycled as it goes on, but nonetheless it’s totally worth it. Maybe it’s because I come from the sort of family I come from and am the sort of person I am, and went to the university I went to, but I think that the Faculty are Pratchett’s best comedy routine, and Ridcully one of his best, and most undervalued, creations – a man who manages to be a blithering idiot and one of the smartest men in the world at the same time.
But then we have the Rincewind story.
My problem here isn’t that the story is racist, as arguably Interesting Times is. The Fourecks of The Last Continent is not a vicious satire of Australia – the Ecksians actually come out of it pretty well I think in most regards – but merely a series of pastiches of films and books set in Australia, like Mad Max and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. [Hands up though: the section I didn’t get to reference for was apparently direct from a Banjo Paterson poem. That’s the thing with Pratchett: no matter how much you sigh over the really obvious blockbuster film jokes, you’re always missing at least one really obvious reference to popular Bush Poetry of the 1890s… similarly, although I understood the intent, the quote from a John Burgon poem (1813-1888, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, primarily noted for his passionate defence of the Mosaic authorship of Genesis… I’m told) flew right by me]. In fact, I could maybe have done with it being a bit more racist. The most potentially offensive bit is probably when a random man of the people spontaneously starts going off on a xenophobic rant, exemplifying the arguably racist perception of the rest of the world that Australians are horrifically racist. But the thing is: that’s almost the only time in the novel when a joke actually has bite. OK, so in this case it’s possibly ironic bite, but it’s something! The rest of the book is tame, safe, and generally purposeless unless you like trivia-spotting. And the plot is basically just “something is going to happen at the end of the novel but I can’t tell you what because we’re not there yet”, killing time until we reach the end of the novel when it’s ok for something (confusing and arbitrary) to happen to solve the entirely artificial and poorly-explained problem.
The problem isn’t really Rincewind himself – who gets a lot of unfair criticism as a character – but just the story. There’s no structured plot, none of the cunning foreshadowings and echoes of Pratchett’s better stories. Rincewind hardly gets any chance to have any character moments (other than the brief time with Neilette near the end) – he just bounces from one safe pastiche to another. There are, to be sure, some funny lines along the way, yes. But this story is badly hurt by being put up against the hilarious Faculty sections. Every time the camera switches from the light, original, uproarious Faculty storyline to the even lighter, odd but derivative, and mildly amusing Rincewind story, it’s hard not to sigh with disappointment. Which makes the Rincewind part seem less entertaining than it might be in its own right, while increasing the sense of the Faculty plot dragging on too long and too slowly.
It’s kind of like strapping a blimp to a car. Neither componant will work at full capacity.
In Pratchett’s defence, the big issue here – the disconnection between the two plotlines – is almost unavoidable. This can be summed up by the moment when the Faculty face a terrifying man-eating monster:
Ridcully rolled up his sleeve. ‘I think a round of fireballs, gentlemen,’ he said.
It is pointed out quite clearly that there is virtually nothing in this universe that could possibly be a threat to the Faculty, and if anything does arise that is a threat to the Faculty, the chances are it will have killed them before they’ve stopped bickering about it, because they inherently assume they are invulnerable.
In some ways, this is great. It’s part of the comedy: it’s a bunch of guys who can’t tie their own shoelaces but could easily obliterate large parts of the geography if they felt like it. Its why I always want to see more of them, and to see them in other parts of the Discworld. A Vimes story, for instance, could be made so much shorter by introducing some omnipotent wizards.
Which is also the difficulty. Because unless we’re dealing with something very weird or very big, any plot involving the wizards basically cannot go anywhere. A problem arises, and they solve it, and the only passage of time can be the bickering they go through before actually getting around to that round of fireballs.
So in Moving Pictures they’re on the periphery, and their powers are limited by dealing with the Things, which are pretty much the only threat to them (as the Things eat magic). In Reaper Man, they have great fun, but only in a highly allegorical subplot. In Lords and Ladies they turn up late and do criminally little (I’m still pissed about that – I’d have loved to have seen Ridcully taking on some elves). In Soul Music, they’re interested observers. In Interesting Times, they’re the framing story. In Hogfather, they get an amusing subplot and then they get to explain some stuff, but the main story happens on a much more metaphysical level. And in The Last Continent they literally are on a different continent from events, with virtually no connection at all to anything. Because they’re the narrative equivalent of thorium. Put too much of them too near any civilisation, and everything ends.
Unfortunately, or possibly fortunately, Pratchett realised this. From now on, the wizards were ghettoised off into their own little related series, the pop-science Science of Discworld books, only allowed out for a brief visit in the illustrated novella The Last Hero, and then later, in rather wilted form, in Unseen Academicals. Pratchett’s best routine has been shelved; one rather wonders whether the whole point of The Last Continent was as an advert and experiment for The Science of Discworld (which came out the following year), or whether that book was a response to the success of this part of TLC.
So what we get in this book is a hilarious comedy novella that’s a little too long, married irregularly to a weak and flaccid mildy-amusing series of parodies with a vague theme of ‘Australia’, and constructed around absolutely no comprehensible plot or thematic integrity whatsoever. And there are some really clunking, over-obvious easy-target jokes in both halves.
On the one hand, it’s very disappointing, by the standards of Discworld. On the other hand, it’s actually better than I feared it might be.
It’s also, it’s worth noting, the beginning of the end of classic Discworld. But we’ll be talking about that some more in forthcoming reviews.
Adrenaline: 1/5. Honestly, this might be the most boring Discworld novel so far. The Faculty are inherently static, only rolling along slowly when actively forced; the Rincewind plot series of unfortunate events meanders from place to place with no sense of purpose or tension. Frankly, when you establish from the beginning that a character is so ‘lucky’ (or supernaturally warded) that they find sandwiches under rocks whenever they’re hungry, there’s not a lot of room for tension.
Emotion: 2/5. Not very emotive. A few nice touches with the wizards, and honestly I did like that (unoriginal but still nicely executed) bit with Neilette toward the end.
Thought: 3/5. The Faculty have some nice arguments, and there are reflections on evolution, religion and such, and the normal ‘spot the reference’ jokes.
Beauty: 2/5. Meh. Honestly there were a couple of clunking, sigh-inducing moments here, which the ‘awk’ joke can’t cancel out, and, it all feels quite forced. Pratchett nods in the direction of his trademark sublime sentimentality once or twice (such as at the end), but it feels perfunctory.
Craft: 3/5. Even the great comedy bits feel forced – as if, if the comedy stopped for a moment, you’d notice how stilted people were being and how many non sequiturs there were and how many moments were set-ups for jokes and nothing else. And the two plots don’t fit together and one of them is rubbish and the parodies are toothless and pointless and how did any of this even seem like a good idea to anybody ever… but on the other hand, it’s very funny. And still peppered with moments of genius.
Endearingness: 4/5. So many things are wrong with it, but… I really enjoyed reading it! It’s, for me personally, one of the funniest of his books, so while I may have sighed in exasperation a few times I also laughed a lot. Which makes it more likely than, say, Interesting Times, which was more annoying and less funny.
Originality: 2/5. Well, it’s too weird and unique to call totally unoriginal. But frankly there’s nothing new here. The characters do what you expect them to do if you’ve read Discworld before. The things in the background are all tired jokes and second-hand thoughts. Meh.
Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. Numerically, level with The Light Fantastic and Interesting Times as the worst Discworld book so far (hang on, I’m seeing a theme here…).
This is a surprise to me, because I came away from the book mostly positive, thinking how much better it was than I feared it might be. I enjoyed it. I certainly definitely prefer it to those other two.
But then… that’s the point. Not Bad. It isn’t an actively bad book… but let’s face it, it very nearly is. Yes, I like it more than those other two, a lot more… but only because I find it very funny. Take that one aspect away and look at the rest of it, impartially… and there’s not a lot to like. Frankly I think I may be generous calling it ‘not bad’ rather than ‘bad but with redeeming features’… but I do find it very funny. It’s a really big redeeming feature, and that, coupled with a touch of leniency because, what the hell, it’s Pratchett (which is probably needed to cancell out the higher standards I set for him), do, I think, overall, make it a Not Bad book. Just.