Part of an ongoing Complete Discworld Reread project…
It’s a remarkable book, The Truth. That’s not saying anything about how good it is – just the fact that it is. This is, as is proudly and prominently displayed not only on the cover of the hardback but even on the inside lining, the 25th Discworld novel. Twenty-five novels in one setting! That’s impressive. But what’s remarkable is that The Truth doesn’t feel like the 25th novel in a series: it feels like the first.
Pratchett is certainly aware of what has gone before. The very first line of the book, after all, is a call-back to the opening section of The Colour of Magic, published 17 years earlier. It’s not the first such reference: the book is filled to the gills with knowing winks and nods, most of them so well-crafted that anyone who didn’t know the joke wouldn’t spot that the joke was there at all (my favourite was the innocent, unaware call-back to the climax of Men at Arms). It’s a craft that extends, incidentally, to most of the pop-culture references – unlike the blunt force humour of books like Men at Arms or Guards! Guards! the allusions in The Truth are made much more subtle. Though not necessarily any less brazen: the entire novel hinges around a repeated near-quotation from Mark Twain.
But Pratchett at this point knows the difference between honouring the past and obeying it. I said in my review of The Fifth Elephant that that novel felt very much like the end of Discworld… well, The Truth feels very much not only like the beginning of a new Discworld, but like the intentional beginning of a new Discworld. Most blatently, just as in Soul Music Pratchett lampshaded similarities to Moving Pictures to emphasise that the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions wouldn’t be coming back, here he lampshades, right at the start, similarities to Moving Pictures and Soul Music (and more indirectly to Reaper Man also), to stress that we are no longer in a reset-the-world-at-the-end-of-the-book universe… and what’s more, we’re no longer in a magical, metaphysical world either, now we’re in a world of hard facts and facing up to reality. There are, to be sure, magical elements around the edges in this novel, but it will not be driven by incomprehensible forces from beyond the dawn of man, and nor will it be resolved in that way.
But the remarkable thing isn’t even so much the bold authorial decision to use his anniversary novel to take his world in a wholly new direction; it’s the enthusiasm with which he does so. Because if there’s one thing that leaps from the page here, it’s enthusiasm. No, actually it’s more specific than that: it’s fury. It’s not perhaps entirely clear who or what Pratchett is furious about, and I don’t think he’s entirely sure either – if Pratchett does have one constant fault, it’s a lack of a fully coherent ideological framework to hang his passions onto – but he’s clearly mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more. Despite several critics having latched onto this ‘Pratchett was angry’ idea since his death, I can’t say it’s honestly something that comes through that much in most of his books. Grumpy, yes, politically and morally agitated, yes, and didactic as a consequence, but that agitation is usually kept hidden under an obscuring veil of gentleness, gentility, humour, and mannered stiff upper lip. The Truth is Pratchett mad in a way I don’t remember having read since Small Gods.
If it feels perhaps a more personal book, there’s an obvious reason for that. The Truth is a novel about journalism – and Pratchett was a journalist for many years. I’m tempted to say, a real journalist – he worked at a local newspaper. The novel therefore is filled with a duality, a duality that come to think of it is often at play in Pratchett: the conflict between the small and the personal (the local residents Pratchett reported on, interviewed, and was read by) and the big and important (the national and international issues that helped shape the lives of those residents). In Lords and Ladies and in Men at Arms, first Granny and then Carrot tell us firmly: “Personal’s not the same as important. People just think it is.” It’s an ideology of selflessness and the big picture that Pratchett never abandons… but he also seems to have doubts about it, and nowhere is that more evident than in The Truth. What local journalism must constantly remind you, I think, is that for the little people in the street – which is to say everybody, in the end – the personal can be very important indeed.
The Truth is unusual in having a great big unresolved ideological clash right in the middle of it. So often, Pratchett writes as though he Knows Best, even if what he knows is not always totally consistent. But in The Truth, we have a clash of views that is never really resolved. It bursts into life in a big ideological debate in which Our Hero is rebuked for failing to understand the importance of everyday life to ordinary people, chastised for expecting people to care about politics when they’re on the edge of starvation. It’s an argument that the hero is able to answer… but crucially there is no real sense that we’re expected to believe that he has refuted it. He merely does enough to keep his case alive until another day, another argument that we never quite get to. Yet this isn’t everything, either. These two ‘idealistic’ viewpoints are themselves put up against two different sorts of pragmatism – those of Vimes and Vetinari.
The Truth has perhaps the protagonist who feels closest to being Terry Pratchett himself, in budding journalist William de Worde. Curiously, de Worde’s biography is eerily close to that of Rudyard Kipling – privileged background (relatively speaking, in Kipling’s case), horrible boarding school (nightmarish, combined with abusive foster parents in Kipling’s case; normal public school horribleness for de Worde), constant pressure to always tell the truth (to pathological consequences for Kipling), followed by running away from responsibility and parental expectations to become a journalist at a young age (Kipling was 16 when he fled back to India). Then again, this may just be close enough to a conventional case history biography for an educated Englishman of the era that it may be just coincidence.
De Worde is, regardless of who his inspirations may or may not have been, a fascinating and appealing protagonist. But his real significance may be in who he isn’t: he isn’t Sam Vimes. The Truth was, apparently, originally written as a Watch book, and indeed its general outline is a very familiar Watch mystery, not far from the plot of Feet of Clay. But, just as with Granny and Rincewind, the character of Vimes is running out of energy at this point. I said in my earlier review that Vimes should have been retired after The Fifth Elephant (with Night Watch as an acceptable coda), not just because the character had become repetitive but because his rise from beaten-down underdog to all-conquering invincible hero has damaged both the plotting of the books (it’s been getting harder and harder to propose any viable threat to Vimes, without taking him too far into supernatural territory where his character doesn’t really belong) and the ideology of the series. An underdog who wins through ruthlessness and force is a message of defiance against the establishment; an establishment enforcer who wins through ruthlessness and force is a brutal tyrant. Vimes came dangerously close to crossing that line in The Fifth Elephant; and Pratchett seems to have realised it. William de Worde isn’t just a replacement for Vimes, he’s a counterweight for Vimes. De Worde is here, bluntly, because somebody needs to be able to stand up to Vimes.
Of course, the idea that William could stand up to Vimes is somewhat farfetched; indeed, there’s a strong atmosphere of naivety throughout the book when it comes to the power of the press (and that’s saying something in a book where the impotence of the press is a running theme!). This is understandable in the historical context, however. The Truth came out in 2000. Pratchett had become used to a safe, placid, liberal world of IRA bombing campaigns on English soil, of assassinations of government ministers and near-assassinations of the Prime Minister, of aeroplanes hijacked and aeroplanes shot down on a regular basis, of police brutality, of the Cold War, of the constant threat of foreign spies, of the possibility of nuclear armageddon at any moment; only two years into the New Labour reign, he probably couldn’t have imagined the ‘unprecedented security threats’ of the new world that would escalate year on year, making the country more and more dangerous the fewer terrorist incidents actually occurred, and hence he has a charming faith in the ability of the press to remain free. When the cops in The Truth debate whether they have the power to insist William not write about something, they conclude that they do, but they don’t have the power to stop him from writing that they told him not to write about it…
…Oh, silly watchmen, the modern reader will cry. Of course you can stop him, have you never heard of a superinjunction? You can stop him writing about the story, stop him writing that you stopped him writing, and then stop him writing that you stopped him writing about being told to stop writing, ad infinitum! How strange this passage will seem to future readers! If Vimes were operating under the Blair, Brown or Cameron regimes, he wouldn’t have to worry about all these niceties. These days he could simply secretly arrest a suspect, interrogate them secretly without a lawyer present, have a secret trial, without a jury, with a personally handpicked judge, present secret evidence that the secret judge isn’t allowed to see, from secret sources the judge can’t be told about, arrive at a secret judgement, sentence the criminal secretly, and secretly imprison them at an undisclosed location for a period of time at their own, secret discretion, and any journalist who attempted to report any element of this could themselves be subjected to the same process. Now it’s true that Vimes is having to operate under Lord Vetinari, a Macchiavellian mediaeval tyrant with no respect for human rights who has street performers brutally tortured out of personal whimsy, so it’s fair to assume the regime will be substantially more liberal and forward-thinking than any political party in the UK today. But it does stretch credibility that an absolute ruler like Vetinari and an old-school policeman like Vimes would be quite so accomodating to the rival power of a free press.
Similarly, the whole plot of the novel rests upon an assumption of Vetinari’s impotence; and while it’s nice to actually see his political (and physical) superpowers have some limits, they need to be presented with more reasoning and development to be believable. Instead, as they seem to be assumed purely for plot purposes, the result is an apparent failure of continuity and characterisation.
But maybe Pratchett doesn’t care. There’s something not quite right about a lot of the characterisation here, although much of that could be handwaved away by appealing to the new viewpoint of William – of course the characters look a little different when seen through new eyes. At times, though, it seems to go beyond that, most eggregiously in a scene where Vetinari launches into an out-of-character comedy routine to allow Pratchett to contrast the New Discworld against the Old. The dialogue all works, it just doesn’t make sense as Vetinari’s dialogue.
It’s only a small point, but it gets to the core of a problem I have with this novel: yes, it’s a passionate book, but sometimes it feels as though the novel is too reliant on that passion. The passion can bend the plot; and indeed, the plot itself is thin (albeit complicated), heavily reliant on pop culture (it’s broadly a parody of All the President’s Men), and more an excuse to write the book than an actual virtue. It doesn’t even really work on an emotional level, since William, while a fascinating character, undergoes very little character development. It feels almost as though Pratchett was so busy talking about journalism that he forgot to include any emotional resonance or narrative arcs.
Having said all that, The Truth certainly isn’t a total failure. It’s a surprisingly funny book – there are some really clunking lines, a feeling that Pratchett is trying to go ‘broad’, but there are also a lot of laughs, including some quite clever ones. But the real saving grace is the villainous double-act of Mr Pin and Mr Tulip. William provides the grounding and the stakes, but Pin and Tulip manage to provide the menace, the plot, much of the comedy, and, unexpectedly, almost all the the emotional significance. They are both – Tulip in particular – glorious creations who just get richer and richer as the book goes on. As newcomers to the city, they also provide us with a much-needed look at how the Ankh-Morpork we’ve seen slowly develop in the earlier novels must appear to those not familiar with it; it’s a brilliant way to homage the preceding 24 novels while still feeling fresh, and it also helps give us sympathy for villains who are certainly bad people but who may also be out of their depth.
So I do I feel about the book as a whole? I’m not sure. It’s one of those books I really, really enjoyed as I was reading it, but that feels a little hollow in retrospect. It does feel fresh, and it feels promising, as though Pratchett knows where he is going next. There’s a real feeling of, to try to put it neutrally, looseness to the novel – a looseness that a critic might interpret as laziness or complacency, but that a fan might instead read as confidence and free-flowing creativity. In a way, there’s a little bit about it that reminds me of the very beginning of the Discworld – not, of course, in style or content, but just in that sense of an author exploring new ground.
In the end, despite the reservations that have emerged in my as I’ve written this review, I have to come down on the positive side. Perhaps I can put it this way: this is a novel where Pratchett opens up a new direction for his later books, and the problems of the later books can be seen in latent form here, as faint cracks when you look at it closely. But for now those cracks do not threaten the integrity of the whole. A limited but solid central character, a passionate, honest and knowledgeable debate about a topic close to the author’s heart, a good balance of effective humour, and above all two of the cycle’s greatest antagonists elevate the novel not only above its limitations but also above the pack. The Truth is a great read, and a very fitting 25th episode in the cycle: a novel that does justice to the past while at the same time looking forward to a bold and exciting future.
Adrenaline: 4/5. It’s not an out-and-out thriller, but high pace, menace, and stakes combine to make it a gripping and exciting read.
Emotion: 3/5. Potentially a flaw in the book: characters are too static and the threats too distant in significance to really make the reader care. However, in the end the character arcs of the villains redeem this element for me, bringing the score up to par.
Thought: 4/5. There is – as is explicitly lampshaded – a degree of confusion about Pratchett’s views in this novel, but they are interesting and well-supported views. Though the core of the thinking here is about journalism, Pratchett takes his themes beyond that foundation, addressing fundamental questions of life, politics and literature.
Beauty: 4/5. Elegant and witty prose, striking imagery… but just a few too many clunking moments.
Craft: 5/5. I may have problems with the books, but I think they were problems that arose through Pratchett’s priorities, not through his capacities. In terms of what the author set out to do, I think the craft is almost spotless – prose, plot construction and so on are first-rate.
Endearingness: 4/5. Lack of emotional investment is probably what keeps this from being a book that I love. But it was a really enjoyable read, and one I’ll remember, too. Add the benefit of being more-or-less stand-alone, and I think this is one that cries out for re-reading.
Originality: 2/5. Probably the area where the novel is most lacking. Alongside the reliance on tropes and echoes from existing stories, there’s just too much of a feeling of repetition here. Certainly I wouldn’t advise reading Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Truth in close succession!
Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. I was on the threshold with this one: very good, or only good? It’s right on the limit, but in the end I rounded up – after all, some of my hesitation is because I know Pratchett can do better. This broadly fits with my expectations for the book, and how I think it is, on average, regarded: probably not a contender for Best In Show, but a really solid, above-par outing nonetheless. And a novel of particular interest for Discworld fans for its place in the series.