Terry Pratchett

In the few years I’ve been keeping this blog, Terry Pratchett is by far the author I’ve read the most books by. Part of this is my decision last year to read through his entire Discworld series in publication order (some of these books I’ve only read once, a few I’ve not read at all, and many I’ve not read for ten years or more). But part of it also is that he’s just a wonderful and prolific author, who can deliver rewarding books that are at the same time accessible and enjoyable.

So rather than leave all the reviews scattered over at my book review index, I thought it would make sense to put them all in one place, here. Well, sort of.

THE DISCWORLD CYCLE:
For now at least, to see my Discworld reviews I suggest you go over to my re-read project index. Maybe once I’ve done with that I’ll merge it into this page, but for now there’s no point duplicating the content (or breaking people’s links), so I’m keeping it over there.

THE JOHNNY MAXWELL TRILOGY:
Only You Can Save Mankind
Johnny And The Dead
Johnny And The Bomb

OTHERS:
The Carpet People

(I’ve also read the Bromeliad Trilogy and Strata, but I don’t have any reviews up of them).

OVERALL COMMENTS:
Why we care that Terry Pratchett has died (10 reasons) – my eulogy/analysis.

Johnny and the Bomb, by Terry Pratchett

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.

Reaction: Johnny and the Dead

In theory, Johnny and the Dead is the second novel of a trilogy; it isn’t really. It’s the first novel of a duology. Only You Can Save Mankind may have the same characters as the two subsequent novels, but they feel quite different from it, and have a lot more between them in theme and continuity than either has with the first novel.

Perhap it’s better if you can remember that – as it was, I spent much of the first half of the book with a feeling of vague unease, as though everyone around you suddenly started acting slightly differently. In many ways, this sequel feels like an imposter.

Pratchett appears to have noticed and addressed the problem I raised in my review of the first novel – that the characters are rather older than they claim to be. Unfortunately, this poses something of a shock when the two books are read in succession: all the characters appear to have regressed. For Johnny himself, this change is less dramatic, as he is always a fairly timeless boy, but for for his friends it is severe: they have all suddenly become more stupid, as well as more childish. It’s a particular shame for the character of Wobbler, who it feels has been savaged by authorial pen: from a sensible, confident boy who can break any CD encryption in his spare time, he’s reverted to a cringing, incompetant little egocentric annoyance who only randomly is able to do anything with computers, and who gets jam in the keyboard. He’s nothing but comic relief.

It should also be said that the first novel is in no way a help with the second – the events of the first novel, which one would imagine would be fairly dramatic for a child that age, have been completely forgotten about. As a child who empathised with the first book, I found this almost a betrayal of the characters and concepts; as an adult, I’m more inclined to see it as cynical marketing policy.

How does the book do on its own terms? Not badly, I admit – but not so well as OYCSM. It’s not only the characters who have regressed: this book feels written for a younger audience. There’s considerably less subtlety about it: gone is the delicate duality of real and unreal, dream and waking and delusion, literal and metaphorical that pervades the first book; in its place, a bare fantasy, a fable. Gone is the attention to the question of acceptance – where in the first book Johnny questions his sanity and takes time to re-evaluate his moral position, here he accepts the unbelievable without qualm, and has no doubts about his appropriate reaction to it. The plot is far more straightforward. Although there is still commentary on the contemporary world – indeed, more of it – it is now in a more didactic, childish modality, with far less of the irony and joyous cynicism of the first. The Moral, or Message, is clearer and presented in a less ambiguous manner. This is not only a book that is aimed at younger children, but a book that has less to offer adults – in OYCSM, I found things I missed as a child, but here there was nothing new or unexpected.

The book is not a failure; if anything, it feels more ‘professional’ than the first: Pratchett has thought about his market and gone out and met their demands. Yet this professionality brings with it a certain soullessness: for instance, although the book is rammed full of jocular exchanges, puns, two-sided comments and the like, I never found it actually FUNNY. Humerous – yes, definitely. Unremittingly humerous. But not actually funny. It felt too much as though the jokes were following a script, where before they flowed from his soul (it is in many ways the same change of feeling between the better and the later Discworld books).

I remember the third book with some affection: even as a child, I considered this book the most childish, and hence least attractive, of the three. Consequently, I will go on to finish the trilogy; and it must not be thought that this book is unredeemable. In particular, the ending was very well worked – far more polished and effective than that of the first book, although perhaps lacking also a bit of that book’s spirit.

 


Adrenaline: 1/5. I didn’t really feel dragged along at all – there was never any actual danger in the book, or even any real clarity about the nature of the ‘peril’ and the desired resolution, and consequently no tension. It should be noted that there is more fear and darkness in the ‘real’, ‘contemporary’, non-fantastic elements of Only You Can Save Mankind than there is in the whole of this book.

Emotion: 2/5. The characters were more alien to me due to their more regressed ages. The damage done to Wobbler, perhaps my favourite in the original, hurts, and Bigmac is likewise emasculated – although Yo-less does get more screentime, his character doesn’t really develop, and he remains the most superficial (albeit superficially likeable and funny) of the four.  There were, however, a few emotive punches, or at least slaps, through the book.

Thought: 2/5. As so often with Pratchett, there is definitely a Moral Message. It probably works with children, but to me there was absolutely nothing new or interesting in that Message. Unlike OYCSM, the form of the novel itself is not enough inspire interest.

Beauty: 3/5. Lacks the aesthetic concepts of the original novel – but what cannot be denied is that Pratchett is on top form as a stylist. Some of the exchanges between the boys are truly beautifully composed – flippancy, cynicism, and layers of irony compressed into a poetic art. The ending is… nice. The book loses marks for the relative lack of any sublime touches, and a degree of ugliness I perceive in its plodding professionalism. If anything, the writing, and in particular the dialogue, is actually TOO stylish: without some powerful content to accompany it, it becomes a little cloying, like rich cream deserts, or Roccoco decoration.

Craft: 4/5. Here the book excels its predecessor. Pratchett’s prose is even better, and although the novel is simpler it is also more precisely carved; he never looks to have lost control. It’s a simple book in themes and structure, but few people could have written the same book better.

Endearingness: 2/5. I didn’t really like anything about it. That said, it’s still Pratchett, and bad Pratchett is more appealing than a lot of good writing. This isn’t bad Pratchett – in fact, it’s rather good Pratchett, in terms of fineness – it just feels like uninspired Pratchett, or made-to-order Pratchett. Yes, it’s more under control than OYCSM – but personally, I find I prefer the wilder book.

Originality: 2/5. Much the same to say as for the first novel – only this time, the original idea is rather more familiar and predictable – and less challenging.

Echo: 0/2

 

Overall: 4/7: Not Bad Really. Although I can see how, to a child, this book could appeal, and although I can’t deny I enjoyed reading it, I do feel that this was in most respects a sharp step down from the strange but attractive Only You Can Save Mankind, particular for an adult re-read. That said, I still have faith that the final book in the trilogy can redeem it. This book should best be seen as a clever, humorous, well-written, very short, book for the entertainment and mild education of children – but also as something of a misfire, without the punch that Pratchett can hit you with on his good days.

Reaction: Only You Can Save Mankind

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.