Terry Pratchett [books]

By: N8 · October 7, 2008


I wonder if people read more fantasy novels — or more people read fantasy novels — or more people read more fantasy novels — when the (purportedly) real world around them is spinning toward economic disintegration to the tune of dueling political platitudes.

I know I do.  But, I read fantasy novels when I need respite from the harsh reality of slightly runny eggs or the prospect of having to get my teeth cleaned, so I’m not the best barometer for human behavior in this regard.

Members of this blog have different feelings (read: *they* have wrong feelings, we have right feelings) about so-called hard fantasy, though I don’t think they would go much further when pressed than saying simply that flying lizards just aren’t their cup of tea.  Just like I love listening to The Decemberists, but might think: Jesus Christ Of The Theme Park a full week of open heart surgery on their music?   Not to digress.

Right around the post-GOP convention “Palin bump,” I sought out some fantasy novels that a friend of a friend had let me borrow. I was thinking: show me Evil being defeated! Show me Youth speaking Truth to Power and the Kingdom actually fucking listening! I need some bite-size escapist comfort-food for the soul if I’m going to keep participating in the American political “discussion” and watching these “debates.”

And, I found a modicum of calm over the last six weeks in more than ten of Terry Pratchett’s novels, but they were not what I expected.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels graft the steel-sharp-yet-jocular satire of the John Stewart variety (starting in 1983, before The Coming of J.S.) with a genuine love of fantasy and mythology to create an absurd, fantastical but recognizable landscape on The Disc. I say recognizable because the object of every good satire is something real and familiar. In these novels, the satirical focus ranges widely depending on the story to include the results of corporate excess and economics, e.g. Making Money (2007) and Going Postal (2004), political conservatism, e.g. Pyramids (1989), gender equality, e.g. Equal Rites (1987), and — of course — the disfunctioning of government (all of the above). Of course, Pratchett’s gaze falls with equal deftness on many less “political” subjects, drawing the humor and the absurd from sources as divergent as Greek philosophy, Shakespearean theater, insurance, traditional fables like Sleeping Beauty, and a so many other spots that I almost feel I need to get a footnoted version of these books. The scope of his interest in the world and how it finds its way into the Discworld boggles the mind. At least, my mind.

The complexity, scope, keeness of Pratchett’s satire(s) truly impresses me as a rarity and possibly a unique feature of his fantasy world (feat #1). Good satire is fun to read. But it’s rare to read satire that is also an enjoyable story (feat #2), where the satire does not squash or diminish your interest in the movement of the story. I enjoy stories much more than political tracts, and these works are full of so much performative, moving, living, and joyous absurdity — that the world and the characters within it, true characters in their own right, virbrate and hum with the energy of their motivations, purposes, fears, and aspirations. It’s all very natural, really, once you get into it, but how Pratchett is able to accomplish the whole holding-a-mirror-up-to-life thing while also getting you to root for and identify with his characters, spinning the whole Discworld on a four-elephant hoisted plates of a lightness and a glee… well, the mind not only boggles, but it wobbles as well.

If it isn’t clear from the above, these books were not the kind of escape I was looking for — they were better. Yes, they are fantasy. They have magic, dragons, wizards, heroes, kings, witches, assassins, sapient pearwood luggage, and thieves. But these novels are also mocking (and mocking well) some of the most troubling aspects of our modern lives, and bringing a humor to our political and human absurdity that I couldn’t have unearthed at a better time.

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