Category Archives: literature

Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff”

514saxouvnl._sx277_bo1204203200_The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Thud!; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Snuff.

Lady Ramkin has finally prevailed — Sam Vimes is to take a vacation in the countryside, away from the bustle of Ankh-Morpork, with their son, Young Sam, at their manor house. But where the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is, crime is sure to follow, and sure enough, after Vimes puts a hotheaded young blacksmith in his place, the smith disappears and he is framed for murder. Poorly. But it makes it clear, someone doesn’t want Vimes there.

It turns out somebody was murdered — a goblin girl, one whose blood was used in the botched attempt to frame Vimes. And the goblins know Vimes is about and prevail on him in their quest for justice. As soon as he begins tugging at the loose end, Vimes unravels a criminal conspiracy large enough to threaten to bring down one of Ankh-Morpork’s most influential families. Oh, and that goblins themselves are a sapient species in their own right.

Snuff is, after Night Watch, the most Vimes-centric novel in the Watch arc, and — as Pratchett would never write another novel in that arc again, the last time we ever see His Grace Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, the Duke of Ankh, Blackboard Monitor. It is, at its core, the novelistic equivalent of a summer blockbuster where Vimes is hot on the trail of a criminal willing to do anything to throw him off it — a novel, in short, where Vimes is in his element, where the political subtexts of Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud! fade into the background, and Vimes, just by being Vimes, is able to accord a sentient species the rights they deserve almost as a by-product of his relentless pursuit of justice.

If Night Watch is, at some level, Vimes’ bildungsroman, then Snuff also does something else — it gives us a deeper look at Sam Vimes, as a character, than any other novel. Long gone is his constant alcoholic haze in Guards! Guards!; instead, Snuff showcases Vimes’ family relationships at the expense of his professional ones — his wife, Sibyl, and manservant (“gentleman’s gentleman”), Willikins, emerge as major characters here that they do not even achieve in The Fifth Elephant and Young Sam’s scatological inquisitions offer a background of comic relief.

Perhaps the most telling detail of how Vimes-centric Snuff is, is how it handles the novel’s secondary plot, where Fred Colon discovers, by sheer chance, a rare type of unggue (or goblin pot) in his cigar: there are, in all, maybe five scenes in the whole book devoted to this subplot, only two in which Carrot appears and one with Angua — a far cry from the significant Carrot-and-Angua subplot of The Fifth Elephant. 

Nor are there structural reasons for this, the way there were in Night Watch . . . In Snuff Vimes has at last taken over the Watch series, and it is fair to say that, outside of perhaps the occasional adventure novel, Pratchett has found himself in a corner. The long-foreshadowed conflict between Vimes and Carrot is not, and will never be, resolved; instead, we see in Snuff that Carrot has chosen his own diminution in the face of Vimes’ and Vetinari’s competency.

While Snuff is the last Discworld novel we will tackle for a while — I remain uncertain on which arc to tackle next, for one thing (Witches? Death? Rincewind? Moist?) — we will finish off this, what has turned out to be a much more substantial project than I was intending, with an exploration of Commander Vimes’ personality and perhaps why Pratchett was unable to resolve the Watch arc the way he was originally intending.

Terry Pratchett’s “Thud!”

51yspmmo6ul._sx289_bo1204203200_The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Night Watch; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Thud!.

Things get all political for the Watch. Again.

The League of Temperance, a.k.a. the Black Ribboners, have at last prevailed on Sam Vimes to hire a vampire officer, vampires being the creatures on the Disc Vimes least likes. But that isn’t all that’s on his plate, not by a long shot. For a grag — the dwarves’ spiritual advisors — recently moved in to the city, where he has been preaching anti-troll invective.

And now he’s dead. The dwarves think a troll did it, and the trolls are fervently hoping it wasn’t actually one of them that did it. But the anniversary of the most famous great battle between dwarf and troll, Koom Valley, is just days away, and an interspecies war is on the verge of breaking out in Ankh-Morpork.

The stakes could not get any higher. Vimes is more frazzled than ever. And he has to solve the mystery and get to the guilty parties before something else does.

Thud! is, in a word, a combination of Guards! Guards! and Night Watch-style detective novel and Jingo and The Fifth Elephant-style political intrigue. The problems between dwarves and trolls have at last come to Ankh-Morpork, largest and most cosmopolitan city on the Disc, and, just as in Jingo, Vimes races to solve a crime as the world teeters on the edge of war.

But this is a more diplomatically-experienced Vimes than the Vimes of Jingo. Where, in the latter novel, it turned out he’d had to leave the city before relations between him and Lord Rust got too sour, here, he’s forced to find a solution that does not lead to fighting on his turf.

Thus, he has to find a happy medium between dwarf and troll to investigate the grag’s murder, a medium which turns out to be Captain Carrot, a dwarf too human for the deep-downers and too dwarfish for the trolls. But even beyond that: investigating the murder, Vimes uncovers the true purpose of the dead grag’s sojourn in Ankh-Morpork, a truth that leads to the most Da Vinci Code-esque twist the Disc has ever seen.

And just like that, Vimes is racing to find out the truth — what actually happened at Koom Valley — before the deep-downers destroy it.

At the same time, the miners know the mine has gone bad, and when a mine goes bad, it can unleash potent magic on the world. A beast has been summoned, and it’s trying to lever its way into the mind of the nearest available champion — a watchman named Sam Vimes. Overworked and overburdened, Vimes is fighting a war on two fronts: an outer war to keep the peace in a world on the brink of, well, war, and an inner one against this magical entity. Can he?

I would augur that Thud! is the last “mature Pratchett” novel: though Sam Vimes has little room left to grow, he’s such a favorite no one much cares, and in Thud! the themes from the first three Watch novels (and Night Watch) meet those from Jingo and The Fifth Elephant, and just as in Night Watch viz. Guards! Guards!, we can see, in Thud! viz. Jingo, incredible character growth in Sam Vimes just from the sheer contrast in how they handle the situation at hand.

This isn’t the thriller romp Snuff turns out to be — though all the Watch novels are, of course, thrillers — with a more compelling cast and a complex subplot as well, where, just as Cheery had to learn to make peace with Angua the werewolf in Feet of Clay, so too must Angua make peace with the vampire Sally in Thud!. (Unfortunately for such a fun character — and despite the later Pratchett obsession with continuity — this is Sally’s only appearance on the Disc.) Indeed, the scenes where the two bond are some of the best-written in the entire Discworld corpus, bar none.

It is worth pointing out, too, that another key theme in Thud!, beyond the critique of fundamentalism, is of parenting — a theme Pratchett only really broaches here and in Snuff (where Young Sam is a wildly curious six-year-old). Being There to read at six is vitally important to Vimes, the main responsibility of parenthood this very, very busy father bears, and the novel’s entire climax is built around what happens when he is, in fact, unable to do so.

Thud! is also a masterful juggling of a complex plot, where all of the subplots come together in a wholly satisfying climax, one which is, I daresay, one of the most satisfying in the entire Discworld corpus: every little detail comes together here, and the way they come together is so artfully foreshadowed that they can neither be read in advance (perhaps the biggest problem Pratchett has with handling complex plots) nor do they have a deus ex machina WTF-ishness about them.

This is incredibly difficult to do, and do well, so much so that Thud! is perhaps the ultimate exemplar of how to do it well. It is this structural feat that really makes Thud! stand out, even in an arc as full of gems as the Watch one is.

Next, we will move on to the last Watch arc novel, and the only one squarely in the late Pratchett corpus, Snuff, where Vimes takes a busman’s holiday out to the country at last and there discovers a goblin slaving ring.

Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch”

9780062307408_p0_v3_s550x406The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored The Fifth Elephant; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Night Watch.

Discworld goes sci-fi. Chasing a criminal across Unseen University’s roofs, Sam Vines, in an unforeseen combination of a major temporal shattering (see Thief of Time) and magical accident, gets sent back to the past.

Not just any old past. His past. The plaything of the Fate (or perhaps the Lady), Vimes is forced to assume the identity of Sergeant-at-Arms John Keel, who, as it happens, in his brief time with the Ankh-Morpork City Watch trained one wet-behind-the-ears lance constable from a working-class part of town named . . . Samuel Vimes.

Worse, this curtailed last period of Keel’s life — according to History, he died a mere week after taking the job — was one marked by political turmoil in Ankh-Morpork: the city’s wheels were breaking down under the weight of the current Patrician, Mad Lord Winder, and his replacement, Snapcase, had curried favor with its citizenry.

As tensions reach a breaking point, it’s all Sam Vimes can do to keep himself together, bereft of his friends and colleagues — Carrot, Angua, Detritus, Cheery Littlebottom — and last, but not least, his wife Sibyl. And he has to do this while keeping his section of the city safe, training himself, keep himself alive until an opportunity presents itself to return to his own time, and, of course, nab the psychopathic maniac who got slung back to the past with him, who, naturally, in these difficult times quickly rises in society.

Unlike previous Watch novels, each of which have surprising twists in them, Night Watch is remarkably straightforward. There is no real mystery to solve here, like “Who killed John Keel?”; rather, the entire novel is driven forward by the strength of Sam Vimes’ character as he tries to survive and not lose himself in the past.

It’s also a throwback of a novel, one reminding us how far the Watch arc has come. Night Watch’s Watch is more like Guards! Guards!’ Watch than, say, Thud!’s. Young Sam reprises Carrot’s role in that novel, though in the similarities contrasts emerge: Carrot is bold and brash, all forward, going so far as to arrest the Thieves’ Guild’s master on his very first day, while Young Sam is much more cautious, quiet — observant.

One even gets the soupçon of an impression Young Sam has cottoned to Keel’s secret identity by the end.

Unlike the plots of its period’s other Watch novels, in which the mysteries inevitably involve international politics, Night Watch is, like the first three Watch novels, Ankh-Morpork-centric; the minutiae of Lord Snapcase’s replacement of Lord Winder some two decades prior have little bearing on, say, the situation in Uberwald or Klatch today.

Yet at the same time, despite its apparent simplicity, Night Watch’s political subplot is perhaps one of the most impactful on the Disc, for, just as we see Keel’s training of Young Sam, so too do we see Vetinari’s own education as a trainee Assassin under the hand of his wealthy Genuan aunt, Madame Roberta Meserole.

Indeed, it is perhaps in Night Watch where we learn more about Vetinari than any other novel . . . and one suspects, too, that Meserole’s failure to see her political goals advanced under Snapcase was a large part of why Vetinari became Patrician. In the young Havelock, we see the same drive towards hypercompetence that would define his future self’s Patricianship, but at the same time it seems unlikely he could wheel and deal his own way to becoming Patrician. His traits better fit someone who can keep being Patrician than becoming one to begin with!

Unlike any previous Watch novel, Night Watch is Vimes qua Vimes — and, coming out hot on the heels of The Fifth Elephant, where Carrot’s arc is more heavily foreshadowed than any other novel, one gets the feeling this was Vimes’ swan song. Not only does thrusting him into an environment more like Guards! Guards!’ make his growth as a character apparent, but the contrast between Young Sam and the adult Vimes lets us see not just two, but three sides to his character.

And, as he points out to Vetinari at the end, there is very little left he can bribe Vimes with. Where can this character grow? His arc seems complete.

Next, in Thud!, we will find out where Vimes’ character grows.

Terry Pratchett’s “The Fifth Elephant”

41y7ywngtvl._sx340_bo1204203200_On a personal note, The Fifth Elephant is the first Discworld book I read, and the one I’ve reread more than any other.


The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Jingo; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, The Fifth Elephant.

Someone has stolen a replica of a priceless dwarven artifact! Of course, since it’s a replica, it has minimal value in its own right, which makes the theft that much odder … Meanwhile, Sam Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Commander of the Watch, has been called away to the distant land of Überwald on a diplomatic mission, where, he learns, the original dwarven artifact, the Scone of Stone — a key relic in their new Low King’s coronation ceremony — has also been stolen.

Überwald! A land where feudal vampire and werewolf clans rule the surface and the dwarves rule the underground! And it sits exactly halfway between Ankh-Morpork and Genua, a major problem with the rise of the clacks companies, hellbent as they are on driving the Grand Trunk (a railroad reference) between the two cities. Lord Vetinari needs Überwald (or at least the bit of it in Ankh-Morpork’s way) to look to, well, Ankh-Morpork.

But the Uberwalders have other ideas, as Vimes soon discovers to his chagrin. Not all of them want to move with the times — with Ankh-Morpork’s times — and some of them protest. Strenuously. Chief among these are the Barons von Überwald, an ancient werewolf clan from around Bonk (pronounced bey-onk), one which Angua hails from, and whose power is currently mainly wielded by the baroness, Serafine, and her son, Wolfgang.

And Angua! As all this is going down, she gets called back home rather urgently — too urgently, in fact, to take the coaches with Vimes and Co. — and, just as in Jingo, Carrot must choose between what’s responsible and what’s personal. And this time, Angua says something in her letter that provokes Carrot enough to follow her home.

Plates are spinning, and in The Fifth Elephant, Vimes can barely even keep up — as characters and events converge, he has to use all his diplomatic resourcefulness to uncover the truth.

Discworld plots, on the whole, are not especially complicated. They are often villain-driven, with a clear antagonist animating the work as a whole. We see this with Men at Arms’ gonne, for example; with the antagonist in Feet of Clay; and with Carcer in Night Watch. But in Jingo and — especially — in The Fifth Elephant, the plot’s complexity ramps up tremendously; in fact, in the latter, Vimes is, at a certain level, surplus to requirements. The new Low King, Rhys Rhysson, had the upper hand the whole time, but we do not find out exactly how until the dénouement, when the Scone’s own secret — a secret the conspirators were wholly ignorant of — is at last revealed.

In a way, the shell game of The Fifth Elephant’s plot makes way for some of the greatest thematic depth of any Discworld novel. As Jingo is a meditation, ultimately, on war, The Fifth Elephant is one on diplomacy, and diplomacy itself is a game countries play with each other not unlike the games played within families — or even partnerships. Thus Angua’s strained relationship with her family takes center stage. Thus Angua’s relationship with Carrot becomes a major focal point of the novel, where here it is both a relationship and a mirror of other relationships, especially Vimes and Sibyl’s, whose marriage, it is revealed, is not all it could be, in large part due to Vimes’ workaholic attitude. Thus we have introduced the character of Lady Margolotta, perhaps Lord Vetinari’s mentor and almost certainly his ex-lover, a relationship whose subtle machinations underscore the complex diplomatic games being played around Bonk.

And the clacks, too, represent a major thematic shift in Discworld novels. Up till now, technology has been an antagonistic force on the Disc, with Moving Pictures’ moving pictures unmaking reality and Men at Arms’ gonne being both sentient and evil. But in the period between Men at Arms and The Fifth Elephant, there has clearly been a rethinking of the role of technology on the Disc. Perhaps Vetinari has been inspired by the gonne’s murder of Hammerhock due to its jealousy the dwarf could replicate and even mass-produce it — realizing, from the object’s action, that one way to neuter the technomantic powers new inventions tend to have on the Disc is to allow them to proliferate (a theme picked up again in The Truth and Raising Steam, for example).

But, on the other hand, semaphore technology is not a new thing the way the gonne is in Men at Arms, the printing press in The Truth, or the train in Raising Steam. What is new is its application to mass communications, a revolution not unlike the development of the telegraph on our world — or the telephone — or the Internet — or the smartphone. The question of technology on the Disc remains a live one, but in The Fifth Elephant a major — permanent — thematic shift has been made, one where the Disc is no longer hostile to the adoption of new technology.

One final note needs to be made here, and that is that The Fifth Elephant foreshadows planned resolutions to key tensions underlying the Watch series as a whole. Angua makes Carrot vow to go after her should she ever go feral (a real concern for a werewolf), and in seeing the differing fates of Carrot and the wolf Gavin, Angua’s two paramours, Vimes frets about the day he must oppose Carrot.

We can see here the thematic plan for how the Watch series would come to an end: Carrot would, eventually, be forced to put Angua down; and Vimes and Carrot (presumably after Vetinari’s death) be placed in a position of implacable opposition over the question of whether or not Ankh-Morpork should have a king. Carrot is the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, and in the end of The Fifth Elephant, he demonstrates (if it hadn’t been clear enough already) he knows this, all but saying outright that the traditional King’s Shilling is a vow made by the Watch to him personally.

Of course Pratchett never executes this plan. Perhaps by The Fifth Elephant he had become too attached to his characters ever to. A prompt for a fanfic, perhaps?

Beginning with Feet of Clay, we entered what I think of as the “Watch highstand”, a series of good Watch novels some five books long. Next, we will continue this highstand with one of the most inventive and imaginative Discworld books, Night Watch.

Terry Pratchett’s “Jingo”

41jhzesnlelThe late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Feet of Clay; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Jingo.

The mysterious island of Leshp has risen from the depths of the Circle Sea! Unfortunately, Ankh-Morpork and Klatchian fishermen were fishing in the vicinity when it appeared, and both have laid claim to the place. As Ankh-Morpork and Klatch — the Circle Sea’s two most dominant states — can best be thought of as being in a state of guarded peace, Leshp’s appearance can only further exacerbate tensions. Calls for war begin to ring out in both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, and at the heart of it all, Commander Vimes suspects there’s a crime going on.

He’s right.

Said crimes, of course, include “behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace” (because “that’s what warfare is”), “conspiracy to cause an affray, going equipped to commit a crime, obstruction, threatening behavior, loitering with intent, loitering within tent, traveling for the purposes of committing a crime, malicious lingering, and carrying concealed weapons” (p. 403).

But, as the situation deteriorates, Ankh-Morpork’s war hawks prevail on Lord Vetinari to step down, and his replacement, Lord Rust, is … less than competent. To top it all off, Angua’s stowed away on a Klatchian ship a-spying and Carrot, earnest boyfriend that he is, worries something’s happened to her. (He is, of course, right.) With Rust trying to force his will on Vimes’ Watch, Angua missing, and open hostilities right around the corner, Vimes is forced to make tough choices, choices which ultimately lead to the difference between life and death.

He even has a buggy Dis-organizer to tell him exactly that.

In the first three Watch novels, Vimes and Co. were concerned mainly with small crimes, crimes like homicides, which in turn led to much bigger ones (usually conspiracies to unseat Vetinari). Here, Vimes knows in his water the crime is much, much bigger: not just a crime affecting the internal politics of Ankh-Morpork but one affecting the broader international community. Leshp is at the tip of the iceberg; both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch have been jonesing for war for some time now, and the place is mainly an excuse.

But when it comes to warfare, neither side wants to be seen as the aggressor, and so the diplomatic game hinges on creating conditions whether both sides can argue they’re acting in self-defense — one, usually dishonestly. Vimes knows this. And he’s absolutely certain that it’s his own Ankh-Morporkian kith and kin acting in bad faith. Naturally, along the way, he meets his Klatchian counterpart — who, likewise, believes it’s his own kith and kin acting dishonestly. Who is right?

At its core, Jingo is thus a meditation on war, on the causes of war, and on its effects. As Vimes and Co. race to figure out what’s going on before said behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace causes a breach of the peace, he has to figure it out, and fast.

Naturally, the Discworld’s version of Julius Caesar or Sun Tzu, General Tacticus, becomes a major theme of this novel. Elsewhere in the series, we learned that Tacticus was the most effective general Ankh-Morpork ever had, one whose effectiveness was in part due to a refusal to play by the same rules numbskulls like Lord Rust liked to, and because of this, when Genua wrote to Ankh-Morpork needing a king, Tacticus was made a duke and sent off, where, naturally, his first action on getting crowned was to assess Genua’s threats, paramount of which was … Ankh-Morpork.

In Jingo, the Librarian lends Vimes a copy of Tacticus before he sets off, and Tacticus quotes come into play several times in the novel, yielding some of Pratchett’s best lines, lines such as: “When a defender occupies an impregnable fortress, see that he stays there”, or “when outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned, don’t have a battle”. As Vimes seeks the truth, we see how badly Rust has ignored Tacticus’ advice — at Jingo’s climax, Rust is about to try to assault the enemy’s impregnable fortress with an outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned army — the question is, in fact, whether Vimes can figure out what’s going on before Rust leads Ankh-Morpork to certain disaster.

So far in the series, Vimes has been antipolitical. Not so much apolitical: he speaks his mind with brutal honesty, and this is a quality that Vetinari prizes in him but also thinks of as a weakness. But in Jingo, we see the next major change in the Watch novels’ tenor — by the end of the novel, Vetinari sees the political value of Vimes’ antipolitical approach to politics, thus setting us up for the next novel, The Fifth Elephant, where Vetinari throws Vimes to the political wolves.

In Jingo, in short, the Watch goes from CSI: Ankh-Morpork to Homeland: Discworld. And as always, Terry Pratchett makes sure we enjoy the ride.

Terry Pratchett’s “Feet of Clay”

51lp3gka4glThe late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Men at Arms; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, and Detritus in its sequel, Feet of Clay.

Feet of Clay begins with a bizarre murder mystery: two harmless old men — one, a religious scholar, the other a dwarf bread aficionado — have been murdered, murdered with neither motive nor any real place to start except some white clay feet found on the premises. Meanwhile, Lord Vetinari is getting poisoned, and the means by which he is are proving to be an utter mystery. And if that wasn’t enough, Vimes has to go see about a coat of arms — one where he learns his family used to have one, but it was stripped from them due to his ancestor Suffer-Not-Injustice “Old Stoneface” Vimes, who beheaded Ankh-Morpork’s last king, Lorenzo the Kind (who was “very fond of children”).

And if that weren’t enough, the Watch is hiring again! This time they’ve brought on a forensic alchemist, who, at this stage is an alchemist putting together the “forensic” part on the fly. Cheery Littlebottom is an Uberwalder dwarf who instantly takes a shine to Angua but is leery of the rumors of a werewolf in the Watch. What follows is a rollicking good adventure in which the two discrete threads — the old historians’ murders and the Patrician’s poisoning — come together in a comic detective novel revealing Terry Pratchett at the height of his powers.

It is impossible to talk about Feet of Clay without talking about golems, one of its main thematic foci. When the novel begins, golems are treated the same way we treat robots: tools, automatons, and Certainly Not Human (TM). But, as the golems’ characters slowly get revealed, mainly through the slaughterhouse golem Dorfl, we realize that this popular conception is — wrong.

In this way, Feet of Clay begins a new iteration on one of the Disc’s oldest themes, the one started with Equal Rites and elaborated on in Men at Arms: the need to treat everyone with the same respect one accords oneself. To further this point, Feet of Clay takes up as a subplot Cheery’s growing femininity against the background of genderless dwarves, and the reactions of power couple Angua and Carrot to both: Angua’s distaste for the golems elevating their station, due to them being even lower than the undead, and Carrot’s (a dwarf, lest we forget) inability to get his head wrapped around the idea that girl dwarves may wish to express themselves differently than male ones.

Kings also make a comeback — one of the great unresolved arcs of the Watch series, and perhaps the main reason Pratchett stopped writing it earlier than other key Discworld subseries, is the tension between the desire for a king and the extreme competence of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Lord Vetinari. Carrot, we understand by the end of Men at Arms (if we haven’t already!) is in fact the true king of Ankh-Morpork, and is aware of at least this as a possibility, but is content to stay in the Watch precisely because he is aware that he could not possibly do a better job of running Ankh-Morpork than Vetinari. Thus, in Feet of Clay, as Vetinari is poisoned and a power vacuum momentarily appears at Ankh-Morpork’s top, a new — different — king candidate is proffered, one who would be a puppet of the aristocracy and Guilds. Naturally, he does not take a shine to the role.

Feet of Clay is probably one of the most underrated Watch novels. I find it better than Men at Arms, and this is in large part because — unlike it — Feet of Clay knows where it stands. As the third Watch novel, Feet of Clay codifies several key themes that strongly characterize the first half of the Watch subseries, including rewarding Vimes at the end, and it also — in a much more rewarding manner than the first two — develops key ethical themes common to the Watch novels as a whole, as well as the political themes which would come to dominate the middle Watch novels — Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud!, in particular.

The Watch novels are some of Pratchett’s best, and Feet of Clay is their codification — the most typical of the Watch novels, adroitly handling the development of themes common to the whole group.

Terry Pratchett’s “Men at Arms”

men_at_arms_usThe late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Guards! Guards!; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Captain Vimes, Carrot, Colon, and Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs in its sequel, Men at Arms.

The Night Watch is — for the first time in anybody’s memory — growing! Various “ethnic” interests have prevailed on Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician that the City Watch should reflect the ethnic makeup of the city, and these new affirmative-action hires have gotten parked in the Night Watch. We have a troll, Detritus; a dwarf, Cuddy; and Angua, a woman with a Secret. And just in the nick of time, too, for somebody’s blown up part of the Assassins’ Guild and nicked something valuable hiding deep inside — while, all the while, the city’s ethnic tensions (particularly between trolls and dwarves) are on the edge of boiling over.

As Vimes and Co. try to investigate the crime — obstructed by everyone and everyone up to and including the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, himself — they must also keep the increasingly-fragile peace in the Disc’s largest and most diverse city.

Oh, and Captain Vimes is getting married to the city’s richest and most eligible bachelorette, Lady Sibyl Ramkin, and retiring from the Watch at the end of the week. Meanwhile, Carrot and Angua start to develop A Thing for each other, which hopefully her Secret won’t get in the way of — but Carrot, too, has a Secret, one which Ankh-Morpork’s recent turmoil is conspiring to get him to reveal.

At the center of all the action is the “gonne”, a dangerous forbidden device created by Leonard of Quirm, one which on a mechanical level uses the Alchemists’ No. 1 powder (usually used for fireworks) to drive a lead pellet at lethal speeds into a target, but which seems to have developed sentience in its own right. Lord Vetinari gave the gonne to the Assassins’ Guild to have it destroyed; instead, they put it on display.

Perhaps moreso than most other Discworld books, Men at Arms suffers somewhat from sequelitis. While it has its moments — the Vimes Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness and Detritus’ sojourn in the Pork Futures Warehouse come to mind — there’s a sort of in-between-ness to Men at Arms, a sense that the novel is the transition from the rough-around-the-edges Guards! Guards! to the themes developed in later Watch novels. Much of the narrative infrastructure that characterizes Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, and Snuff gets developed in Men at Arms, but the transition is not particularly smooth.

The gonne does not exactly help here. Technology, in the earlier Discworld novels, is viewed as a dangerous thing, a path for things Outside to rip through the gossamer fabric of reality. This theme is most developed in Moving Pictures, although it also shows up in Reaper Man and Soul Music, and the gonne, a sentient weapon, fits this thematic. Yet at the same time, it contrasts with the themes going forward, those of progress and an increasing momentum of technological change on the Disc.

Some of these themes have been developed as early as The Colour of Magic (the first Discworld novel!) and Equal Rites, and the the wizards/witches dichotomy that formed series’ first major fork is of course a development on the theme of, well, equal rights — the same theme that, in the Night Watch’s hiring of troll, dwarf, and lady officers, Men at Arms again takes up.

In fact, it is in Men at Arms were we see the beginnings of these themes’ development in the Watch sub-series, which would form one of the Watch’s driving themes as well as one of the key themes of the later Discworld. It is also in Men at Arms where we begin to understand how close to a technological revolution the Disc truly is — the gonne, as it turns out, killed the dwarf Hammerhock of its own volition because it was jealous that Hammerhock could replicate it. No wonder that things keep bleeding through!

But then, we could argue that between his experiences in Moving Pictures and Men at Arms, Lord Vetinari developed an understanding of how to deal with technological progress — a theme that would eventually ripen with the penultimate Discworld book and the last one Pratchett finished before his death, Raising Steam.

Terry Pratchett’s “Guards! Guards!”

51jdobsv-yl._sx279_bo1204203200_The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

To that end, let us consider Guards! Guards!.

Long thought of as one of the Discworld’s classic must-reads, Guards! Guards! is the story not of heroes or monsters but rather of the city guardsmen who, in most other fantasy novels, show up only as death fodder for the book’s main threat (or, if the writer is particularly lazy, the heroes themselves).

It introduces us to Captain Vimes, the Night Watch’s leader, a drunkard who has seen far too many awful things to stay sober for very long; to Sergeant Fred Colon, a retired military officer (sergeant, naturally) who’s found a second home in the Night Watch, the last refuge for the city’s worst misfits; to Corporal “Nobby” Nobbs, another ex-soldier, but one whose skill at ending up on the winning side (whichsoever side he started on notwithstanding) made him the battlefield’s best bellweather, and — the New Guy — Lance-Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson, a dwarf fresh from the mountains.

A six-foot-six dwarf who sports a crown-shaped birthmark, a decidedly nonmagical sword (a feat on the Disc), and a sunny, cheery demeanor wholly devoid of irony. He was adopted, y’see, by dwarves, and his dwarven given name is, roughly, “Head-banger”.

So, naturally, when someone who possesses kingly charisma but total cheerful ignorance of his destiny shows up in town, so, naturally, does a dragon. In fact, the dragon doesn’t just show up out of nowhere: it’s summoned by one of Ankh-Morpork’s many secret societies, one whose Grand Master wishes to orchestrate a coup against the city’s current Patrician, the hypercompetent Lord Vetinari.

This Grand Master has his own candidate for the throne in mind, and it isn’t Carrot, just one of many fresh faces in town. But then he loses control of the dragon, the dragon gets itself crowned king, and having done so, immediately orders the sacrifice of the city’s most eligible bachelorette to itself. That bachelorette is one Sibyl Ramkin, richest woman in town and swamp dragon expert, and someone Vimes has taken quite a shine to.

It’s up to the Watch now to figure out how to kill the dragon and who summoned it, and to do it quickly before Vimes’ love interest gets broiled alive!

Guards! Guards! has quite a lot of early installment weirdness, as far as the Watch novels go. Captain Vimes, far from the intelligent, if unpolished, protagonist he is in later Watch novels, is a drunkard living rather in fear of his own sobriety. Colon comes across as much more competent than he does in later novels, perhaps because the status quo suits him just fine. Vimes has a quiet rivalry with the Palace Guard, which does not reappear in the later books. And so on.

Yet at the same time, Guards! Guards! has several classic Watch tropes. Carrot arrests the dragon, thereby kicking off the theme of anyone, anywhere being capable of being under arrest which reaches its climax when the Watch arrests an entire battlefield and Lord Vetinari himself in Jingo. Carrot, the hidden king of Ankh-Morpork, develops from a naïve copper arresting the head of the Thieves’ Guild near the novel’s beginning to the more experienced one doubting the very existence of a hidden king e.g. himself at its end.

Perhaps moreso than the other Watch novels, and especially moreso than Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud!, Guards! Guards! is a fast, light, and humorous read that belies its deep themes, in particular the theme of the unlikely hero, of unlikely plot resolutions, and, most of all, the city’s forgotten once again finding their voice — this latter being a key theme not just of Guards! Guards! but also of Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, and Snuff. It is fair to say most (but not all: Ankh-Morpork is still very much an Elizabethan-type city) of the key themes that would drive the Watch are present in Guards! Guards!.

Is it Terry Pratchett at his best? That’s more debatable than Discworld fans like to allow. It’s still quite an early Discworld work, and I would submit that Feet of Clay not only is more representative of the Watch series as a whole but has the most imporant scene in the whole arc, when Vimes refuses the temptation of a bottle of fine whiskey and thereby takes on the arc’s hero role. Is it a good place to start the Watch series? Of course it is; there is an accreting continuity on the Disc, and though it is absent in the early Rincewind novels, it starts to develop in a significant way both here and in Witches Abroad, that other widely-acclaimed Discworld classic.

Next time we will see Vimes & Co.’s adventures continue when they meet the gonne in Men at Arms.

Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem”

516e9-tjddl._sx329_bo1204203200_The Three-Body Problem is one of the more popular sci-fi works to have come out in recent years. Set in a near-future, slightly cyberpunk universe, the work is fundamentally a first-contact novel — a common sci-fi theme (e.g. Stranger in a Strange Land is also a first-contact novel) — but what makes it different, and interesting, is the mode of contact: through, in a complex way, a video game that introduces the alien culture to an earth audience. The way the game, Three Body, was described in the novel kept making me think of No Man’s Land (not that I’ve ever played it.)

Oh, and that this novel is a Chinese sci-fi novel. I strongly suspect its origin has played an outsize role in its popularity.

In speculative genres like sci-fi, though, the topos of the work is really a commentary on the intellectual and social conditions which inspired its creation, and this is perhaps no more true than in the first-contact genre, where the eventuality of meeting an alien culture for the first time drives questions about one’s own culture. Historically, this genre tended to be quite optimistic — though one can point out that sci-fi in general was quite optimistic before cyberpunk — and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, despite its title’s melancholy pathos, was textually an extremely optimistic novel, where humanity freely learnt from the Martians.

The Three-Body Problem is not so optimistic. On the contrary, in fact: It comes across as surprisingly pessimistic, but pessimistic in a way that its first half deliberately veils. Why should this be the case? One can well point out that the megatext a Chinese author responds to is necessarily different than that an American one would: the Cultural Revolution and the modern “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” China both play outsize background roles in its thematic development, yielding a driving theme of ostracism and then isolation among the intellectual elite and characters who’ve been so horrifically broken they’ve become sociopaths … It is in this way that the Three-Body Problem reveals its cyberpunk chops.

It is difficult to further expand on the book without giving spoilers, but suffice it to say that, the more the work develops, the darker it gets. It is by no means a perfect book — I found several characters and situations difficult to believe, and I rather suspect something important in the aesthetics was lost in translation — but, while I disagree with the sociological thesis the novel develops (I am still, in my heart, an optimist, and favor Heinlein’s cautious optimism), I still found it a gripping tale of first contact with immense forward drive.

Rating? Borrow, don’t buy, and be prepared to wait a while for your turn in the hold order.

Homosexuality in the “Divine Comedy”

One of the Divine Comedy‘s most shocking moments, as Anthony Esolen points out in his introduction to Inferno, is when Dante meets his mentor, Brunetto Latini, in the seventh circle of Hell, with those who are sexually violent against God — traditionally given as the Sodomites.

To understand the context of this scene, Brunetto Latini was Dante’s mentor in his youth and adolescence, and at the time, his — Latini’s, that is — Books of the Treasury and its digest, the Tesoretto or “Little Treasury” were both one of Dante’s major sources and, in the mold of Saint Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiaesomething of an encyclopedia of the era. Yet, despite the affection Dante regularly shows Brunetto, he places him in Hell. Why?

The argument has long gone that Brunetto’s place on the Seventh Circle shows him an unrepentant sodomite, and in Dante’s encounter with him, Brunetto points out others like him: “[Pedagogue] Priscian”, “Francis d’Accorso”, and, elliptically, the bishop Andrea da Mozzi, transferred from Florence to Vicenza due to a sodomy scandal. In his notes, Esolen notes that a medieval pedagogue was a teacher of schoolboys — and the third character Brunetto names is a cleric mired in scandal and moved to a new city. (Sound familiar?) The middle doesn’t quite fit as much: d’Accorso was apparently a professor of law during the period — perhaps Dante was aware of certain infidelities?

A reading of just the Inferno raises no questions. But when we read the Purgatorio, we find that, on the seventh circle of the Mount of Purgatory, where sins of lust are cleansed, half of the souls move about the circle clockwise and the other half counterclockwise, depending on, well, whose team one’s lust batted for. In other words, the Purgatorio presents homosexuality as a common affliction of mankind, with perhaps as many as half of all people affected by it.

It goes further, though: high on the Mount of Purgatory, on the terrace of gluttony, Dante meets his old blackguard, close friend, and brother-in-law Forese Donati. A sonnet cycle between Dante and Forese Donati, the Tenzoneexists, one which, if taken as authentic (naturally there’s debate on the topic, but I see no reason why not), greatly informs the interaction between the two in Purgatorio.

Dante and Forese were close, to put it mildly. Very, very close. In Purgatorio, Forese Donati says he owes his position on the terrace of gluttony — far, far higher than, for example, Dante’s slothful friend Farinata (who has yet to make it past so-called “Ante-Purgatory) — to the fervid prayers of his wife, a wife he neglected in life in favor of, ahem, antics with Dante. Why would the closeness between Forese and Dante be contrasted to the chilliness between him and his wife? The contrast seems more than just amicable.

The exchange is further a parallel of the one between Dante and Brunetto back on the Seventh Circle of Hell (as Durling and Martinez point out in their translation). It’s not spelled out, precisely, but the implication is clear: the antics Dante got up to with Forese were of a kind of the antics Brunetto got up to that landed him down on the Seventh Circle. Despite damning Brunetto, thus, Dante needs to believe that homosexuality in itself is a redeemable sin.

Herein lies the problem: the Seventh Circle is beyond the gates of Dis, and in the geography of Inferno, the gates of Dis represent the boundary between venal and mortal sin, where venial sin is redeemable — each terrace of the Mountain of Purgatory is dedicated to the purgation, or cleansing, of a venial sin — while mortal sin is not. Hence Dante is telling us, in Inferno, that sodomy is a mortal sin while at the same time telling us in Purgatorio that homosexuality is a venial sin (and, as a sin of lust, the least “sinful” of sins, so to speak, on top of that).

Dante is forcing us to draw a contrast between sodomy and homosexuality — one most commentators ignore. If homosexuality is a sin of lust, then most of the homosexuals in Hell should be found in the first circle, just as there are two groups on the seventh terrace of Purgatory, homosexual and heterosexual. By contrast, Dante is accusing Brunetto Latini not of a sin of lust but rather of violence against God. This, Purgatorio tells us, cannot be mere homosexuality. Sodomy is something far worse.

Recalling here who Brunetto was found with — the “pedagogue” Priscian, as Esolen identifies him in his translation, and the disgraced bishop Andrea da Mozzi — and Brunetto’s history with Dante, we can start to divine what it is, exactly, sodomy is. The lustfulness of sodomy is not what makes it mortal and therefore unredeemable; the violence is. The sin being punished on the Seventh Circle is not homosexuality, I would argue, but rape (in particular, pederastic rape).

Brunetto Latini was Dante’s mentor at a very impressionable age, and Latini was among the most well-read men in Florence at the time. He was almost certainly aware of Plato’s dialogues (in translation), and in at least two of these dialogues — the Charmides and Symposium — Plato, through Socrates, defends the Ancient Greek practice of pedagogic pederasty. So why do we find Brunetto in the same circle of Hell with a bishop whose scandal seems all-too-typical in our day and age, and a grammarian obliquely accused of being lustful towards schoolboys? Because Brunetto’s sin — a sin Dante must have been intimately aware of — wasn’t just homosexuality: it was forcing himself upon a minor in his charge.

Dante goes out of his way in Purgatorio to establish that homosexuality is not unnatural, that homosexuality in and of itself is not the same as sodomy, and because of this he is, obliquely, telling us what Brunetto Latini’s real sin is, the sin that damned him to the Seventh Circle of Hell: Brunetto Latini raped boys. Specifically, Dante.