Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Fifth Elephant

More Discworld!  I just can't get enough!

Quickie reactions:

I really, really, really love the Guards books.  This wasn't the best, but even so, it was one of the better Discworld entries.  The characters we've grown to love just become more and more interesting as time goes on, and the new characters Pratchett offers up just make this motley crew even crazier and more entertaining.

I do love the Vimes fish-out-of-water motif that Pratchett has been using lately.  He is so perfectly unsuited for any task other than police work, but his steely determination and tenacity drive him to succeed no matter what the job. 

Wouldn't it be interesting to have a Vetinari novel some day?  He's one of my favorite characters, but he occupies such a formulaic role in every novel.  At the beginning, he summons a relatively powerless person before him.  (Which could be Rincewind, Vimes, the Archchancellor, Moist, or really anyone - next to Vetinari, everyone is relatively powerless.  He asks them to perform a task.  They protest that they cannot do it.  He quietly but convincingly reminds them that he is a dictator and can do awful things to them if they refuse.  They spend the rest of the book trying to do it.  At the end of the book, Vetinari appears again and praises their work while leaving a sense of menace behind.  Now, what would it look like if Vetinari was on nearly every page?  I have a hard time imagining it.  It would be a little like a Bond movie from the perspective of the villain, I guess.


Every Pratchett book is about one thing in the Discworld, and also about something in our own.  What is this book about?  Maybe I'm still keyed up from the election last week, but my immediate reaction is that it's about "change."  When Vimes considers the Clacks towers on his trip down to Uberwald, he is considering the inexorable march of technological change, and how it impacts everything from police work to commerce to diplomacy.  This concern is mirrored by the social changes that dwarfs must deal with, from Cheery's gender-bending (or, more to the point, gender-non-bending) attitude to the role of faith and the importance of living underground.  Now, this seems like a fairly conventional sort of message - the universe isn't static, change comes, you can either accept it or fight it - but it gains more urgency and meaning in Pratchett's satiric eye.

Let's get our symbols straight, okay?  Ankh-Morpork is clearly London.  It's the city of London, but when you shift to the international stage, it stands in for the modern industrialized Western world.  And everyone else is, frankly, everyone else.  (In Jingo and other books, you can clearly draw relationships between certain nations and those of the Middle East or Far East, but when you're dealing with Dwarfs and Trolls, they are really just generalized "foreigners".)  Now, with that in mind, it becomes especially poignant when the Low King points out that, whenever people talk about the need to embrace change, they're really talking about becoming more like Ankh-Morpork.  Nobody is seriously suggesting that A-M start living underground like the dwarfs, or start acting like the trolls; A-M is held up as this kind of ideal, that other races should embrace in order to improve themselves.  The relationship with our own world and the lingering influence of colonialism should be clear.

And, that said, Vimes' reaction is even more gutsy: basically, saying "So what?"  Ankh-Morpork is, in a cold-hearted calculation, BETTER than the rest.  Dwarfs keep coming to Ankh-Morpork; they claim to miss home, but always find an excuse to stay.  It's a harsh message from a straight messenger: Vimes believes that, if the dwarfs want to hold on to their best and brightest, they simply must become more like A-M.  This isn't a sentiment that one hears clearly stated in the world today, but it underlies most of the relations between the first and the third world.


I don't read Terry Pratchett for a gripping intellectual challenge, but I always walk away with more than I expected.  The Fifth Elephant is mainly a really entertaining story, but it's also an intriguing look as the way people and nations look at one another and change their perceptions.  It's a welcome addition to the canon.

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