Friday, August 29, 2008

Let's All Read The Time Thief Again

Pratchett marches on! "The Thief of Time" is the latest of his Discworld novels to fall before me. I think I'm well past the halfway point now, though it's hard to tell for sure. Reading these books is a rather complicated affair, and I have yet to decide whether "Wee Free Men" and "The Science of Discworld" and other tomes should be part of the official count.

Nonetheless: I've now read all the "adult" Witches books, nearly all of Rincewind, and thanks to "Thief," all of Death. I've been purposely holding off on the Watch, given that those are my favorites. It's sad to think that soon I will have caught up.

So, where does "The Thief of Time" fit into all this? It's a solid entry. Susan makes a reappearance; she's one of the best characters, and gets some more development in addition to face time. And who doesn't love Death? I've found that a useful, albeit crude, measure of quality is how much of a book takes place in Ankh-Morpork. Here, a decent fraction does, and as a result it's a fine book.

It's interesting to read this immediately on the heels of a more hard-core fantasy novel like Fatal Revenant. Discworld is nominally fantasy, but it becomes more and more clear as you go through it that it's ultimately a satire on contemporary society. Past books have done really interesting things with the concepts of capitalism, religion, race relations, democracy, and war. Pratchett also has a wonderful humanistic streak, and can be quite tender (yet funny) when he looks at our relationships with family, with death, individual ambition, even love. (Vimes' courtship and marriage is simultaneously the least romantic pairing in all of fantasy, and the most sweetly powerful for how realistic it is.) Pratchett uses the tools of fantasy - strange creatures, magic powers, medieval weaponry - to set up situations between his very human characters and explore them.

So what is this book "about"? Well, duh - it's about time. He brings back the History Monks, who have made brief appearances in earlier novels, and puts them in the center of the latest threat to the Discworld. You might assume that this means the book deals with time travel, but that's not the case. Those who have mastered Time do not reverse its flow - rather, they have gained the ability to slow it down or speed it up. A master can "slice" time, freezing the world in place (or, really, slowing it to a crawl), while he moves about at normal speed; thus, relative to the world, he appears to be moving at a blinding fast pace.

One of the things I most enjoy about Pratchett is how he explains things and sets up his world as a cohesive place. He doesn't just wave his hands and say, "Time monks! Special powers! No questions!" No: a sort of version of Newtonian physics is applied to time on the Discworld: the total force has to remain the same, even if individual objects alter their movement. The secret is to balance things out. So, if one part of the world needs to be slowed down, then another needs to be sped up. The history monks can borrow time from places that don't really need it, like the ocean, and apply it to places that do. The monks explain that this is why people will often feel that time hasn't been consistent, and you get expressions like, "Wow, can you believe it's Thursday already?" and "Man, this week has just been crawling by."

There is a deeper idea in the book to, one that I think was never totally reconciled with the earlier one but which is more intriguing (if less original): the idea that there is a smallest divisible amount of time, the atom of time if you will, which is the briefest instant in which it's possible for anything to happen. Furthermore, all of history consists of these moments connected to one another. Continuity is a human illusion that we impose on these moments: in reality, the universe is destroyed after each moment, and completely rebuilt in the next. We are not the same people we were in the last second - our very molecules have been taken away and replaced - but it happens constantly, and so we have the idea that we are the same people and time is moving forward.

This is a somewhat familiar idea. I think I first ran across it in an old Twilight Zone episode, where the universe periodically stops and some engineer grunts need to rebuild it. It's also similar to the very cool and too-rarely-seen movie "Dark City," which also deals with a city that is periodically stopped, dismantled, and then started back up again. I kind of doubt that Pratchett was deliberately echoing either of these works, which makes it all the cooler - either there's a common philosophical origin for all of them, or it's just a really compelling idea that talented creators have independently stumbled upon.

With the Big Ideas out of the way, shall we move on to the plot? Here are some:


I like Susan as a teacher even more than I liked her as a governess. It's a perfect environment for her, and I really enjoyed every aspect of it: her relationship with the administration, her field trips, the transformative effect she has on young minds.

Lobsang was fine, although in comparison to Susan he came off as very two-dimensional. Jeremy was more compelling, as was Lu-Tze. It's fun to consider that the most extreme degree of sanity is virtually indistinguishable from insanity. Lu-Tze was just a lot of fun - he's an archetype, but with enough quirks to seem fresh.

The Auditors make fine villains, though I think new readers to the series who had not encountered them before would not really grasp their sinister aspect. They're too insubstantial early on, and too easily defeated towards the end. That said, the final section of the book has incredible fun with them.

As is always the case with Pratchett, there are no true villains.... after several appearances we can say "The Auditors are evil," but then he'll show us one in a sympathetic light. Again, I give a lot of credit to Pratchett's humanism, even when applied to non-human subjects. In his stories there can be conflict, and the reader can heartily disapprove of individual goals and motivations, but the actual person proves hard to dislike. Sooner or later everyone stands before Death, and they're all equal at the end.

I don't think I need to dip into Mega Spoilers... I will say that I called the Fifth Horseman early on, and enjoyed the battle with the Auditors, and call it a wrap.


There's no more Pratchett immediately on my radar, but with a diminishing set of unread books left, it's getting easier to pick my next move. I'm looking forward to plunging onward. As a side note, I've had trouble plugging a few holes - in particular, my library doesn't carry the original illustrated version of "Eric", and I can't seem to find the "Science of Discworld" books either. I may hit ebay at some point for these, but if any readers have other tips on how to get these books, I'd love to hear them!

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