Sunday, March 29, 2009

Millennium Hand and Shrimp! Bugrit!

Woooo! With the completion of The Truth, I'm rapidly closing in on being All Caught Up in Discworld. Besides being a great story on its own merit, The Truth also extends the Industrial Revolution theme that began in Moving Pictures and continues in the Moist books of Going Postal and Making Money.

I keep harping on this, but Pratchett really is a satirist, a modern-day Swift, and once I realized that it adds a whole other level of enjoyment to his fantasy. The Truth is, on the one hand, a fantasy-cum-mystery story, complete with imps and wizards and guilds, but it is most interesting as a fable about the rise of modern media as the Fourth Estate.


As with the other Industrial Revolution books, Pratchett takes a focused look at a particular modern development, and then compresses several hundred years of evolution on Earth into a matter of days or weeks on the Discworld. This is a necessity for telling the catchy stories he has, but it also helps to impress on us just how amazing these developments are. Because they happened so gradually here, we often fail to appreciate the radical impact of entertainment, media, communication, or finance on our society and our personal lives.

So: In this particular case, Pratchett essentially starts us out with Gutenberg, immediately jumps to the invention of movable type, and then races forward to Hearst and the National Enquirer. When the book opens, there is no such thing as a newspaper. The main character, William de Worde, shows the old fashioned way of communicating news: he writes a newsletter that will be delivered to a dozen or so persons of the highest quality. His great innovation is that he writes the letter once, then has it engraved and reproduced. After running into some dwarfs, he quickly grasps the potential of movably type, which allows such communications to be constructed and duplicated almost immediately. The dwarfs further encourage him to abandon his high-end business and instead focus on plebians - selling thousands of newspapers at pennies apiece is better than a dozen at a dollar. The empire grows, grabs attention and resistance from established powers, inspires competitors, and in turn must find new ways to improve and evolve to stay one step ahead.

When writing earlier about Moving Pictures, I'd complained that it had a lot of references, but not much of a discernible point. The Truth doesn't suffer from that at all, and it's really interesting to see how media upends the status quo and becomes a new power in its own right, with a new set of morals and requirements. I attribute the difference between the two books in large part to their settings. Moving Pictures unfolded largely in Holy Wood, which was a blank slate; The Truth takes place entirely within the borders of Ankh-Morpork, and as such is in a more interesting and complex environment to begin with. This also leads to such treats as a significant minor role for the Watch, several good scenes with Vetinari, and the regular mess of bar fights, fires, wizards, sausages-inna-bun, and boarding houses. All great fun!

The characters are also quite good. In addition to established favorites like Vimes, the freshly introduced William de Worde is good... a cast-off from an extremely wealthy, quasi-racist father, he struggles to fulfill his moral sense of responsibility while struggling with the baggage of habits that he has inherited. Otto von Shriek (sp), a vampire photographer, is another good character, one who seems like a one-note joke at first but becomes surprisingly complex by the end. The love interest is kind of a throw-away, but certainly isn't annoying. And the two villains, Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, are wonderfully developed: thoroughly sinister and brutal, yet with a sharp comic edge.


The Truth isn't just a good Discworld book, it's also just a great read on its own. Even though plot-wise it comes after Moving Pictures, I think I'd recommend that newbies read this one before MP... it's a more mature work, more interesting and complex, and provides a better introduction to Pratchett's excellent satirical voice.

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