Note: I thought about explaining all the terms and jokes from the novels that this post contains. But the thing about a joke is that it’s not funny if you explain it. If you are intrigued at all, I would suggest picking up one of the books. I started with Going Postal, but Sourcery and Pyramids are also good ones to start with. I would not suggest starting with Night Watch because it is more serious than the others, and because you need to know Lord Vetinari and Commander Vimes to appreciate the subtleties of the story.
I was actually thinking about criticizing Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. What stood out as I first began thinking about the book last night after finishing it, was how masculine it feels, how you leave it thinking that it was all about the guys.
And it’s partly true. Commander Vimes is surrounded by the comrades-in-arms of his own youth in this novel of Discworld where he is sent back in time and forced to take the role of mentor to his younger self to preserve (mostly) the timeline. Those comrades-in-arms? Exclusively male. Exclusively.
But as I thought about it more, the final scene played back for me. Commander Vimes, sitting on a tombstone, being congratulated on the birth of his child by Lord Vetinari, comments that, “We’d have been just as happy with a daughter.” And Lord Vetinari responds, “Quite so. These are modern times, after all.” And I remembered that the Ankh-Morpork Lance Corporal Vimes inhabited is significantly different than the Ankh-Morpork Commander Vimes inhabits. Women didn’t serve in the Night Watch then; they do now. Along with trolls and dwarves (the under-mountain beards-and-armor type) and zombies and the odd werewolf, with a vampire photographer working down at the newspaper. Girl babies aren’t in danger of being left to die of exposure (at least, not for being girls).
It makes sense, after all, that if a civilisation has moved from prejudice to less prejudice, then a time travel back would take you to a different world. But even so, there are women. Just not in the Night Watch. There’s Madam, Lady Roberta Meserole, a woman, well, let’s just say she’s known as a seamstress. But even so, her power doesn’t come from that occupation; in fact, it’s not entirely clear that that actually is her occupation. Maybe she just uses that reputation (“she’s from Genua you know…”) as a convenient way to avoid too much consideration of what she is actually doing. In other words, she uses gossip and misdirection that other people create to accomplish her own goals – not because she is afforded power by her use of the male gaze, but because she has power that she chooses to hide in plain sight by letting the gaze unfocus itself. (Rather like the theories of a certain Assassin…)
There are others, bit parts but real women nonetheless.
But what made me write about the book was not that it surprised me with some strong and great women. What really surprised me was how much the seriousness of the world Terry Pratchett has created has slipped under my radar. His books are funny, ridiculous and addictive. They trip along, racing madly headlong from one outlandish page to the next: Death speaks in all capitals when he comes to collect you. Assassins have rules – you’ll be kicked out of the guild if you wear something other than black to a job. There really are female dwarves – they just have beards and use the male pronoun. They read like a parody of every fantasy ever written.
But underneath that, behind the silliness, the good-humored, well designed fun, is a serious presentation of a world. Yes, a world that’s flat and carried through space on the back of a giant turtle, but a world. A city, with the squalor and the misery and the graft and the injustice of real life. But it’s a civilisation that is moving toward more justice, more equality and more freedom for more people.
I can read a book like Poison Study with a government I am not used to approving of, a prospering, lawful military communism that actually succeeds at its goals, but that government is clean and neat; it feels like a philosophy, not a reality. I do not close the book and think, “Let’s do that, we can make it work for us.”
Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork feels like a place that could be. It’s still full of injustice and crime (but you can pay the Thieves Guild and they won’t steal from you) and poverty and pain – but it is moving, it is civilising, enough that from one man’s adolescence to his middle years a girl child can go from dead weight to a valued member of a family.
And that is motivating. Without preaching, without being obvious, Ankh-Morpork says to me that change can happen. Perfection might not be possible, at least not all at once. But a difference can be made. It’s a suprisingly serious message mined from somewhere between Treacle Mine Road and Cable Street.