Thursday, November 3, 2011

Terry Pratchett: A Radical Full of Contradictions

Terry Pratchett’s latest novel, Snuff, may well be his swan song. As his own personal battle with Alzheimer’s develops, each of his books feels like he is tying up the loose ends of a long and distinguished literary career – so I Shall Wear Midnight brought the Tiffany Aching books to a conclusion, while Unseen Academicals did the same for the Wizards series – meaning that now seems the perfect time to reflect on nearly thirty years of great books that challenge us to think differently about the world.

As part of that unofficial final trilogy, Pratchett returns to perhaps his greatest character set – the Ankh Morpork City Watch and its chief, Commander Sam Vimes. Despite being centred on the Police, these books are often the most overtly political of Pratchett books, talking most often about class, about the machinations of Government and about the basic interplay of humans and society.

Snuff is no different. In fact it is a bit of a return to form for Pratchett, recalling his masterpieces of Jingo (a polemic against the first Gulf War) and Feet of Clay (about the emancipation of workers). These books stand and fall based on the internal contradictions of their central character - Sam Vimes. Born into the urban poor, stagnating for years as a Night Watchman and now raised to Dukedom and Knighthood, this new member of the aristocracy constantly struggles with the feeling of betraying his class. The scene in this book where Vimes smacks up against the stifling atmosphere of country houses is a wonderful antidote to the shire Toryism of Downton Abbey.

Vimes’ central contradiction is usually resolved by reference to a higher power – thus he is scrupulously honest and fervently believes that Law must be applied equally to all in society, regardless of class and status. As such the Law stands as an abstract force, with Vimes as its champion. This reference to the law is reminiscent of a certain tradition of English radicalism. Anyone who has read Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy or listened to Tony Benn’s Writing on the Wall show at Marxism will be familiar with the idea that England has a particular history of rule by law that has applied across classes. Pratchett clearly believes this and Vimes’ is his articulation of this. It is this element of the book that always provides the most sublime moments of class rage while at the same time providing the most frustrating fudging of class contradictions.

What is more interesting, however, is when Pratchett comes up against the limits of this worldview in his novel: when Aristocrats get away with it, when realpolitik takes over from idealism and when the forces of ‘law and order’ are used by one class against the other. In such situations, Pratchett’s solution is always to fudge the issue and to retreat into ‘all we can do is make the world slightly better by being good ourselves’ maxim, which is often unsatisfying. The real joy of his books, however, is in exposing and leaving these contradictions open – allowing readers to make their own minds up. It is these that make Pratchett’s books, especially the Vimes series, such an interesting read.

Pratchett carries this radical edge of his politics into the very basis of many of his novels. While not as conscious or political as China Mieville and the New Weird movement, Pratchett has constantly tried to ‘de-Tolkeinise’ fantasy literature – to reconnect fantasy novels with the social reality that has spawned them. As such, many of Pratchett’s books deal with themes of racism, multiculturalism and aristocracy. Snuff is no different and its central ‘Other’ are the Goblins – Pratchett clearly wanted to revise this last species of the Fantasy before he finished writing for ever. As such, the Goblins aren’t presented as mad, nasty and evil idiots, like in the Tolkien books, but are more closely akin to American Indians – strange customs and a different worldview but essentially equal with other humans.

While this radical edge to Pratchett’s novels is alive and well in Snuff, it’s also true that it is a great read. Mainly because Pratchett is an awesome character writer (particularly of women characters) and it is these characters that give his books their essential humanity. So when Pratchett’s technocratic dictator, Vetinari, talks about Society as a machine and himself as the skilled Engineer, it is the character’s themselves that provide the antidote to this elite theory.

This is definitely a book that socialists should give a go and it’s certainly one that you might well discuss in your office and workplace – partly because it deals with the contradictory consciousness of workers in the real world. The issues raised around racism in the book are not properly dealt with and I’m sure people will want to talk them through, as they will when it comes to the role of the police. The fact that these politics exist in the third fast selling book in UK history are to be applauded and socialist can both enjoy this book and use it as a opening for a much more radical discussion.

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