Friday, 13 March 2015

The Genius of Discworld - Truth, Justice, Freedom, And A Hard-Boiled Egg

No, I couldn't fit "reasonably priced love" into the title.

As many fans know, sadly the great mind behind the Discworld series passed away yesterday. As an author, few had the style, creativity and sheer genius which Terry Pratchett possessed, and while his daughter Rhianna will thankfully serve as custodian to his works, it's still a blow to the world. It's one more great creator who has passed away. Many websites will no doubt be making some tribute in one way or another to the man or remembering his life. Personally though, I try to only reserve such posts to those overlooked. The main reason Gerry Anderson and Ray Harryhausen received such tributes was because, besides admiration for their work, all too much of the world had forgotten about them. So, as such, rather than simply commenting upon the man, this is going to look into his creations. Specifically the core elements which helped make Discworld stand out so much.

Above all else, perhaps the single greatest element which helped so many Discworld novels stand out was their ability to bind together completely opposing aspects. The universe as a whole was a very tightly intertwined combination of every-man grounded logic, traditional trope parodying and absurd fantasy nonsense. The world is set on a giant turtle floating through space and an ensemble of four pachyderms, as a disc powered purely by magic. Yet at the same time, you can easily have a story about a old policeman remembering the bad old days and perhaps even regretting some turns his life has taken. This in of itself isn't overly unique admittedly, most comicbook universes can happily pull this off, but what helps it stand out is the way in which he inter-worked them.

Take Night Watch for example, the aforementioned policeman example. The story is set in Ankh-Morpork's past, with Sam Vimes having ended up there thanks to a time travel accident. Stuck at the dawn of a revolution, he has to contend with the criminal brought back with him, shifting events and also training his younger self in the skills he needs to survive. Now, this is a somewhat run of the mill plot when just summed up in those words and it's not in this respect that the story gains its combination of common sense and the complete absurd. That instead comes from how Pratchett built the world and presented events, often through the mind of Vimes or his more overt metaphors which seemed to get away from him. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps otherwise.

The chief moment, at least early on, which helps to sum up the more human element of combining the two is when Vimes is walking besides himself. Trapped in his own thoughts, his younger self eventually comments that he's been walking along a very familiar beat path, only for Vimes to curse, thinking that the feet themselves have brains. It's a odd moment, an even stranger comment which would never normally work in a story, but the way it's presented helps make it oddly human. This sort of thing continues throughout the entire story, with these brief asides or off beat moments which keep the characters feeling far more alive. The way in which Vimes' arrival at the station is treated, how Colon details his plan for the barricades, how Sweeper stops in the middle of talking about various junk representing something to complain about some bugger chucking beer bottles over the wall; all of these help to add something human about them despite being completely nuts. It's hard to detail them without going into serious spoiler territory, but they work by going from a common sense angle but presenting it in the most absurd way possible. It's utterly nuts, but at the same time you're connected to it.

The style of putting strange spins and asides as the plot spins onward only becomes ever more evident as it moves into commentary territory. In this case it focused upon how revolutions worked and the way in which repressed populations could be used. While humourous and keeping to the quirkier elements, it angles by stripping down preconceptions. Despite Reg Shoe standing on the cover like he's walked out of Les Misérables, the book makes it evident that revolutions happen thanks to "dark men making agreements in shadowy rooms." Everything on the streets, the elements always glorified in prior media is just chaff, and even when the revolutionaries ultimately win their new leader is little better than the last one. 

The quote from the title actually stems from this element, with The People's Republic of Treacle Mine Road starting to stand for all that's good, but their lofty ideals gradually sliding away toward more grounded goals. Again, direct and perhaps even expected, but combined with the elements of Pratchett's unconventional descriptions and unique narrative style, it presents it from a very human angle. The man was infamous, after all, for not using chapters and he could pull off the sort of narrative framework which would otherwise fail in anyone else's hands. As is the case with some artistry, he was able to emphasise flaws like no other while still presenting something of vivid perfection in its own way.

Atop of all these strengths though, was the ability to twist and turn his stories however he wanted. Pratchett could pick a subject to parody, mock and then nail it without any flaws. The above examples are, after all, just from a single book and the far weirder and more wonderful ideas were so often found in more flighty works of fantasy. He tended to have especially great fun when playing with older ideas of myth, such as throwing a blanket over a boogieman's head to put him in an existential crisis. If you were to read Night Watch followed by The Colour of Magic or the Hogfather, each would be the extreme opposite of one another yet they would still match up perfectly.

The character who tended to embody such elements the most tended to be Death, often putting in an appearence at least once per book, to take the deceased away. Often this would lead to questions of religion or even just the odd quirky joke at how certain characters reacted to their lives, or the nature of being close to death itself. An entire essay could likely be written surrounding the character, but given this point in time it seemed like it would be in poor taste.

This is just a brief summary of course, a short sequence of descriptions and ideas praising Pratchett for his work. There are others far beyond it and ultimately elements which could easily be looked into further, especially the very natural evolution of his characters over several decades. However, it seems only right to close out with something once explained by someone who knew the man well. A brief insight into his work ethic and the things which drove him the most. There are few better descriptions worthy of him.

"Terry’s authorial voice is always Terry’s: genial, informed, sensible, dryly amused. I suppose that, if you look quickly and are not paying attention, you might, perhaps, mistake it for jolly. But beneath any jollity there is a foundation of fury. Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise.

He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light. And, hand in hand with the anger, like an angel and a demon walking into the sunset, there is love: for human beings, in all our fallibility; for treasured objects; for stories; and ultimately and in all things, love for human dignity.

Or to put it another way, anger is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels, or better yet for all of us, the orangutans.

Terry Pratchett is not a jolly old elf at all. Not even close. 

He’s so much more than that." - Neil Gaiman

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