Sunday, February 12, 2006

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

(Book Review)
I’m trying to get more into the idea of “reading for pleasure” instead of simply “reading books I think are good for me.” To that end, I’ve started to return to the fantasy genre that I used to be a fan of in my youth.

I’ve discovered the “Discworld series” by Terry Pratchett, which I had previously never heard of, but is apparently very well known in certain circles, and seems to be very popular among the foreign community in Japan. The foreign sections at Japanese bookstores or foreign book exchanges usually carry a lot of “Discworld” series.

I saw some of Terry Pratchett’s books when I was back home, but it doesn’t seem to be as popular in America. I think because Pratchett is British, these books are better known to common wealth audiences than they are to Americans. Most of my British friends are well versed in Discworld.

The books are fantasy, but they are much more in the line of Douglas Adams than JRR Tolkien (to compare with two other British authors). All the stock fantasy characters are there: dwarves, elves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, wizards, et cetera. But they are also comedic, silly, and as much a parody of the genre as a part of it. Zombies are lawyers, vampires are newspaper photographers, and werewolves are policemen. Also just about every paragraph is a set up for some sort of a joke.

I could quote from a lot of paragraphs, but this line in particular seemed very reminiscent of Douglas Adam’s style to me:
“The Great Hall was in uproar. Most of the wizards took the opportunity to congregate at the buffet, which was now clear. If there’s one thing a wizard hates, it’s having to wait while the person in front of them is in two minds about coleslaw. It’s a salad bar, they say, it’s got the kind of stuff salad bars have, if it was surprising it wouldn’t be a salad bar, you’re not here to look at it. What do you expect to find? Rhino chunks? Pickled coelacanth?”

Pratchet is very prolific. “Going Postal” is the 33rd book in the Discworld series, and he cranks these things out at the rate of one or more a year. This raises two questions: 1) Given how many of these things he cranks out, do they suffer in quality?
And 2) Is it very difficult to jump into the middle of the series?

I was asking a friend about the first question, and he answered, “Some of the books are admittedly better than others. But even the worst books in the series you won’t be sorry you read.”

Based on “Going Postal”, I’d go along with that assessment. It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but I’m not sorry I read it. It was funny. It was well plotted. All the different story threads came together nicely at the end. And I thought the characters were decently developed, or at least as well as they needed to be for a story like this. In short, I don’t know how Pratchett manages to write this well and still write so much. I got the impression he wasn’t holding anything back from this book nor being stingy and saving things for his next novel.

As for jumping into the 33rd book in the series, it was no problem. Or almost no problem. There were a couple small things I had to get used to. Robot like creatures called “Golems”, for example, and a tower messaging system called “Clacks” run by a business organization called “The Grand Trunk”. But it was a lot easier than say jumping into the middle of Zola’s “Les Rougon-Macquart” series.

This may be partly because “Going Postal” is a bit of a narrative digression from the usual Discworld series, and most of the main characters in this book are new. This book is simply the tale of how the Ankh-Morpork’s Postal service developed, which apparently fits into a larger Discworld theme of the growth of Ankh-Morpork as a major urban area in the Discworld. In that respect, given the tangential nature of this story in relation to the larger series, it seems all the more amazing that it is as well written as it is. If it were me, I would have just blown it off.

I particularly enjoyed the character of Lord Vetinari, who is the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, and apparently is from previous books in the serious as well. He’s a kind of benevolent tyrant who is committed to keeping his strangle hold on power, but at the same time seeks to do what is best for the city in his own eyes. He reminds me of the kind of character I myself have often tried to create in my own fiction, such as Bakes or Flash.

There are also some critiques of the freemarket ideology, and according to Wikipedia much of this book is a parody of "Atlas Shrugged", but that went over my head.

Link of the Day
Proposed Bill would make English Michigan’s “Official Language”
This is a bad, bad, idea.

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