Thursday, 14 January 2010

Let's Put Our Heads Together, And Start A New Country Up - Nation by Terry Pratchett

I go back a long way with Terry Pratchett, all of 23 years now. Back when Caldicot Library was a portakabin on the school grounds and I was still in the early stages of being allowed to explore the adult section at last. Not that the thrill of having the half of the library on the other side of the issue desk suddenly open stopped me from sampling the wit and imagination of the children's section, with the likes of the Doctor Who novelisations of Nils Olof Franzen's Agaton Sax books. In fact the adult section wasn't that wonderful, Caldicot being a tiny library at that point. And a lot of the adult books I might've contemplated taking out I'd already read - the likes of Douglas Adams or Tolkien. So I'd mainly confined myself to football autobiographies (where the deeds of heroes are so much more epic and grand in scale before you grow up and realise they're only human) and the odd interesting looking book. In 1987 I found a very odd, interesting looking book indeed. It hadn't been taken out that much if the stamps in the front were to be believed, and I was too young to know what horrors 'comic fantasy' usually entailed. Despite the unpromising element of it having a couple of female leads, I still checked it out. And I was glad I did, because Equal Rites introduced me to the wit, wisdom and comic timing of Terry Pratchett.

In retrospect Equal Rites was a fine place to start. It's where the Discworld novels as we knew them really started to form, where Pratchett moved beyond the more simplistic fantasy parodies of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, but before any sort of predictability could set in. It's where Pratchett begins to really underlay his stories with vicious satire, but could still almost be taken for a simple fantasy author. Just ahead of when his popularity exploded, just before he really got into his stride with Mort. And I've largely stayed with him ever since, even when I thought the books were perhaps becoming a little predictable and seemed almost churned out rather than inspired (around the turn of the millennium). I'm sure they weren't, but that was how it felt.

I say largely as I'd taken something of a sabbatical from his books whilst expanding horizons elsewhere - I'd read Thud!, but a copy of Making Money still lies in one of the vast, teetering to read piles. It took the resolution to clear the books I'd got for Christmas or bought second hand to bring me back to him. I'd found a copy of Nation in the local Oxfam shop, and snapped it up along with Colin Wilson's biography of Alister Crowley and Christopher Brookmyre's Quite Ugly One Morning. And Nation was first off that particular pile.

It's always a pleasure to return to Pratchett, a writer who's always had the ability to tell a strong story clearly and beautifully whilst layering it with themes and meaning. That warmly exasperated tone is like an old friend, effectively communicating humanity's potential and failure to achieve it, inextricably meshing his main theme into his work. It's a voice that I can always match to writer when I see him interviewed, and one that's clearly still well honed, seemingly ever sharper as the years pass and books pile up. Reading Nation, I could at times almost hear that exasperation tip into anger.

Nation sees Pratchett taking on big themes, religion, science and how they help (of have helped) us deal with the world and, inevitably, religion vs science. It'd be simple for him to simply encapsulate them in his main characters, Mau (tribesman) and Daphne (shipwrecked aristo) but, creditably, he never descends to that level of simplicity, that simply wouldn't fit with what he's trying to say at all. Pratchett comes to definite conclusions about the uses of religion and science in dealing with the world (specifically and fairly obviously that the best way to deal with the world is to think about and understand it in whatever terms), but it never feels force fed and merits of both positions are examined. It's noticeable, as ever, that the characters who end up worst off in a Pratchett book (largely dead in this case) are the ones who can't adapt, and those that do end up triumphant at the story's end. It's Darwinism played for laughs. The tackling of a religious theme, where the existence of gods is left indeterminate, doesn't lend itself to the deity ridden Discworld. Pratchett locked that world into having deities way back in The Colour of Magic, the need to be deliberately vague about the supernatural explains why he's writing outside the confines of a recurring series for the first time in a long time.

Pratchett's experience and natural aptitude for a good story means these themes aren't anywhere near as dull as they'd be in other hands. As much as the topics he's discussing this is a fine adventure story in the classic sense, about two msimatched people rebuilding a society following a natural disaster. While there's jeopardy aplenty, the story's got just enough room to breathe and provide us with character moments and little narrative twists you don't expect. Pratchett's always understood the journey of a good story will take you places you didn't expect, and he's also understood the best stories leave you somewhere you didn't quite expect (but ends up being exactly where you want to be). He refuses to bend the logic he's set up to provide a cosy, conventional happy ending. Because, as he points out, life isn't like that.

It's refreshing to return to an old favourite after so long away, and even better when he's encountered in less familiar surroundings. Nation maintains my love of Pratchett as one of the smartest yet least didactic writers out there, one who's always conscious of never cheating his audience, nor talking down to them. The Radio Times was almost apologetic when previewing Radio 4's current adaptation of Small Gods, with the usual caveat of 'if you thought Pratchett was for 40 year old men still living with their mums'. The thing is, his work is not and never has been. Nation's simultaneously as smart an allegory, and gripping an adventure as what's perceived as more literary fiction. Being outside his other series may mean it comes to be regarded as an oddity, but it shouldn't be, because, in a quieter way, it's as strong as any of his previous work.

No comments: