Thursday, April 06, 2006

Going Postal

by Terry Pratchett

It's been a long time since I read any Pratchett, save for Good Omens a couple of months ago. It's not that I don't like him, but in my early teens I was his biggest fanboy and must have read every book of his large oeuvre, but I possibly overdosed on it a little and found that I grew very bored with his style after a while. Even though I often think “Oh I should check out the new Pratchett”, there's always something else that attracts my attention a little more. This book was a christmas present, and it finally gave me the impulse to give him another chance.

Going Postal is the ten zillionth novel in the Discworld series, a comedy series which parodies both the fantasy genre and the real world simultaneously. In this particular book Pratchett's choice of subject to be outraged about is corporate greed and mercenary capitalism. While that is a subject that caught my interest, I found the way he dealt with it far too simple and clichéd. Despite this it's still a fairly amusing, entertaining read and it's fair to say I rather enjoyed it.

The protagonist is a conman named Moist Lipwig, who is recruited by the Patrician, the ruthless but effective ruler of a large city called Ankh-Morpork, to restart the old post office, a public service which long ago fell into disuse and has since been replaced by a much faster semaphore system known as 'the clacks'. The clacks, while a revolutionary technological marvel, is run by a fairly nasty bunch of plutocrats who are using their monopoly to extract a great deal of cash from the citizenry, which they then use to literally get away with murder.

The story is very breezy, and Pratchett's humour is still as good as ever, sarcasticly making fun of both fantasy clichés and the real world. For example when a bunch of wizards try to use a crystal ball type device to communicate with one another across a long distance:

“It's still not working Mr Stibbons!” he bellowed. “Here's that damn enormous fiery eye again!”

The geek in me was particularly amused by the clacks, which is a fictional analogue to the internet. Pratchett has a genuinely good non-technical understanding of how the real internet works, it's strengths and weaknesses, and it's potential. Most notably his descriptions of the crazy bastards who run it are bang on. He also includes the golems, introduced in an earlier novel Feet of Clay (possibly scheduled for a reread), who are based on Isaac Asimov's robots, right down to the three laws (which are written on scrolls inside the golems heads, in an interesting combination of science-fiction and myth).

However as soon as he starts getting serious everything goes wrong for Pratchett. His characters work well as comedic caricatures, but he expects us to somehow be emotionally attached to them, which just doesn't work. The romance especially, while well conceived, is contrived and unconvincing in execution. It's not all bad though, he does a good job with the aforementioned golems, who's great age and inhuman motivations are nicely portrayed.

His message is a bit awry too. While we probably all agree that greedy heartless executives ruining industries and lives to make a buck are bad, his proposed solution of having a benevolent tyrant sort everything out doesn't appeal to me. Can anyone think of a historical precedent for a benevolent tyrant? The closest thing I can think of is imperial Rome, and that only went well for a generation or two.

Fortunately Pratchett's weaknesses are overshadowed by his strengths so while they are a little bothersome they don't much impinge on one's enjoyment of the story. I may just have to catch up on the dozen or so books he's put out since I went off on him.

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