Sunday, November 1, 2009

CBII - Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals

I should announce from the beginning the prescence of a bias: I adore Pratchett.  I deliberately did not buy this book until today, because I wanted to review it for Cannonball and I knew, if I had it in my hot little hands, I would devour it.

I bought it at 2pm.  It's now 9.30 and yes, I've consumed it.  I'm going to come back and add more when it's had time to settle, but for now, here's my initial thoughts.

Unseen Academicals is about Football.  Soccer, as we call it. But, being Pratchett, that's just the set for a performance of much, much more.  I am completely disinterested in sport, so it took me a bit longer to get dragged into this book, but as always, he aimed his fractured mirror on humanity and showed me a side of us I'd only glimpsed, and perfectly articulated what I've never been able to.  I'm still not even sure how to describe it.

For starters, it's not actually about football at all.   It's about that question we ask ourselves, at 3am, when all our embarrassments and fucks ups are playing through our heads like a horror movie.  'Do I have worth?'

The story is wrapped around four people, who, each in their own way, are learning the answer to that question.    It's about the foundation of our way of life, those chains of history and familiarity, and how we change them.  How we fight changing them.  How, regardless, we, as humans, remain unchanged.  Colosseums became stadiums, gladiators became footballers, but we're still the screaming mob.  We might have moved away from the beast, but we're a long way from evolved. 

If you've never read a Discworld novel, this book isn't a bad place to start, although I'd still recommend Going Postal as a better introduction to his style, without the need for the back stories (do not, under any circumstances, start with the first book in the series, The Colour of Magic.  Mr Pratchett was still getting his footing then).  You have to understand that it's set upon a world, which is, in itself, a flat disc that stands on the back of four elephants, who themselves, stand on the back of a giant turtle who swims through space.  As you can imagine, this set up relies on magic, and for one of the elephants to occassionally lift their leg so the sun can pass underneath.  There's humans and dwarves and elves and vampires and werewolves and wizards and witches and a homical box with hundreds of legs.  It's satire at its best, because it makes you laugh and it makes you think.  

If you have read Discworld,  it's an Ankh-Morpork book, with a healthy dose of the wizards.  There's a few cameos, like de Worde and, of course, Sam Vimes stomps in and yells at people.  Vetrinari, who may have originally been no more than a sterotypical creepy dictator, has developed, like Death did, into a layered and quite likable character.  Or maybe I just have a soft spot for Tyrants with a sense of irony and a cynical affection for their subjects.  

Look, as I've said, I'm biased.  If you haven't read Pratchett, please do.  He's funny and wise.  He'll give you a stereotyped romance in the best tradition of sports movies, but the love he'll focus on will be the one that's built, tentiatively, between two wonderfully decent people.

P.S. I'll write about my party next time, I promise.  I'll even include pictures!  But I had a fantastic time and we didn't run out of drink.  (Although that hair dye?  Didn't work.  Serves me right for wimping out and using the barely-permanent stuff)


  1. oh, you can't tell me anything about a level-2 hair color that won't make me want to read about this disc-y elephant-y space turtle.

    why haven't i read this before? and why am i commenting when i Should Be Reading?

  2. Weee! Someone to convert to the Discworld religion!
    Like I said, Going Postal is my go-to recommendation, because the man has just gotten better with each book and it's a late-model book that was a stand-alone until he wrote a sequel, Making Money. You can pick up almost any book, actually, but some of them flow on from each other, so you'll miss an in-joke or two.