East of Nowhere – Interesting Times

Interesting-times-coverHe wanted to say: how can you be so nice and yet so dumb? The best thing you can do with the peasants is leave them alone. Let them get on with it. When people who can read and write start fighting on behalf of people who can’t, you just end up with another kind of stupidity. If you want to help them, build a big library or something somewhere and leave the door open.

This was my last Discworld novel. I remember enjoying it when I first read it in the mid 1990s but by the time Maskerade was published, I’d moved onto other things. So this is interesting to me in two ways – why did I like it but why did I stop?

I initially thought it could have been a Rincewind thing. He’s become increasingly tiresome a protagonist as the series has gone on and I felt he’d really progressed as much as possible by the time we hit Faust, Eric. But this is the best book to feature Pratchett’s first (cowardly) hero. It has one of the great endings of any of his novels, with the Discworld’s equivalent of the Terracotta army rising to fight against a hostile takeover of Agatean Empire. There’s an absolutely epic scale that his earlier apocalyptic third acts just failed to match.

We’ve been taken east this time around. Well, sort of. The Agatean Empire is a mix between China and Japan. Lord Hong is trying to engineer a coup that will overthrow the emperor and give him the freedom to launch a counter-revolution, taking control of the country and removing its remaining feudal lords (Fang, Tang, Sung and McSweeney).

He summons ‘a great wizzard’ from Ankh-Morpork with the view to him teaming up with the rebelling Red Army and inspiring the regime change that can kickstart his own cultural revolution. Rincewind is duly sent by The Patrician, who is keen to avoid any conflict with the country. There he encounters Cohen the Barbarian, the mighty midget from many many books ago, and his team of geriatric barbarians, the Horde. Cohen is there for One Last Job; to steal the empire from under its leader’s nose.

The revolutionaries have been inspired by an insurrectionary text, the dangerously titled What I Did on My Holidays, which was written by Twoflower, the trusting and naive tourist who was stuck with Rincewind as his guide to Ankh-Morpork and beyond in The Colour of Magic. Both have to team up again to thwart Hong’s plans for Agatean supremacy.

Hong makes for a great villain in the Ming mould. He had risen to the leadership of one of the most influential families in the Empire by relentless application, total focusing of his mental powers and six well-executed deaths. The last one had been that of his father, who’d died happy in the knowledge his son was maintaining an old family tradition. I did find it a shame he didn’t get his dream of going toe to toe with The Patrician. The man who wrestles sense out of the chaos of Ankh-Morpork is one of my favourite characters and I would have loved to see two proper supervillains facing off against each other. Although I suppose Vetinari’s real adversary is one Samuel Vimes of the Night’s Watch.

There are some excellent scenes featuring the Hex, the Unseen University’s worryingly sentient computer that first made its appearance in Soul Music. [Ponder Stibbons] and a few keen students had put it together, certainly, but…well…sometimes he thoughts bits of it, strange though this sounded, just turned up.

Like the magicians at the Unseen University, Pratchett’s Horde is another example of him juggling a troupe of oddballs hilariously. Through the eyes of Mr Saveloy, the teacher who acts as the Horde’s guide to this country, we see them as follows: They were honest (from their specialised point of view) and decent (from their specialised point of view) and saw the world as hugely simple. They stole from rich merchants and temples and kings. They didn’t steal from poor people’; this was not because there was anything virtuous about poor people, it was simply because poor people had no money.

The cinematic climax is brilliant as the Horde defies all probability (using the now longrunning Pratchettian trope that the safest bet to take in the Discworld is a million to one shot) in taking on the huge Agatean forces. There’s a lovely ending, with shades of Small Gods, where Rincewind is transported to XXXX (the nod to Castlemaine lager should make it clear that it’s Discworld’s Australia) and accidentally knocks himself out with a boomerang. It’s really the first Discworld novel where Pratchett makes a reluctant hero work.

Where Interesting Times fails, and badly, is in its approach to race. It is down to the sophisticated white (sort of) westerners to teach the Agateans how to run their country in the right way. The populace of the empire is crudely drawn, with juvenile slogans, a distinct lack of strong characters and an absence of ambiguity. The Red Army is literally populated with children. The attitude towards them is best typified by the quote that opens this post.

Pyramids was clever because that novel made it clear that its hero was not the best person to run the country. With Interesting Times, Cohen becomes leader and it’s presented in such a straight manner there doesn’t appear to be any subtle points being made about colonialism or foreign wars. It’s an odd move because of the most satisfying things about Pratchett is his love of tropes and his mischievous messing around with them. Given what we have read to date, one would have expected the developing world to be more advanced than what the supposedly educated characters assumed.

It’s doubly strange when you put it alongside the rest of his work. One of the many themes Pratchett explores is the need for tolerance, to explore and discover new cultures, to boldly go where no man…wait, that’s going too far but you can see what I am getting at. The Watch novels in particular use the myriad species of the Discworld to examine race. He’s a tolerant author, advocating experience of new things and people and always pushing against your own preconceptions.

Which is why it seems funny to me that Twoflower doesn’t step in as the rightful ruler of the empire. He’s a man of the world, open to new cultures, inquisitive and, crucially,a native of the country. It’s not even a complex or challenging ending – like how The Patrician might be a cruel bastard but he’s the right bastard for Ankh-Morpork – it’s more condescending than anything. Pratchett is good at wrongfooting expectations but Interesting Times is an increasingly uncomfortable read as you slowly realise the ‘foreigners, eh? Aren’t they a bit odd?’ trope is not going to be subverted in the classic way. It did spoil the novel for me and it’s unfortunate given how much of it works well.

I’m none the wiser as to why it was the book that led me to walk away from the Discworld until I started this lunatic exercise a few months ago. Knowing my still gossamer-thin attention span was probably worse then, I likely wandered off to read something else and never quite made it back.

Looking at it now, Interesting Times is a much better read than Soul Music but still is a rare thing from Pratchett, a near miss, particularly so seeing it comes in the middle of his golden age. You can admire his attempts to do something a bit different with the series but he has still not hit another seam like the one that gave us the six novels from Moving Pictures onwards. Our next book brings back the witches of Lancre but worryingly, Pratchett wants to look at music again. Will Maskerade do for opera what Soul Music (didn’t) do for rock and roll? Find out next week.

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4 Comments

    1. Interestingly, someone gave a counter-argument on the Discworld Reddit. It didn’t change my mind but I feel it’s worth quoting:

      I’d suggest that a lot of them are just afraid of acting out in front of anyone in more power but are just like Cohen or Rincewind when not under such fear, like 6 Benificient Winds, all the Lords, the student cheating in the exams once Rincewind leaves, Red Fire-Herb’s plans and deceptions, Disembowl-Myself-Honorably Dibbler, the Emperor, the Colon and Nobby-esque soldiers acting just like Colon and Nobby, etc. They just don’t do it openly or to people in power because of how easy it is to be killed or imprisoned there… but the Red Army actually do – even if it’s more peaceful protesting I guess, but then they’re mostly children, only Two-Fire Herb and Pretty Butterfly are adults there as far as I remember, and PB is far from that as is TFH.
      If anything it’s better than his usual because this is actually how people act in the real world… they don’t want to stick their heads above the water or rock the boat when people with more power than sense might kill them, but they will to people who are beneath them in the pecking order.

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      1. Racism seems a little strong. As the gentleman on Reddit says, there are a glut of interesting and reasonably rounded characters (TFH, PB, DMHD, Lord Hong). And Saveloy is employed as a counterpoint to the crass chauvinism of the horde. He is much more our analogue than the horde.

        With regards your other points:

        – I suppose Twoflower becoming emperor would’ve been a happy way to round out his story through the books. But, given narrativology, he didn’t stand a chance. The source material for Cohen as a character (Conan King and so forth) and also for the historical background (the Mongol takeover of Imperial China) carves a remorseless path to “Genghis Cohen” as the final punchline of the book. It’s perfectly reasonable to see this plot development as being justifiable both in the light of Chinese history and the literary framework within which Pratchett was working, and to this extent it seems odd to complain about his tin ear with regards colonialism and so forth. Maybe if the horde had set up on the outskirts of the empire and begun running a human friendly version of slab it might be more relevant to make that complaint. As it is, a small band of outsiders assuming suzerainty of the empire and being civilized by it is a recurring trope of Chinese history (see also the Manchus).

        – I always felt like the depiction of the Red Army was much more a direct allegory of the Chinese revolution, and needs to be read as such. Certainly, the quote at the top of your review could only have been written with the cold knowledge of the consequences of the GLF and the Cultural Revolution (TFH is a handy little Mao knock-off). The literal childishness of the RA is more than matched by the idealism of the slogans during the GLF and the Cultural Revoloution. It didn’t take long for the idyllic patriotism of May 4th to be compromised by the slaughters in Guangdong and Shanghai.

        Maybe in general there’s a case to be made for a pervasive aura of orientalism – it would be hard to write a comic fantasy take on the East without to an extent using or sending up broad cultural stereotypes – but I always felt that Pratchett’s humanism shone through sufficiently to undermine any lingering accusations of thoughtlessness.

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  1. Interesting points there LT. I wouldn’t go so far as saying ‘racism’ either. I think his take is bit too crude and one-dimensional though – something you never really see with Pratchett.

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