And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda – The Last Continent

the-last-continent-2Your arrival caused a wrong note.

Rincewind has been used in four Discworld novels to date as a protagonist who broadens the scope of the world. Unlike the Witches’ books, which broadly stick to the Ramtops, and the Watch, which keeps to its Ankh-Morporkian beat, the hapless wizard has been an unofficial tour guide to the Discworld, taking us to the rim and beyond, the afterlife and even the birth of the universe in Faust, Eric.

He should be the heart of the Discworld series and a perfect means to show the reader around the world Pratchett has created. In practice, most of the Discworld’s weakest books have had him at their centre (Soul Music aside). I enjoyed both The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic at the time but my opinion of them gets worse the more I read a Small Gods, Feet of Clay or Lords and Ladies. Faust, Eric was slight and while Interesting Times had its moments (a killer finale for one), it left me a bit cold.

I am probably in the minority here. After all, without The Colour of Magic, I wouldn’t be writing this. But Rincewind novels are a problem and the issue is with Rincewind himself. He’s a coward so all he can do is run away from things. By putting him through a traditional narrative arc where he overcomes his fears and saves the day, Pratchett would likely write a more satisfying book but would remove the only thing that makes him Rincewind. I really struggle to try and think of his other traits if his cowardice was removed.

This is a rather long-winded way of saying I was not looking forward to reading The Last Continent, particularly with a Witches novel up next. Good news though – the chaotic Wizards of the Unseen University feature heavily. Bad news – it’s still not great. Anyway; to business!

Rincewind was last seen stuck in EcksEcksEcksEcks at the end of Interesting Times, for reasons magical and ones I can’t entirely recall. As he walks the lands, he learns he is the one who can bring rain back to the country. Meanwhile, the Librarian has got sick and the Wizards are concerned they have no way to stop the library’s resident orangutan changing into different things. They need to find Rincewind because he is the only person who seems to know the Librarian’s real name, which they need for….I could never quite work that out. The wizards do what any team of squabbling mages would and open a window into another dimension, which turns out to be an island off the coast of EcksEcksEcksEcks millions of years ago. What happens next is obvious to anyone familiar with this faculty: they get stuck there and need to find a new way home.

Pratchett loves Australia. There’s a delightful chapter in his excellent collected non-fiction book where he writes about being shuttled across the country on a book tour. As he writes there: Well, Australia is still very English, down at bone level. You see it everywhere, especially in the letter columns of its newspapers. There’s the same hair-trigger fear that someone somewhere might be getting more than their fair share, the same low-grade resentments, the same tone of voice…it’s just like being back home. I love the place, and must have been back at least a dozen times.

When I looked at Jingo last week, I wrote of how Pratchett is brilliant at exploring humanity, what makes us us. What he is less great at is exploring different types of humanity on their own turf. If you take Ankh-Morpork to be an analogy of London, with the different species representing the eclectic nationalities that call that mess of a city home (as an Irishman in Brixton, I am one of them), he is comfortable, and brilliant, at using a not-London location to explore us. However, in Interesting Times, when he went to the Far East, he slipped into the regrettable cliche of “foreigners, eh? With their crazy food and weird traditions”.

(I don’t know why this happens. One exception is Pyramids. It’s set in Egypt but it’s less of a cultural examination than a religious one. Of course you could argue that the religious is cultural in some countries but that would be one hell of a tangent to go off upon and we all have things to do)

One would think from Pratchett’s above quote that Australia may well be a perfect place to explore. One that is close enough to British culture for him to be comfortable examining it but also one different enough to be interesting and worth his time writing about it and our time reading. What we get is a series of admittedly entertaining and amusing segments taking on different aspects of Australian culture. These range from the good – the Mad Max part is great fun, although the character vanishes with nary a word of explanation as to where he goes – to the regrettable with the benefit of hindsight – a Rolf Harris figure appears and, well, yeah….

What I have trouble with is what any of this means. Rincewind runs from one cultural analogy to another, telling them he has no interest in doing what he is meant to and then eventually he does it, it rains and the book ends. The book is an amusing and entertaining one but I can’t really get what he is saying. Australians are different. They have corks on their hats to stop flies. Mad Max. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Ned Kelly.Weird food. Tinnies. The reader is shown a lot of different things but there’s nothing below it.

Like the other Rincewind books, there’s a lack of a story arc. He doesn’t change or develop as a character. He just runs and gets into scrapes. The arc with the Librarian is almost laughable. We don’t learn his name at the end of the book but he gets struck by lightning and cured of his shapeshifting. So there we are.

Last week, I gave off about how Pratchett had a wonderful subject hovering somewhere beyond his keyboard and he failed to grasp it in a way that someone of his ability should. That was war and The Last Continent has a similar failing. The wizards encounter the god of evolution and end up showing him how sex should be vital for evolution and the development of all species.

This area is perhaps the one that is wasted the most, as it’s a means of tackling God AND Science. What happens is God does things in one way. Then the Wizards show up and he does things the proper way. It is amusing – the scene where the housekeeper Mrs Whitlow has to explain how sex works to the God because of the wizards’ completely hopeless attempt is brilliant – but there’s no meat to it. Nothing to push you into a new way of thinking. Things just happen without bits of your brain sparking into life because you have been forced into wondering about a thing you have never thought of before.

I feel I am being much too harsh here for a book I rather liked. In defence of it, the reader is thoroughly entertained by some nice comedic set pieces throughout. However, it’s hard to write a post exploring a book that is just a list of things that are nowhere near as funny as they are in the novel. The Wizards are always great value, with the pomp of Archchancellor Ridcully (and hidden laser intellect) a delight to read. Pratchett is such a great craftsman that you can easily tear through even his weakest novels at this stage and be entertained. Great authors can do that. It’s only when I sat down to properly think about what happened that I realised there was very little to it.

No worries though, eh? The Witches are back next week after a crazy four book absence. Oh how I have missed Granny, Nanny and Magrat. And Greebo, I couldn’t forget about him for fear of getting my throat tore out. See you next week.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. More than four novels – TCOM, TLF, S, E and IT before TLT.

    I think Rincewind DID have other qualities earlier on. He was compassionate, for instance, and he loved science and wished for a less magical world, and he was smart, and occasionally vindictive, and he longed for companionship or any form of validation and he worried that he had wasted his life.

    Over time, all those edges, instead of developing into distinct features, ended up worn down to the minimal ‘he runs away a lot’.

    Like

    Reply

  2. This book fell completely flat on me. I know next to nothing about Australia and I really don’t care either. Pretty much all references flew over my head. The wizards were the only saving grace, but even they are better at home.

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s