What was once considered impossible is now quite easily achieved. Kings and lords come and go and leave nothing but statues in a desert, while a couple of young men tinkering in a workshop change the way the world works.
Twenty five novels in and, whisper it, we might be in the middle of a bit of a Discworld golden age. Last week’s The Fifth Elephant brought geopolitics and trade into the mix and as well as the excellent The Truth, we have Thief of Time and Night Watch (many a Discworld fan’s favourite Pratchett novel) still to come. And that’s before Tiffany Aching makes her first appearance, the novels Pratchett has said he would most like to be remembered for.
To hit a run of rich form so late into your career, and to do so after publishing a backlist most novelists will never match in terms of volume, is a staggering achievement. I feel knackered after publishing 25 posts exploring the Discworld.
One area that I have managed to avoid is making this blog some self-indulgent memoir. My life in books, and all that.
I’m afraid that I was (and am) a journalist so a lot of what I will write about The Truth will need to be filtered through this bit of knowledge. I really enjoyed the 25th Discworld novel and it conveys the excitement and drive that journalists have about chasing stories. Of course, Pratchett was a local newspaper man when the Discworld was the mental size of a saucer. He knows the beat well.
Our hero is William de Worde, who writes a small freesheet for the hoi polloi of the Discworld. When he literally runs into a printing press (technically it happens the other way around), he starts a mass market newspaper with the help of the dwarves who built the mechanism. Meanwhile, someone is trying to get rid of The Patrician. Again.
The Truth immediately brought two things to mind. The first was the reference to the infamous Sun headline about the Hillsborough football disaster. They accused Liverpool fans of causing the deaths of 96 fans, stealing from, and urinating on, corpses. It was abject bollocks of the highest order and they finally apologised for it 15 years after the horrible events. It’s arguably one of the best known headlines in the history of UK newspapers.
The second is Mark Twain’s famous quote about never letting it stand in the way of a good story. And it doesn’t. The Truth is more akin to screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday, rather than a satire of mac-clad, unscrupulous newshounds. There’s more at play here.
We’ve seen during the past 24 novels how stories are vital to how we view things and how we accept the way the world works. They are the small lies that help us swallow the big ones, as Death put it in Hogfather a few books back. News offers a different type of a story, but a story nonetheless and Pratchett’s exploration of this appeals to the journalist in me, and arguably (SPECULATION ALERT) tells us a bit about his former career.
Because news is addictive. When you are a journalist, teasing out that bit of information that you didn’t know before and no-one else has an inkling of is seductive and utterly addictive. It is the perfect career for people with short attention spans because your every move is motivated by novelty.
In everyday life, people are also powered by these stories. The ‘did you hear…?’ that fuels friendships. The best piece of advice I was given as a green as bejesus journalist was ‘tell the story like you would if you were recounting events down the pub’. Now obviously this is queered somewhat if you are sifting through a set of financial results or the minutiae of highly technical projects but these words have kept me employed for over 10 years.
But what is really strange about journalism is that you have this gnawing sense that none of it matters. You may deliver an exclusive that gets followed up by rivals or gets you onto the front page, but as soon as you file that story, it’s somehow not yours any more. You don’t really care about it and so the search goes on to capture that feeling of novelty when you hear something really interesting. Repeat ad head-banging infinitum.
It is here that The Truth is interesting because while Pratchett has written about the importance of stories, there’s the slight sliver of doubt here that it might not matter. The printing press is represented as the hungry stuff of nightmares, an iron herald that David Cronenberg would have made a terror on the screen:
The truth was he’d never decided to do anything. He’d never really made that kind of decision in his whole life. One thing had just gently led to another, and then the press had to be fed. It was waiting there now. You worked hard, you fed it, and it was still just as hungry an hour later and out in the world all your work was heading for Bin Six in Piss Harry’s and that was only the start of its troubles.
Piss Harry is one of the book’s supporting characters, a shrewd businessman who literally deals in shit and has become very very rich off it. There’s the cliche of a journalist sifting through bins to get the story. Harry makes gold from dredging through effluent. He also ends up temporarily bankrolling the Ankh-Morpork Times, drawing a neat line between the two industries. There’s also the hiring of Otto, a vampire for goodness’ sake, as staff photographer.
Pratchett’s now customary suspicions about the absence of wisdom among the crowds raise their head here, although he questions his own assumptions in the book. The literally throwaway nature of The Times means that what it publishes doesn’t lead to a mass uprising among the great unwashed against perceived wrongdoings. By publishing the truth at the end of the novel, de Worde does clear The Patrician’s name, after he was framed for embezzlement. But there’s far from a clamour for his release. The paper came out, and it didn’t matter. People just seemed to accept things.
But as de Worde’s fellow journalist Sacharissa remarks when he is on this rather self-righteous rant, why should they care? Plenty don’t think he’s nice.
‘Are you saying people aren’t interested in the truth?’
‘Listen, what’s true to a lot of people is that they need the money for the rent by the end of the week.’
The Patrician also surgically mocks de Worde at the end of the novel, when he is trying to explain to Vetinari what the public interest actually is:
‘Do you mean that the public is a different thing from the people you just see walking about the place? The public thinks big, sensible measured thoughts while people run around doing silly things?’
‘I think so. I may have to work on that idea too, I admit.’
‘Hmm. Interesting. I have certainly noticed that groups of clever and intelligent people are capable of really stupid ideas,’ said Lord Vetinari.
Perhaps the world is too complex to neatly explain in a drumtight 350 word piece of journalism. Which is why we go onto the next news story to see if that explains things. That’s why tabloids outsell broadsheets – they’re simpler (that is not a criticism). That’s why Buzzfeed is trumping everybody currently, because there is no better way to convey something than through a simple list. This endless drive to seek order is why we pick up another novel from our shelves to add to what we have read before. Whether fact or fiction, they are all stories and ways to try and bend and shape the craziness that surrounds us into something approaching a degree of sense. We see this blurring of the lines between fact and fiction at the end of the book when de Worde describes journalism as something that is ‘true enough for now’. While Stories have been the bedrock the Discworld has been built upon, this is the first novel to convey the addiction that comes with both telling stories and consuming them.
There’s also an interesting bit of ambiguity towards the end of the book where de Worde, the black sheep of the family, confronts his father, who has been the man behind the plot all along. In the end, de Worde decides not to name his father as a conspirator, something that still nags at me. He’s demonstrated true power over his father and perhaps he realises in a way that publishing his name would not matter, as he has got what we wanted from him – respect. Nevertheless, this is not de Worde turning his back on journalism, as the book closes with him and Sacharissa excitedly chronicling a Dramatic Near Miss Collision. Stories may not change things, but we still are driven to tell them.
I liked The Truth a lot, although with the wider Discworld knowledge swirling around my head, the plot isn’t its strongest. This is potential fanboy criticism here so it should be treated with the respect that deserves. It is very loosely a Watch novel, in that a crime has been committed through the framing of The Patrician. We know from the Watch novels in the past that they are clearly capable of getting to the truth themselves, or that the Patrician knows exactly what is going on. Neither of these things happen, because it’s William’s story. It’s not a huge criticism, but Pratchett does not really deal with why the Watch are having so much trouble solving a fairly straightforward crime (by Ankh-Morpork standards, anyway).
The mystery is poorly handled as well. As soon as you learn William is wealthy, has father issues and his dad is a bit of a nasty piece of work, it’s blindingly obvious who the ‘secret’ figure pulling the strings is. However, the not entirely conventional conclusion of that plot thread does make up for its obviousness.
Ankh-Morpork is changing quickly after the clacks were first introduced in The Fifth Elephant. We now have a modern printing press added into the equation, with banking, steam trains and the postal service to follow in the next 15 novels. Technology appears to have the same attraction, power and danger that surrounded magic in the early books – think of the ever hungry printing press. But this is much steadier ground than Moving Pictures and Soul Music, where new inventions were the vehicle for comedic potential. That’s not to say The Truth isn’t funny – Otto and his attempts to stay on the wagon are both hilarious and touching – but Pratchett is making us think about our relationship with things, as well as with stories.
Next week, we hit a book that blew my mind. And we’re still another month or so from Night Watch.