You had to hand it to human beings. They had one of the strangest powers in the universe. Even her grandfather had remarked upon it. No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom. Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them up the evolutionary ladder. Trolls and dwarfs had it, too, that strange ability to look at the universe and think ‘Oh, the same as yesterday, how dull. I wonder what happens if I bang this rock on that head?’
And along with this had come an associated power, to make things normal. The world changed mightily, and within a few days humans considered it was normal.They had the most amazing ability to shut out and forget what didn’t fit. They told themselves little stories to explain away the inexplicable, to make things normal.
I finished Thief of Time 10 minutes ago and had to get down the feeling I have after closing the book. I am somewhat overwhelmed. Given how Night Watch is in two books’ time, the one that many Pratchett fans rate that as his best, I genuinely wonder how he will top this.
I have written at length about how Pratchett has rewritten and refined old stories and used it as a criticism for the Death novels. For book after book, Death quit his job, someone had to step in, and after a few books with the same plot, it all got a bit tiresome. Basically, the Grim Reaper was a poor protagonist. A great character, but someone who could not carry the weight of the plot on his bony shoulders.
Which is why the emergence of Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter, proved so effective. Soul Music was poor but her proto-Buffy schtick was a thrill in Hogfather. She was an interesting character – almost God powered but a person who struggled with the day to day.
Given the repetition of the ‘Death quits’ plot, I did wonder whether Pratchett knew there was something there within the concept that needed exploring. With Thief of Time, we get the best Death novel and one that just amazed me in its smarts, heart and hilarity. It’s utterly, utterly brilliant.
Now it’s several days later and I can maybe look at this with a clearer head. A clear head is needed to deal with a book that is part philosophical tract, part kung-fu epic (there are a few nods to The Matrix in the novel, a film released a few years before this book’s publication), part apocalyptic pageturner, part paean to chocolate and part subtle love story.
I have chuckled to myself when I have tried to summarise Pratchett’s plots because they seem utterly barmy in the black and white of a computer document but make utter sense on the page. Thief of Time is no different. The world is set to end next Wednesday. The Auditors of Reality, the brilliantly cosmic and evil accountants of life, are planning to freeze time and make life more predictable and easier to explain. To do so, they hire the mad genius clockmaker Jeremy Clockson (terrible Terry, terrible) to build a glass clock, which will halt the passage of time.
[The Auditors] believed that for a thing to exist it had to have a position in time and space. Humanity had arrived as a nasty shock. Humanity practically was things that didn’t have a position in time and space, such as imagination, pity, hope, history and belief. Take those away and all you had was an ape that fell out of trees a lot.
Intelligent life was, therefore, an anomaly. It made the filing untidy. The Auditors hated things like that. Periodically, they tried to tidy things up a little.
MEANWHILE, Death gets wind of this, but because he cannot interfere directly in the affairs of man, he railroads his granddaughter Susan into meddling on his behalf. Susan, last seen beating bogeymen to death with a poker in Hogfather, is part human, part something else, something Grim.
MEANWHILE, the Monks of History, who are responsible for the maintenance of time, realise Something Is Afoot and dispatch Lu-Tze, last seen tending to the gardens of Om in Small Gods, and his young apprentice Lobsang Ludd to literally save time. The young Ludd came from the Thieves’ Guild, where his larceny skills were almost supernatural – it is he who is the Thief of Time (well, sort of, as I will explain below)
MEANWHILE, while the Auditors are resolutely anti-human, hating the chaos and unpredictability of our species, some of their number are having problems when they take a human form to bring about the end of time. Namely Myria LeJean, who finds herself drawn to Jeremy and enjoying art, food and the myriad dubious pleasures Ankh-Morpork has to offer.
Edward Young’s quote about how “procrastination is the thief of time” could not be more appropriate for this particular post. I have really agonised over the writing of this, trying to sift through the themes and excellent storytelling that drives the book. I’ll start with what it means to me. And I feel Thief of Time is about what it means to be human. You could argue that is the role of all fiction – to bring us out of ourselves and experience other people, other ways of living – and it is something this novel does very well.
The story is populated by seemingly incomplete and isolated characters. First there is Susan, a human but insanely powerful, who leads a lonely life as a schoolteaching spinster, whose only enjoyment outside of outwitting her peers (Susan would never view them as such) is chocolate, so long as it is without nougat. As you saw above, Pratchett is juggling a lot of complex plots in this novel but does a great job sketching out Susan’s solitary existence:
Not a day went past but she regretted her curious ancestry. And then she’d wonder what it could possibly be like to walk the world unaware at every step of the rocks beneath your feet and the stars overheard, to have a mere five senses, to be blind and nearly deaf…
Susan can’t (or refuses to) connect and neither can Jeremy. Thrown out of the Guild of Clockmakers for being a little too precise, Jeremy locks himself away where he can work on timepieces. If life was a party, he wasn’t even in the kitchen. He envied the people who made it as far as the kitchen…But Jeremy never even got an invitation.
His double, Lobsang Ludd – because his mother was Time and he was born an instant apart from Jeremy so they are both the same person, because Discworld – is a savant among the History Monks, rejected by his colleagues and ultimately placed in the hands of the sweeper Lu Tze. There’s a neat Master Po/Grasshopper relationship between the two, although given the timey-wimey temporal gymnastics, plus the odd time-travelling trope, I was somewhat surprised to discover at the end that Ludd was not a (very) young Lu-Tze. The junior partner reacts so badly to his mentor that I figured it would only end one way, given Pratchett’s love of a good trope. Not even a quibble – I’m still sore about not picking up Carrot was the one true king of Ankh-Morpork.
Finally there is Myria (latterly naming herself Unity, another nod to The Matrix) and this is arguably the novel’s most effective exploration of humanity. Like in Feet of Clay, where the struggles of the villainous golem to adapt to life and agency were mirrored by the dwarf watchman Cheery and how she tried to explore who she was after being given freedom for the first time, having a supposed villain go through similar struggles to some of the heroes leads to that nice splinter of complexity that Pratchett places in his best books.
Myriad’s gradual thawing is my favourite part of the book, how eating a single piece of dry toast was the single worst and single most intense experience of her life. How did humans survive like this? She’d been fascinated by the art galleries. It was clear that some humans could present reality in a way that made it even more real, that spoke to the viewer, that seared the mind…
Lu Tze’s everyday cliche philosophy – with such homespun pieces of advice as “You’ve got to walk before you can run” – hides an interesting longrunning argument through the novel, that of form dictating content. Lu Tze talks of water and a jug and how when water enters a jug, its shape has changed. By forcing Myriad to physically *be* human, she learns what it actually means to do so.
Susan has even wondered if the human soul without the anchor of a body would end up, eventually, as something like an Auditor. Which, to be fair, meant that Unity, who was getting more firmly wrapped in flesh by the minute, was something like a human. And that was a pretty good definition of Lobsang and, if it came to it, Susan as well. Who knew where humanity began and where it finished?
This reaches its inevitable, and hilarious, conclusion when all of the Auditors take on human form and literally cannot cope with chocolate, which briefly becomes the Discworld’s most deadly weapon. Of course, Pratchett can’t help throwing yet more brain food our way. Why does chocolate defeat the Auditors? If the senses react to the chocolate in a negative way, does that mean the body dictates the mind? What makes us who we are? As Myria says, at this point a bit hysterical (the conversation is about chocolate, after all); The mind can overrule the body! Otherwise, what is it for?
Ironically, it is a zombie that is arguably the most humane character throughout the novel. An Igor, the name of every single helpful shambling undead assistant since The Fifth Elephant, works as Jeremy’s assistant but instead of acting like the undead *should*, he decides to live – at least, as far as someone in his condition can. Pratchett has sometimes been criticised for some dogmatic stances – something which doesn’t recognise the fact that he wants you to think, he doesn’t necessarily want you to agree – but that misses his subtlety. Igor is a supporting character, a dead one at that, but Pratchett establishes him as someone who is content and lives. Igor didn’t much like the clock. He was a people person. He preferred things that bled.
We are in familiar Pratchett territory here, where it is experience, it is relationships, it is emotion and everything that comes with it that makes us human. It works better here than in any other Pratchett novel because he has built a cast of diverse characters that experience a similar thing. Susan has no friends, no life and is living on autopilot. Myriad has no idea what is going on. Lobsang can’t find his place in the world and Jeremy realises his place is shut away. Their character arcs progress in different ways but the craft of the book means no-one is ignored or left behind. The readers see the invisible lines between the humans, the near-humans, the undead and the Auditors. You can see how logically one could become another.
And laced throughout the novel is the gossamer-thinly subtle love story between Susan and Lobsang. It’s brilliant – all we get when Lobsang vanishes (to later become Time because Discworld), is Susan saying “flatly” He’s gone. That’s it! But Pratchett has done the legwork throughout the novel, hitting us with an absolute brilliant finale. His bringing together of Susan and Lobsang in the school stationery cupboard for “one perfect moment” is a lovely way to bring the book to a close.
I feel a good sign when I am writing these is I hit several thousand words and realise I have much much more I could talk about. Ronnie Soak, the milkman of the Apocalypse – who quit the Four Horsemen before they got famous. The use of Death, again showing that Pratchett uses supporting characters in a brilliant way (see Rincewind next week in The Last Hero). Nanny Ogg making a completely unexpected return – her scenes with Susan are killer. The author playing with time, how we all use it and waste it and why it’s an important factor in what makes us the weird shambles that we are.
People have been messing around with time ever since there were people. Wasting it, killing it, sparing it, making it up. And they do it. People’s heads were made to play with time.
The tl;dr version of this is “I have a new favourite Discworld novel”. This was the hardest post I have had to write (and around three times the length of my first few) but that’s because I loved this. A strength I haven’t touched on is how well this stands alone. You don’t need knowledge of Death or Susan; it enriches the experience but you could approach this book fresh and still love it. I did.
Glad I have got this off my plate. Next up, we are taken to infinity and beyond as Pratchett tells the tale of The Last Hero. See you next week.
EDIT: It has been brought to my attention by the lot at the Discworld Reddit that I have got something fundamentally wrong about the Igors. THEY ATEN’T DEAD. I always pictured them as Frankenstein’s Monsters, grafting on body parts at will and fleeing from castles when the pitchfork wielding masses descend upon them. But I am dead wrong and apologise to some of the hardest working members of the Discworld society.
I could do a ‘these aren’t the droids you are looking for’ style edit and remove all traces of my stupidity. But that would be unfair. Sorry Igors!