“I’m very simple. I just know how things work. I just follow the money. Winder is a madman, and that’s not good for business. His cronies are criminals, and that’s not good for business. A new Patrician will need new friends, far-sighted people who want to be part of a wonderful future. One that’s good for business. That’s how it goes. Meetings in rooms. A little diplomacy, a little give and take, a promise here, an understanding there. That’s how real revolutions happen. All that stuff in the streets is just froth…”
I have to admit, I approached this one with a degree of trepidation. While I had an awareness of the likes of the Tiffany Aching novels during my wilderness years, the ones when I wasn’t reading Pratchett, I had no idea about Night Watch. When I kicked off this reread some six months back, I became aware very quickly that All Terry Pratchett Books Pale In Comparison To Night Watch.
No pressure on whether I like it or not. The great thing is that I did. It’s a novel that rewards fans of the series, has a meaty slice of Pratchett poking at your thoughts again and is wrapped up in a smart piece of revolutionary plotting. The brainiacs at L-Space have drawn attention to the novel’s similarities to Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities. I have read neither so you are stuck with me tackling this on its own merits. To arms!
It is the 30th anniversary of the Lilac Revolution, or to give it its full name, the Glorious Revolution of the Twenty-Fifth of May (or Monday week, as I like to call it), when the former Homicidal Lord Winder was deposed and a number of revolutionaries were cruelly struck down. Pratchett’s opening here is very tense. Everything feels off, from Colon, the avuncular layabout Sergeant, threatening naive colleagues, to the swirling dramatic weather serving some pathetic fallacy in the skies above Ankh-Morpork. Our author draws a really uncomfortable mood for the reader. Things don’t feel right.
During a chase through Ankh-Morpork to track down notorious cop-killer Carcer, both he and Vimes are struck 30 years into the past on the eve of the lilac revolution. Vimes assumes the identity of John Keel, his younger self’s mentor. Can he track down Carcer during revolutionary Ankh-Morpork, find his way back into the present and his wife on the verge of giving birth to their first child, teach his younger self the ways of proper policing and stop the bloody crackdown on the Ankh-Morpork citizens by the Gestapo-like Unmentionables?
Well, of course he can but it makes for tremendous reading. To tell the tale of Winder’s downfall, he zeroes in on a small part of Ankh-Morpork for the book. Practically no scenes take place outside of a square mile or two of the Discworld’s greatest/foulest city. This places the import of what is happening directly in front of the reader. It’s all well and good talking about the wide dramatic sweep of revolution but the critical thing is, it’s about the people. Your cousin, your gran, the fella you drink with who lives two streets away but is now on the other side of the divide because he wanted to join the army. War and conflict may change things but ultimately it affects us. Pratchett juggles a wide cast of characters better than he has ever done, all orbiting around Keel, and you really feel part of a community in reading the novel.
The city is a horrible place to be living. An attempt on the wildly unpopular Winder’s life has led to him cracking down with violent indifference onto the city’s populace. The secret police and its interpretation of the law is only adding to the revolutionary spirit grasping the city. And he saw plots and spies everywhere throughout his waking hours, and had men root them out, and the thing about rooting out plots and spies everywhere is that, even if there are no real plots to begin with, there are plots and spies galore very soon.
The sad thing is the reader learns through Vimes that this revolution is useless, with the Lord Snapcase who desposes the incumbent as horrible a ruler as Winder. Long-time Discworld readers always knew this was the case, that Ankh-Morpork was a wreck until Vetinari bent it into shape. Mad Lord Snapcase. Just another Winder, but with fancier waistcoats and more chins. Same cronyism, same piggy ways, same stupid arrogance, one more leech in a line of leeches that’d make Vetinari seem like a breath of clean air.
This lack of control permeates the novel. Again, the close focus on one area of Ankh-Morpork shows how small events tumble out of control into horrors. That’s why men like Swing, the head of the Unmentionables, get power and wreak their own form of justice across the city. The ensuing Hen and Chickens Field massacre could be any number of accounts of imperial power gone wrong, from Peterloo to Bloody Sunday:
And then, one after another, horrible things would happen. By then it was too late for them not to. The tension would unwind like a huge spring, scything through the city.
This is what I like about Pratchett, although it is a point of view many may disagree with. Unlike a world where the police is the black fist of the state or the people are the great noble unwashed, people, according to Pratchett, are dicks. It’s when ideas gain momentum and spiral out of control that people get hurt. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
Which doesn’t make it easy for those wanting an easy political stance to stand behind but good people, and bad, are everywhere. It’s Nancyball, the cop in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s Clive Mountjoy-Standfast, an army officer making the best of at best poor, at worst suicidal, orders.
Sitting in between the forces of naively dangerous good and cynically destructive evil is that thin blue line and the wafer thin soles of Sam Vimes. This book has the greatest description of Vimes I have ever read – In a world where we all move in curves he proceeds in a straight line. And going straight in a world of curves makes things happen.
But his interpretation of the law is, well, Vimesian. He ignores orders, makes it up as he goes along, goes with his gut and is very very very lucky:
Coppers liked to say that people shouldn’t take the law into their own hands, and they thought they knew what they meant. They were thinking about the normal times, and men who go round to sort out a neighbour with a club because his dog had crapped once too often on their doorstep. But at times like this, who did the law belong to? If it shouldn’t be in the hands of people, where the hell should it be? People who knew better? Then you got Winder and his pals, and how good was that?
And, by extending that logic, how good was Vimes? He’s violent, deeply unorthodox and is very unconventional. I feel Vimes works because of how he is always asking questions, how he knows he doesn’t have the answer. That may be as it should be, particularly looking at how Pratchett’s legion of heroes is full of those plagued with self-doubt, but then how do you explain Vetinari? He is a man who moves in a straight line and knows he is right. And he is, weirdly.
Moreso than his other novels, Night Watch is devoid of easy answers. What is law? Who should enforce it? Who should dictate it? There is nothing definitive through the book because even Vimes, as an archetypal cop that plays by his own rules, is not someone who really should be the exemplar of the law. What I get from reading Pratchett is that I am not sure that he necessarily knew the answer but it was the writing that helped him explore the issue and get closer to some sort of resolution.
As you can see, there is plenty of fun to be had chewing through the plot of the book. There are a few things that rankle a wee bit. The revolutionary copper Coates is an early anti-Keel foil but never quite follows through in plot terms. He just fades. I feel Carcer should have made more of a play for the young Vimes, bringing down the space-time continuum with him, but that never seems to motivate him. I suppose we should blame quantum…
The recent Thief of Time played some physics gymnastics with the nature of time but that is nothing compared to what happens here. And because I am a bit of a nerd, picking apart the timey-wimey nature of things is a lot of fun. So; what actually happened? Vimes is told by the monks that history always finds a way, but why should his memory of what happened actually tally with “The Truth”? It is Vimes as Keel who suggests to Dibbler that his offers are “cutting his own throat”, giving the city’s greatest shambolic merchant a wonderful brand name. When he is Keel, he feels that he is winging it and surely the young Vimes should be able to tell this. But he doesn’t, he idolises Keel – I don’t feel it is too much of a leap to see that Keel’s unfair treatment by The Establishment and death was what led the young Samuel to hit the bottle in the first place.
And when Sam returns to the present, it is deemed that what happened to him was how the past bore out. Vetinari was able to identify that the Keel in the past was Vimes. Did Vimes inspire his younger self to become the man he became in the present? Was Vimes always Keel?
This is how the world collapses, thought Vimes. I was just a young fool. I didn’t see it like this. I thought Keel was leading the revolution. I wonder if that’s what he thought too?
But I wanted to keep a few streets safe. I just wanted to keep a handful of decent, silly people away from the dumb mobs and the mindless rebels and the idiot soldiery. I really, really hoped we could get away with it.
Oh, time travel, you are a brilliantly nerdy waste of time to think about.
While the book is incredibly rewarding for the long-time reader, I am somewhat dubious as to whether it’s the best one to hand someone fresh to the Discworld. A lot of its power is derived from you knowing Vimes, Vetinari, Nobby and Colon. Vimes’s wife Lady Sybil is an important part of the book, with her about to give birth as Sam gets lost in time, but she’s not actually present. I feel the dramatic heft about how important it is for Vimes to get back is built from the memory of reading Guards! Guards! or The Fifth Elephant.
I could be wrong – it is very hard to judge this book on its own when I have read 28 books in the series immediately beforehand. But I feel Night Watch is a neat nod to the millions of Pratchett fans who love the characters. I’m one of them and I love this book. But I feel if I wanted to introduce someone to the Discworld, this would be kept down the pile. I’d want them to become familiar with Vimes – as he puts it, to feel the cobbles of Ankh-Morpork beneath your soles – with Vetinari and the rest, because a lot of the book’s power is character-based. It’s knowing the characters, knowing what’s important to them, how they have changed during the series and having your favourites. It’s a splendid novel and tackles conflict in a much better way than Jingo did. It’s been quite a while since I read a Pratchett book that was not below the standard of “excellent”. And next up, we finally get introduced to one Tiffany Aching. See you next week.
(If you fancy more Night Watch, Sam Jordison wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian this week about it)