Archive for October, 2009

Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals

October 14, 2009

The first person I ever emailed was Terry Pratchett (which subsequently meant that the first email I ever received was from Terry Pratchett). This was back in the dark pre-web internet days when most people didn’t know what a Terry Pratchett was, his email address was reasonably public and you’d get a long detailed answer to any questions you had within a couple of hours depending on the time zone. Over the next decade I got to do cool stuff like go to dinners in small Lygon St restaurants with Terry Pratchett. Then Terry Pratchett became kinda famous and lots and lots of fans in Melbourne wanted to have small group dinners with him which sort of meant that no one could do that anymore.

I miss that Internet.

Anyway – Terry was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. One of the effects of this was that it seriously degraded his ability to type. Unseen Academicals, the latest Discworld Novel, was mostly typed by Terry’s assistant Rob rather than by Terry himself with Terry dictating.

This is sort of evident at the start of the book where the prose doesn’t entirely taste like Pratchett. What I mean by that is that some authors, especially really good ones that you’ve been reading for a couple of decades, have a way of putting together words that transcends just style, but are identifiable in less easily describable ways. The closest that I can get is to say that Pratchett’s writing has a certain texture, taste, smell and color that I’m very familiar with. So while the Pratchett of Strata/Dark Side of the Sun/Color of Magic is quite a different writer to the Pratchett of Small Gods and Nation, there is a continuity of texture, taste, smell and color to the works that belie their common authorship.

This change in the way that the book was created means that the very start of Unseen Academicals reads a little like someone doing an imitation of Pratchett while getting it subtly wrong in hard to identify ways.

Adjust he does though – and within about 50 pages the familiar color, taste, texture and smell are back. That or I’d made the adjustment to the new prose. Unseen Academicals isn’t as deftly written as some of the more recent Discworld novels.

Where Academicals shines is the relationship between Ridcully and Vetinari. These two haven’t really gone toe to toe before and their scenes together are worth the price of admission.
The minor characters enjoy some echoes of what we’ve seen before. Glenda has a touch of the Agnes Nitt about her and she most likely would have ended up a witch if she’d grown up in Lancre rather than suburban Ankh-Morpork. There are similar echoes back to the golem Dorfl and Lobsang Ludd from Thief of Time in the character Nutt. There are many strong Pratchettian themes throughout Unseen Academicals. Pratchett is also more willing than in previous novels to allow a large number of previously significant characters like Vimes, Rincewind, The Luggage and The Librarian to have background non-speaking roles.

I was a bit concerned that there was an element of “the cast taking a bow” in this book given Pratchett’s ongoing medical condition as there were few favourites that didn’t turn up (though I guess Carrot, Nobby and Colon weren’t directly in any “shots” though Nobby sort of was). If Granny Weatherwax had turned up there would have been no doubt that this was what was going on.

Unseen Academicals is tangentially about Soccer. I like all the Discworld Novels. I don’t like this one as much as I like Small Gods but like it more than I like Soul Music and Maskerade.