Monday, May 25, 2009

Nation by Terry Pratchett

The last book Terry Pratchett wrote outside of a series was Good Omens, with Neil Gaiman, about twenty years ago. (Although, if one is being nitpicky, one could count Only You Can Save Mankind from two years later, which wasn't a series for nearly a year until a sequel appeared.) The vast majority of his output has been in the ever-unfolding Discworld series, and the few times he's ventured outside that -- the three Johnny Maxwell books, the Bromeliad trilogy -- it's been to write books in sets of three for young readers.

Nation is positioned as a book for young readers, but it shows no sign of being the first of three; it tells its story definitively and has an ending that doesn't leave much room for more stories about these particular characters. Given Pratchett's history, it might be dangerous to be too definitive, but Nation is, and I expect will stay, a single novel.

The tone is very similar to the recent Discworld books; that's Pratchett's mature voice, and it invests everything he writes. He's wry and thoughtful and quietly omniscient, as usual and as always. Nothing is a surprise to the narrative voice, which gives a sense of inevitability to everything that happens. It's a tone derived from the classic British books for young readers, from Nesbit and Lewis and the rest, shorn of most vestiges of talking down -- Pratchett only talks down to his readers as a god talks down to humanity -- but still with those undertones of knowing best and just simply knowing. The narrative voice in a Pratchett novel is never surprised or perturbed, no matter what happens.

Nation is a mildly alternate history, set in a world that's very much like our own in the 19th century, with many names changed, some probably altered geography, a few unfortunately silly names, and a convenient tsunami to start the plot. There's nothing there that Pratchett couldn't have worked around in the real world -- there were major tsunami in 1833 and 1883 -- but perhaps the habit of fiction is just too strong with him at this point. It's unfortunate, though, because the small shards of alternate history push Nation away from the realistic novel it's mostly trying to be and towards the realms of Fantasyland, where anything can and does happen according to the author's whim.

That tsunami I mentioned hits the Nation, an island somewhere in the unfortunately named Mothering Sunday chain -- it's never a good thing when you can hear the author guffaw at his own joke -- and the sole survivor of the natives is Mau, a young man who was in the process of becoming a man at the time. Since he was on his way back from Boys' Island, site of the usual vision quest, the tsunami's wave lifted his canoe and battered him senseless, but didn't actually kill him.

It did kill everyone he'd ever known -- his entire village, his entire island, his entire Nation. He paddles back to discover the carnage, and, not completely sane, to bury the dead while trying not to think about what he's doing. These early chapters are the most powerful in the book, and Pratchett does an excellent job of portraying Mau's shell-shocked disassociation and his gradual return.

There's another important survivor of the storm: Ermintrude Fanshaw, a young woman who was a passenger on the English ship Sweet Judy. The Sweet Judy found itself tangled in the trees of Nation, and, through the kind of happenstance that Pratchett has always made careful use of, every single sailor on that ship was cleanly killed and Ermintrude was left untouched. Ermintrude is also Very Important, and that fact is vitally central to the novel -- it's the whole basis for the alternate history, so Pratchett must have decided that she must not only be a young woman from another culture on the other side of the world from Mau, but that she also have social and political responsibilities and a position he could barely understand. (This reader started suspecting Pratchett of stacking the deck at about this point.)

So Mau meets Ermintrude (who, once they have any words in common, calls herself Daphne, joining the long Pratchett tradition of women who name themselves). They start to communicate, with the usual wry Pratchettian commentary on miscommunication and disparate worldviews. They begin to build a new community, as other damaged survivors, from other islands and places, come to join them in ones and twos. Pratchett is a traditionalist, so this is all much more Robinson Crusoe -- stolid, serious, constructive -- than Blue Lagoon. (One never goes to Pratchett for romance.)

Nation could have been the story of two young people meeting after a vast tragedy and finding each other, but that would have been too inwardly-focused for Pratchett: his work is essentially focused on societies than on individual people, and he takes the importance of the eucatastophe much more seriously than most. So it instead is the story of the rebirth of civil society in the wake of destruction and anarchy, and all of the events of the novel line up according to that schema.

The writing is supple and powerful, and the characters -- particularly Mau and Daphne -- are fully realized and deeply rendered. But there's a definite feeling, especially as Nation rises towards its climax, that this is a novel of the old school, teaching a moral that would not have been out of place in this world's 19th century. The great failing of Pratchettian societies is that every person has a place in them -- one place. It's not fair to argue with a novel's premise, but Nation's left a vaguely unpleasant taste in my mouth. Pratchett does make the ending feel inevitable, but it's the bad kind of inevitable -- the one predicated by a world in which horrible things like tsunami happen, and where humans must bend under the storm. Our own world is one such, and it's not inappropriate for fictional worlds to be the same way. But when those fictional worlds have places named the Mothering Sunday Isles, and plucky girl heroines who change their names to Daphne, and two teenagers who can found an island nation and outwit nasty pirates, that tightening of possibilities in the last act feels like a demand of the author rather than of the world.

Nation is a fine standalone Pratchett novel, and very suitable for younger readers. (In fact, my objections to it are mostly in the ways that it's "suitable for younger readers" in an old-fashioned way.) Again, it exemplifies all of his mature strengths and weaknesses -- it's a fine yarn by a great storyteller that wants to be more inevitable than it organically should be. The old Empire is not quite dead as long as Pratchett is still writing, and I hope he continues to do so for years to come.

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