Monday, December 28, 2009

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

One begins to wonder at the gestational period of Pratchett's novels, particularly when his new book for 2009 not only features rampant background football hooliganism, but also the love affair between a uniquely talented young player and a woman who becomes vastly and immediately famous as a model. Surely he didn't suddenly come to this material in the last year or two? Perhaps ideas for Discworld books bubble and ferment in his brain for a decade or so, only coming to fruition when he's sure of every aspect?

However it came to be, the new Discworld novel for 2009 follows the pattern of most of the mature novels in the series; it's the story of How X Came to Discworld, and, secondarily, How Discworld Became Yet More Modern and Like Our World. (Plus the usual tertiary love story, as always kept very Britishly subdued and suitable for a young audience.) In the case of Unseen Academicals, Pratchett let X equal football (what Americans like me usually call soccer, and the denizens of Ankh-Morpork tediously call "foot-the-ball" for too much of this novel), and then populates the resulting novel with those very British soccer hooligans, town-gown conflicts, neighborhood football clubs leading to a Montague/Capulet-style romance, scientific athletic training regimens, and the other baggage of the early days of organized sport. (He doesn't have an equivalent of a fully modern sports league, with its ridiculously expensive luxury stadiums, rich and coddled athletes, naming rights, and corporate sponsors, for which I'm very thankful. Pratchett's besetting sin is his tendency to place his elbow too firmly and regularly in the reader's ribs, and it's a relief whenever he leaves obvious opportunities like those on the table.)

As usual, there's more than the "Introducing X" plot going on; Pratchett has two central characters -- Mr. Nutt, an odd-looking young man from Uberwald, who has the usual Pratchett Unexpected Depths, including a very posh way of speaking and a vast wealth of knowledge, and a Dangerous Secret; and Glenda, the head cook of Unseen University's Night Kitchen, who also has Unexpected Depths, though hers run in more traditionally mercantile and self-bettering ways -- who tentatively circle each other and, separately, explore those Unexpected Depths. (Nutt's true nature threatens to become a central plot, or at least a major complication to the football plot, but never quite does.) And, since this book is set in Ankh-Morpork, and more specifically at Unseen, the usual cast of characters -- the Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully, Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian, the various other academic wizards, the Patrician, and, faintly and quietly in the background, Rincewind -- form a large part of the cast, and their comfortable-as-an-old-shoe antics provide a lot of the interest and comedy in Unseen Academicals. There's also a young man destined to be a Hero of Sport, and the young woman who will become both his girlfriend -- in the very tentative, maiden-aunt-friendly Pratchett style -- and a Heroine of Fashion, though Pratchett doesn't strongly turn them to the satirical uses that it seems he created them for.

Since Unseen Academicals is a sports story, it must of course lead up to The Big Game, and so it does. But Pratchett stages his Big Game as to be devoid of much of the tension it could have had as a pure athletic contest, and also avoids having an eruption of any other kind of danger during the game, making the end somewhat deflating. We knew that the heroes would win, but we hoped that Pratchett would make us believe, along the way, that there was no chance at all that they could possibly win, and that doesn't happen.

Similarly, the Discworld novels of the past decade have become a parade of the ways in which modernity -- banking, reliable postal services, independent media, quick data transmission, et cetera -- transform the previously cod-medieval Ankh-Morpork into a vastly better place in every possible way. (It's coming to feel Polyanna-ish, if not downright Panglossian.) Since the big transformation in this book doesn't noticeably change society, this leads Pratchett to have his characters engage in extended reveries about how much better Nowadays is, with its fancy Clacks and Times, than things used to be. This can make the reader wish he was reading one of those previous novels, which is presumably not the intention.

Unseen Academicals is a minor Discworld book, pleasant and purely entertaining but a bit unfocused, with an ending that ties everything together not perfectly but well enough. The Rincewind books are traditionally the weakest and most frivolous of the series, so perhaps that atmosphere has extended to his fellow UU faculty and this book. And I would still like to see Pratchett take on some issues where the righteousness of his position is not immediately apparent, or perhaps allow that modernity is not an unmixed blessing. But there will, I hope, still be time for that in future books.

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