Friday, November 20, 2009

Recent Reading: Unseen Academicals

by Terry Pratchett

I was significantly distracted from this book a couple of times during the reading of it, from which you may reasonably infer that it isn't apex Pratchett, in my opinion. I finished it, and sometimes I laughed, but this is an author who's set himself stratospheric standards in my eyes. It's a book about football on the Disc, which didn't help to begin with; I'm not a fan, but the real problem may be, I suspect, that nor is Pratchett, much. I really don't have much of a sense for the core imagery of this topic, but I remember enough from my childish phase of petty enthusiasm and the general experience of growing up in the UK to feel that Unseen Academicals just doesn't catch things quite right. Where Moving Pictures nailed Hollywood perfectly and hilariously, and Soul Music showed us that there is a mythology of rock and roll of which we were barely aware to exploit, this book has a bit of a tin ear.

For example, the story climaxes - naturally - with a football match, but this is cut short, going to a sudden death option for vaguely plausible but not overwhelming reasons. I can see why a writer would do this - drawing a full ninety minutes of back and forth could easily get very boring - but a real footie fan wouldn't have ducked the challenge. (Interestingly, another of our current brilliant genre-loving humorists, Aaron Williams, similarly truncated a soccer match in PS238 #38 - for, I suspect, very similar reasons.) Even within the match, the climactic moments are described in the voice of a journalist who hasn't invented sports writing yet, giving things a deadening distance; compare the breathtaking Tower of Art/giant blonde scene in Moving Pictures.

The point of the book, in terms of the great accumulating Discworld epic, is another step in the Disc in general and Ankh-Morpork in particular's accelerated evolution from medievalism to modernity, manipulated by an increasingly philosophical Patrician but triggered by a vague outburst of divine intervention. Football is the nominal theme here, and it turns out that Ankh-Morpork has a game of that name, but it's still a distinctly medieval street brawl; various protagonists find themselves obliged to transform it into a game of rules and green fields. There's a brilliant natural player to be encouraged, and his born-to-WAG true love to wander through glowing passively, but Pratchett's lack of deep engagement is shown by the number of other sub-plots. In the depths of the increasingly comic-Gormenghastian Unseen University, we find Trevor Likely, the natural player who avoids playing but who has the gift of the gab (and it's to the book's credit that it never actually uses the hugely appropriate pun that his name demands), but also more importantly, Mr Nutt, one of Pratchett's annoyingly omnicompetent plot-moving heroes, who turns out to have more or less literally wandered in from a completely different fantasy universe. Meanwhile, above stairs, the Archchancellor is suffering annoyance caused by the (initially absent) Dean, who has defected to another university. There is also some stuff with a brilliant cook and with the arts of dwarf fashion, into which Miss Born-to-WAG wanders...

And so it goes on. Trevor must deal with his nemesis, one of Pratchett's petty-nasty sociopaths but not a very clever one, two familiar members of the Watch get a half-page each, a couple of old friends from Uberwald wander past in person or passing description, and eventually the book shudders to a halt. There are interesting hints that this book is Pratchett's reflection on the 1980s and their aftermath, as football is transformed from a faintly violent working-class preoccupation to something more acceptable to the bourgeois wizards, and the mess left by a failed Evil Empire must be cleaned up - but my overwhelming sense at the end was of loose ends untied and plot threads forgotten.

Ah, forgotten... The elephant in the room here is Terry Pratchett's famous health issues. Are they affecting his writing, we have to wonder. Well, he can still create crackling dialogue, eye-grabbing metaphors, sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and some good jokes. But the loose plotting and uncertain handling of theme may be symptoms of a memory that's not what it was. Or perhaps this book just represents an off year. We'll just have to wait and see.

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