Seldom do I read a Terry Pratchett book and think it is not great. But it does happen occasionally. Reading Interesting Times, a Discworld novel from 1994 featuring that world’s most reluctant tourist (and tourist guide) Rincewind, was one of those occasions. (Fans who are more hardcore than I can start directing their hatred into the comments now, if they choose, but hopefully they will consider the following with an open mind.)
I, rather uncharacteristically, first came to the Discworld novels by reading The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. I say uncharacteristic because I watched The Empire Strikes Back and Aliens first, so it is something of a miracle that I didn’t start the series by reading Thud! Not that it would have been much of a problem, the Discworld novels having the ability to stand alone as well as making sense in the larger picture. But I knew Rincewind from the start, and through some bizarre coincidence it turns out that I am reading the ones he features in in the order they were published – with the exception of Unseen Academicals, where he plays a minor role. (Meanwhile, I seem to be reading the City Watch novels in reverse order.)
Rincewind, for the uninitiated, is an anti-hero in the sense that he is the opposite of a hero. He runs, although usually head-first into trouble when he is trying to run away, and gets in an out of disaster through luck, good and bad. Lady Luck is on his side, or picking on him cruelly for malicious and sadistic fun, depending on your point of view. He’s fairly pessimistic about the whole thing. Oh, and he’s a wizard whose magical abilities are only very slightly above those of your average doorknob, and quite a deal less than the average doorknob at Unseen University. His hat also has the word “Wizzard” written on it.
I quite liked catching up with Rincewind. I quite liked the fact he was plucked magically from his island at the edge of the disc, hurled into Unseen University and then propelled against his wishes to the Counterweight Continent and reunited with his old friend/foe Twoflower. I quite liked the idea of Ghenghiz Cohen, aka Cohen the Barbarian, and his gang of old, old, old heroes who are constantly underestimated, taking over an empire. I quite liked Lord Vetinari’s approach to diplomacy, in that he handed the whole problem off to Archchancellor Ridcully. But …
I was a bit uncomfortable with some of the jokes about the Agatean Empire, and its inhabitants.
Okay, call me overly sensitive. Call my concerns the product of political correctness gone mad. Call me an inner-city latte-sipping wanker. (Where is my latte?) Call me late for dinner.
Call it what you want, but the truth is I felt uncomfortable with some of the descriptions of a race of people and an empire that is clearly a parody of Asians and an amalgam of Asian countries. (The fortune cookies are a giveaway here. Names like Schz Yu were also a clue.)
Probably it is just due to living in Jakarta. I am sensitive to the vast differences in culture that exist among counties in the region, and sensitive to the prejudices they feel among themselves. Probably the elements that made me feel uncomfortable were those that spoke to awkward truths. Yes, there are farmers who have little interest in the world outside their patch of land. Yes, there are people who bow down and submit to dictatorial empires that take all the pigs and leave the population to live on soup. Such observations do not apply only to the Far East.
Asia, of course, should not be immune from Pratchett’s wit and brilliant satire. No subject could or should be off limits. He never descends into poor taste, and I absolutely adore his slogans for the ever-so-polite revolution. “Necessarily Extended Duration To The Red Army! Regrettable Decease Without Undue Suffering To The Forces Of Oppression!” Still, I felt a little awkward at times.
There is a lot to like and admire in Interesting Times. And most of it I enjoyed. Death turns up. Terracotta Warriors are actually put to good use. It’s funny. Rincewind ruins everything, and saves the day in the process (or is that the other way around?). The final passage is hilarious.
But … it was a bit disappointing.
To be continued.
Stay tuned for the next exciting episode: A tale of two Discworld novels, part 2: The Last Continent.