The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll (1980) 241 p.

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“I can’t remember when I’ve last been so blown away by a fantasy novel,” says the Stephen King blurb on the front cover – which I didn’t actually notice until I’d nearly finished the book, and which is ironic, given I spent most of this book thinking it felt like an early 1980s King novel if King had only had quarter of the talent. The Land of Laughs captures that same King-esque feeling of the homely nostalgic creepiness of early 1980s down-to-earth Americana – when the 1950s were closer to them than the the 1980s are to us, as strange as that sounds. But it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It actually felt a bit like a book written by an outsider trying to describe what America’s like – probably not fair, because although Carroll moved to Austria before ever writing this, he is actually a born and bred New Yorker.

There are other problems. The main character is an unlikeable wanker; I’m usually the first to scoff at people who complain about unlikeable main characters, and in fact I think it’s a sign of intellectual weakness, but the protagonist in The Land of Laughs is specifically a wisecracking cynic, and here’s the thing – if your asshole main character is in that vein, he also need to be self-deprecating. He needs to dish it out to himself as much as he does to others. But Thomas Abbey is a glass-jawed manchild. You can still get away with this if you’re writing a character like, say, David Lurie in Disgrace; but Carroll, like most of us, is no Coetzee, and unless you’re writing a Nobel-worthy work, then yes, your characters do at least have to be somewhat sympathetic. Thomas Abbey is nowhere near as charming or funny as Carroll thinks he is, and after fifty pages I was sick of him.

Which is the third problem: this book is glacially slow. It’s a fantasy – magical realism or urban fantasy or whatever you want to call it – in which Abbey travels to the hometown of his favourite author to write his biography, and slowly realises not everything in this picture-perfect town is quite right. Again, though, there’s a difference between teasing things out slowly (good!) and writing a book which is 80% straight generic fiction but then all the semi-interesting stuff kicks off in the final 70 pages. (Bad!)

Furthermore, the central conceit is much less interesting than it’s built up to be. No spoilers, but… this magical and talented writer used his mysterious talents to create this when he could have created literally anything? Yawn.

I was often irked while reading The Land of Laughs but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a bad book – probably because I may have been irked but, while never engaged, was never too bored either. (And I will grant that the brilliant last few paragraphs very nearly redeemed the whole thing – and displayed a level of restraint I’m surprised Carroll was capable of, after taking us through Abbey’s entitled whingeing for 200+ pages.) I don’t recommend it, I was disappointed by it given the recommendations it has, and I’m not going to seek out any more of Carroll’s work, but… I don’t know, give it a chance if you think it sounds interesting. Clearly a lot of people liked it much more than I did.

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American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1990) 384 p.

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This is a book which divides people into camps of “utterly degraded puerile trash” and “mind-bending satire.” I ended the book slightly more sympathetic to how I began it, but – to be clear from the outset – I still believe it’s revolting, misogynistic, overrated bullshit written by a dickhead.

Most people who hate American Psycho take issue with the violence. So do I; more on that in a moment. But those violent scenes don’t actually crop up until about 100 or 150 pages into the book, and I was bored with it after the first 20. Here’s a sample from an early chapter, in which our titular psycho Patrick Bateman is describing his morning skincare routine:

I rinse again, with Cepacol. I wash the facial massage off with a spearmint face scrub. The shower has a universal all-directional shower head that adjusts within a thirty-inch vertical range. It’s made from Australian gold-black brass and covered with a white enamel finish. In the shower I use first a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey-almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Vidal Sassoon shampoo is especially good at getting rid of the coating of dried perspiration, salts, oils, airborne pollutants and dirt that can weigh down hair and flatten it to the scalp which can make you look older. The conditioner is also good – silicone technology permits conditioning benefits without weighing down the hair which can also make you look older.

This goes on for six (six!) pages – we’re only about twenty pages in here – and it was at this point I started skim-reading American Psycho. I’ve never done that before; normally I’d abandon a book if I felt it wasn’t worth my time. But there’s a droning blandness to Ellis’ prose which makes it perfectly easy to skim your eyes across the page and still pick up the general vibe, which is: yuppies are shallow. Wall street suits are selfish shitheads. Modern American life is hollow. Stop the press!

(As an aside: lots of people, even today, call this book a satire of ‘80s greed. What the fuck? Why do we still consider the ‘80s to be the epitome of greed? Because in 2017 we have a narcissistic game show host for a president and nobody’s in a union anymore and the youth are being crushed on an intern treadmill and we’re cooking the planet to a crisp so the 1% can make a few extra million on their Caltex shares and the people responsible for crashing the financial system and ruining millions of lives are still sunbathing outside their mansions in the Bahamas. The Wall Street of American Psycho is quaint compared to the Gibsonian dystopia of 2017.)

Anyway: the murders. I don’t have a problem with violence in fiction but I do have a problem with an author who indulges in endless, baroque descriptions of ultra-gore. It’s like comparing a well-made slasher film to the torture porn genre (films like Hostel or Wolf Creek). Violence when used sparingly is interesting. When you have fifty plus pages of lurid descriptions of vile torture, you’re an immature writer trying to provoke a reaction for the sake of it – and also, in this case, because the rest of your novel is so trite and tedious.

And yes, it’s misogynistic. Bateman’s male victims get a couple of paragraphs. His female victims are treated to entire chapters describing increasingly gruesome tortures. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I mentioned at the start I was more sympathetic to the book by the end of it. That’s because the final fifty pages are actually somewhat interesting. Bateman’s acts through most of the book are those of a serial killer: secretive, hidden, selective. But near the end he goes on a spontaneous GTA-style shooting rampage through the streets, holes up in his office with a helicopter circling outside and a SWAT team about to storm the building, and then… nothing. He wakes up the next day and goes to work as normal. When he begins to really start unravelling – finding a bone inside a chocolate bar, becoming paranoid about a walking park bench that follows him several blocks – he returns to the apartment of his murdered co-worker Paul Owen, which he’s been using for murders and corpse storage, expecting to find the rotting bodies and scenes of carnage he left there… and instead finds it spick-and-span, ready to be sold, with a smiling real estate agent who mysteriously warns him “Don’t make any trouble.” When Bateman confesses to his lawyer that he murdered Owen, his lawyer is befuddled, insisting he had lunch with Owen in London just last week. So none of the violence in the book – or at least, not most of it – is really happening. Bateman is an unreliable narrator, and it’s all in his head. Since it’s all fiction anyway this does not let Ellis off the hook for sitting down at his desk and dreaming up loathsome torture methods for women. But it’s more interesting than the book would otherwise have been.

Does that mean American Psycho is ultimately an interesting book? No. One of my favourite short stories – and I say that despite having read it maybe once or twice – is John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer.’ It’s about an affluent man in the affluent suburbs of Long Island, who decides on a whim at a pool party one afternoon to swim home across the pools of his neighbourhood. As he goes, he finds his neighbours becoming increasingly less tolerant of him, and he finds the weather turning; although it’s supposed to be summer, he’s cold and miserable and there are autumn leaves everywhere. When he arrives home he finds it boarded up and abandoned. It’s an enigmatic and engrossing tale.

‘The Swimmer’ is about 5,000 words long. American Psycho is nearly 400 pages, and manages to be alternately tedious and revolting. I could possibly tolerate the appalling, misogynistic violence if there was more of a point to it. But I expect a return on investment, and Ellis has nothing more to offer us than unengaging “satire” of the very low-hanging fruit of Wall Street sharks. It was banal in 1990 and it’s even more banal now. This book does not deserve its place in the canon.

The Inheritors by William Golding (1955) 271 p.

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The quote at the beginning makes it clear that this is a book about Neanderthals, which is a shame, because it would be a more interesting book if the reader was left to figure that out themselves. Nonetheless, we have a story told from the point of view of Lok, a member of “the people,” who are evidently a small family of Neanderthals somewhere in the paleolithic era.

The popular image of Neanderthals (or any cavemen) is as thuggish brutes, but Golding depicts them as sweet-natured and pacifistic; they gather but don’t hunt, and though at one point they scavenge meat from a sabre-toothed tiger’s fresh kill they feel very guilty about it. They aren’t very bright and seem to communicate through a form of low-grade telepathy, sharing “pictures.” Their simple and relatively happy way of life is thrown into turmoil when some of their number start disappearing, and they realise that their local area has a new group of people in it – not Neanderthals, but much smarter and more ruthless homo sapiens.

So as with Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors is an allegorical story about humankind’s deeper brutality. The difference is that while Lord of the Flies‘ surface story is quite interesting to follow, The Inheritors is a semi-experimental work of fiction which is very focused on the physical, of living Lok’s day-to-day experience as a sequence of actions, with a limited capacity for remembering the past or imagining the future. (The final chapter is told from the point of view of one of the humans, and it’s startling how simultaneously normal and different it is after 200 pages of Neanderthal thinking.) This bored me. The book is more interesting in the second half as the humans arrive and you try to deduce exactly what they’re up to, but overall I still found this to be one of those books that’s more interesting as an idea (or a Wikipedia synopsis) than as an actual reading experience.

Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett (2016) 394 p.

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Following on from Mother of Eden, Daughter of Eden takes place in the same rough timeframe, which is a bit disappointing – I would have liked to see it jump another few centuries into the future of this sad and twisted society, as Mother of Eden did after Dark Eden. The Eden stories are not so much about what happens, but rather what happens next – and I’d prefer to have seen the continued growth and development of Eden society – a bunch of paleolithic inbred descendants of two stranded astronauts on a dark, bizarre alien world – rather than the political fallout between the Johnfolk and the Davidfolk following on from a character’s actions in the last book.

On reflection, Mother of Eden and Daughter of Eden could (and should) have been one book; and I’m not sure either of them quite lives up to the brilliant, tightly-plotted standards of the first book in the trilogy, Dark Eden. All three books are very much about the power of stories and mythology and belief, but in both Mother and Daughter it often feels Beckett is retreading ground he’s already passed over. They’re good themes, expressed well, but both books suffer from a bloat which I don’t think Dark Eden ever did, and could have used much tighter editing.

Nonetheless – and without spoilers – it’s fair to say that any reader will want to keep reading, to see what happens next, and also because the whole set-up of the Eden books, from the very beginning, has a will it/won’t it Schroedinger’s World situation going on. I said in my review of Mother of Eden that I’d like to see a Lord of the Flies or Apocalypto style ending to the story. What happens in Daughter of Eden is not what I expected to see, but I was surprised and impressed by how Beckett handled that aspect of the story.

Whether he sticks the landing or not is debatable. But I can definitely say that Daughter of Eden was intriguing, and compulsively readable, and very enjoyable. If you read and enjoyed Dark Eden – which I believe is one of the most underrated sci-fi books of the last decade – then the rest of the trilogy is most definitely worth reading

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett (1993) 381 p.
Discworld #15 (City Watch #2)

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He took off his copper badge and buffed it absent-mindedly on the edge of his cloak. Then he held it up so that the light glinted off the patina’d surface. AMCW No.177. He sometimes wondered how many other guards had had the badge before him.

Well, now someone was going to have it after him.

The first City Watch novel, Guards! Guards!, has a jokey ending where despite having saved the city from a dragon, the motley crew of the Night Watch – when asked by the Patrician what they desire as a reward – simply request a new kettle and dartboard; not out of any modesty, but because it’s beyond their ken to imagine they actually deserve anything better from life no matter what they do.

At the beginning of Men at Arms they’re still the same oddball crew of hapless losers, but they now have three new recruits as part of the city’s affirmative action policy: a dwarf, a troll, and a “bloody w…” Vimes thinks, before being distracted; we assume he means woman, but later find out she’s also a werewolf. Vimes himself is retiring, as he’s engaged to marry Lady Sybil Ramkin, whom he met in Guards! Guards! and who also happens to be the richest woman in the city. (It’s never outright stated, but seems to be implied that it Wouldn’t Do for such a highborn woman to have a man of low means as a husband, so he can simply graduate directly into a life of aristocratic leisure. Nobody – not even Vimes, at first – considers that his job is pretty much his entire identity.)

Ankh-Morpork has come a long way since the Conanesque/Dungeons & Dragons medieval quest-hub city that it was in The Colour of Magic – certainly by Guards! Guards! it had evolved into something more akin to 16th century London – but this is the first book in which we really see it develop into a satire of the modern city, specifically one with large and growing populations of immigrants which a) discomfit the original ethnic inhabitants, and b) have imported all their ancient grudges from the Old Country. The trolls and the dwarves hate each other, and entire parts of Ankh-Morpork have become segregated ghettoes in which either dwarves or trolls will not set foot – but at the same time they’re still just people, working hard and keeping their heads down and beavering away, trying to make something of themselves in this new life, no different from humans. This is, incidentally, a good segment and something which literally anybody in a Western country will have heard a racist relative remark:

‘I admit that the old kings were not necessarily our kind of people, towards the end,’ said the Duke of Eorle, ‘but at least they stood for something, in my humble opinion. We had a decent city in those days. People were more respectful and knew their place. People put in a decent day’s work, they didn’t laze around all the time. And we certainly didn’t open the gates to whatever riffraff was capable of walking through. And of course we also had law. Isn’t that so, captain?’

‘They just move in and take over. And work away like ants all the time real people should be getting some sleep. It’s not natural.’
Vimes’ mind circled the comment and compared it to the earlier one about a decent day’s work.

Vimes, like most of Pratchett’s characters, is a decent man and happy to criticise ugly or contradictory thoughts when he sees them, but interestingly enough he’s not exactly not-racist himself – he despises the undead, for example. It might be fair to say that he’s racist, in the sense of having lazy pre-conceived notions about races in general, but not prejudiced, in the sense that he’ll treat anybody in front of him with fairness and justice without regards to their species.

While Vimes is concerned with his new recruits and his impending wedding and retirement, the scion of another aristocratic lineage, Edward D’Eath, resents that his family has fallen on hard times and believes this can’t possibly be a proper state of affairs. Obsessing over Ankh-Morpork’s royal heritage and deciding that what the city really needs is the return of the rightful king (just as the villains of Guards! Guards! thought), D’Eath procures a mysterious weapon in a heist on the Assassin’s Guild and sets about his plan. In a similar vein to the way that Pratchett often climaxed his early books with threats from the Dungeon Dimensions, we’re now two for two when it comes to City Watch books about people trying to restore a king to the throne. (And if I recall correctly, the next City Watch book plays that for laughs in a C-plot.) The difference is that while the hapless cabal in Guards! Guards! intended to put a patsy on the throne, D’Eath has correctly identified the true heir to Ankh-Morpork’s crown: as we readers already know, it’s none other than the humble beat cop Corporal Carrot.

Apart from firing on all cylinders in terms of the sentence-to-sentence movement of his prose – the jokes, the wit, the asides – this is another of Pratchett’s great novels, like Lords and Ladies, when he’s got an absolutely solid plot from beginning to end. (Actually this is true of all the City Watch books, except possibly at the very end when things start to decline.) The Night Watch is still treated like a joke by the rest of the city in Men at Arms, but they rise to the task nonetheless, taking us on an increasingly complex journey into an intriguing mystery. Even the B-plots, like Angua’s befriending of Gaspode and their encounter with a pack of liberated dogs, are fascinating. By the end of the journey – when the Patrician is nearly assassinated and Vimes and Carrot pursue the shooter into the sewers (with shades of The Third Man) it’s unputdownable stuff. This is what I’ve always loved about the City Watch books in particular: everything else aside, all the satire and wordplay and creativity, they always have genuinely exciting climaxes imbued with dramatic gravitas.

This is also a book that’s very much concerned – in a far stronger manner than Guards! Guards! – about the meaning of being an officer of the law. There’s a wonderful scene near the climax of the book, in which Vimes confronts the villain, who says (correctly) that Vimes won’t kill him because he’s a watchman. But it’s Vimes’ wedding day, and the day of his retirement, and Vimes points out – staring down the sights at his target, as the clocks ring noon out all over the city – that as soon as the bells stop ringing, he won’t be a watchman anymore. There’s a similar scene when Detritus arrives enraged at the Assassins’ Guild, wishing to avenge a friend’s death, and Carrot has to remind him that said friend would think, “My friend Detritus – he won’t forget that he’s a guard.” This is a theme that Pratchett will go on to develop more strongly in later City Watch novels, particularly his magnum opus Night Watch, but it’s nice to see it in genesis: that Pratchett went from writing a book on the whimsical idea of following the story of the blokes who have to run into a room and get slaughtered by the hero, to then latching onto an exploration of what it means to be a copper. It’s interesting that at no point in the Discworld series – even towards the end, as it’s becoming increasingly modern, with a rudimentary telegraph system and banks and post offices – do we ever get a hint of Ankh-Morpork’s justice system, of its courts and prisons. That seems incongruous when the City Watch is one of the major story arcs, but it’s not really. As Vimes points out in a book much further down the line, a policeman’s job ends at the arrest.

Next up is #16, Soul Music – the next chapter in the Death series and one which I have very little memory of, though I remember it’s a Beatles/rock’n’roll parody, and probably another of those oddly pasted-together stories like Reaper Man.

 

Rereading Discworld Index

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017) 613 p.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s last novel, Aurora, was both a culmination of themes he’d explored for the latter half of his writing career and a sober-minded skewering of one of science fiction’s sacred cows. First Mars in the Mars trilogy, then the rest of the solar system in 2312, then to the stars: that’s how science fiction readers expect the future of the human race to play out, and that’s how we thought Robinson’s books would go. Except Aurora very wonderfully broke the rules. Robinson used his take on the generation spaceship story to propose that colonising other star systems wouldn’t work, that such a venture was doomed to failure – and just what are we trying to get away from, anyway? That’s what made it not just his best novel, but one of the best and most important science fiction novels of the last few decades.

Thus it makes sense that New York 2140 brings us back down to Earth – metaphorically, anyway, since neither this nor any of his other novels are set in a shared universe, and in fact space travel is never mentioned at all throughout this book. The ice caps have melted, the sea level has risen, and Manhattan has been transformed into a “SuperVenice,” with its streets and avenues transformed into canals. New York 2140 takes us through a few years in the lives of the varied residents of the original MetLife building on 23rd Street – cleverly chosen because the building was modelled on the Campanile in Venice. There’s Franklin, a hot-shot Wall Street trader; Charlotte, a social and community worker; Amelia, a sort of futuristic YouTube-esque web star; Gen Octaviasdottir, a police chief; Roberto and Stefan, a pair of 12-year-old orphans who live a picaresque life as scavenging “water rats;” Vlade, the building’s Slavic super; and Mutt and Jeff, a pair of shambolic middle-aged coders whose mysterious disappearance from the building in the opening passage sets the plot in motion.

All of this seems like a great set-up for a novel, and for the first third or so I found New York 2140 very engaging: a more memorable cast of characters than Robinson usually populates his books with, an interesting future vision of a city we’re all familiar with, and a mystery-driven plot to kickstart it all. But my interest began to wane halfway through, and towards the end I was checking how many pages left until I was done with it.

If I had to put my finger on exactly why New York 2140 doesn’t work, it’s because it’s clearly not quite the book Robinson wanted to write. He mentioned recently on the Coode Street podcast that he went to his editor and said he wanted to write a book about the global financial system. His editor said no, nobody would ever read that – then suggested he set it in the future, in the drowned New York briefly featured in the novel 2312. And so Robinson did, which meant he had to render the society of 2140 as not very different from the society of 2017.

Which is fine in some ways. I have no doubt that human society, if it’s still around in the 28th century, will be unrecognisable to us today – but I had no problem when the starfarers of Aurora returned to Earth in that century and it felt more or less like society right now, because that’s not what the point of Aurora was. I have much more of a problem when the still-corrupt and capitalist-driven society of 2140 is reformed implausibly easily by a bunch of Wall Street traders, community workers, coders and a celebrity after a bunch of repeated discussions about the 2008 financial crisis, about which they all seem strangely well-informed. (How much do you, for example, know about the Long Depression of the late 19th century?)

That seems like a small thing to pick on, but it’s emblematic of the greater flaw in New York 2140: it’s two books trying to be one. Robinson could have written a great book about a flooded future New York, or he could (and should) have written a great book about the economic semi-feudalism we live under here in 2017. This novel suffers from trying to be both. Which is a shame, because after Aurora I’d like to see Robinson – an author who’s always covered many topics, usually in the same book – write another single-minded, narrowly-focused deconstruction of a perceived truism. Maybe next time.

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett (1992) 381 p.
Discworld #14 (Witches #4)

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It’s interesting to compare the Witches arc with the City Watch arc. Both are generally considered the best threads in the Discworld series, but the Witches came along much earlier. Here we are at book #14, arguably the fourth entry in the Witches series, and I would say its peak; we’ve had only one City Watch book, and its own zenith won’t come along for another fifteen books (#29, Night Watch). I don’t think there’s much to be read into there; Pratchett had no master plan, he was just writing each new book as it took his fancy. Probably the only explanation is that the Witches – as a coven of Old-Englandey villagers in a magical kingdom – segued more naturally out of Pratchett’s initial fixation on fantasy tropes, wizards with pointy hats and dribbly candles and pentagrams chalked on the floor, all that sort of thing. (Indeed, Granny Weatherwax is first introduced in Equal Rites, which opens with a wizard arriving in the Ramtops and closes with another incursion by the Dungeon Dimensions at Unseen University). The City Watch books, on the other hand, hew much closer to satire of the modern age: of the city, of politics, of a multicultural society, with fantasy tropes merely serving as a stand-in.

Anyway. Lords and Ladies follows on almost directly from Witches Abroad, with the coven arriving back in Lancre after their long absence in Genua. While the cats were away the mice were playing: Granny and Nanny are irritated to discover that a group of local teenage girls have started dabbling in witchcraft themselves, and are mortified to learn that they’ve been dancing by moonlight near a ring of “boundary stones.” The stone circle is one of the few borders between the human world and the faerie world: the land of the fey folk, the gentry, the lords and ladies, the elves. It’s been centuries since the elves threatened Lancre, and most people think of them as beautiful and benevolent creatures out of a fairytale, but as witches Nanny and Granny know better.

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

So as Midsummer’s Eve draws near, as the kingdom prepares for the wedding of Magrat and King Verence, and as the younger witch Diamanda challenges Granny to a duel, Granny and Nanny are left to try to stave off an invasion by the feared and powerful elves.

I’ve complained in the past about how much of the early Discworld books culminated in a threat by the Lovecraftian horrors of the Dungeon Dimensions. The elves are much, much more interesting, tying into Pratchett’s fascination with the power of myth and belief. They draw their strength precisely from the folklore and fairytales that surround them, blinding people to the truth, enchanting people with their glamour and beauty. (“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are,” Granny says. “Style. That’s what people remember.”) The most obvious parallel for a contemporary reader is Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – and in fact looking back at that review now, which I wrote eight years ago, I compared Clarke’s fairies to Pratchett’s elves. Although obviously both Pratchett and Clarke were drawing on the same old European myths and folklore: they may be magical and mysterious and beautiful, but elves and fairies still ultimately represent the frightening, ineffable things in the darkness beyond the glow of the campfire.

As with Mort, Guards! Guards! and a lot of the later books, this is one where Pratchett’s central conceit maps very well onto his plot. He doesn’t get carried away with too many jokes or flights of fancy. There’s a particularly good setpiece midway through the book in which Diamanda defies Granny Weatherwax and runs between the boundary stones, and Granny has to follow and retrieve her from the world of the elves. There’s a lot of stuff to like here: the first confrontation between humans and elves, Granny’s use of her Borrowing trick (in which she can enter the mind of an animal) to trip up the elves’ horses, and the general eerie atmosphere of an aurora-lit snowscape in the middle of summer. What I like most is Granny’s reaction to Diamanda getting wounded by an elf’s arrow. She carries the girl back to the boundary stones, and – although she does unashamedly tell Nanny that she draped Diamanda over her shoulder in such a way that if another arrow were to strike it would provide her with some cover – there was no chance whatsoever that Granny would have left her there. Granny has nothing but contempt for Diamanda – more than she does for people in general – but the girl is nonetheless one of the townspeople of Lancre, and Granny has an obligation towards her. Like a doctor or a teacher or policeman, she feels that she has an unwritten duty of care towards all the people in her little country – or perhaps all people, anywhere in the world, even if she thinks they’re mostly a collection of greedy, selfish dullards. It’s a very similar thread to what we come to see in Sam Vimes: a cynic about the human race who nonetheless dedicates their life towards protecting and helping people.

But neither has Pratchett quite Flanderised these characters, which sadly happens towards the end of the series, or at least it does with Vimes. Granny is far from infallible. Much is made of her skills at human manipulation and psychology, or ‘headology’ as she calls it, but the conclusion to this passage – when they bring the wounded Diamanda to Magrat to seek her help – stuck in my mind over the years:

Magrat’s cottage traditionally housed thoughtful witches who noticed things and wrote things down. Which herbs were better than others for headaches, fragments of old stories, odds and ends like that.
It was a cottage of questioning witches, research witches. Eye of what newt? What species of ravined salt-sea shark? It’s all very well a potion calling for Love-in-idleness, but which of the thirty-seven common plants called by that name in various parts of the continent was actually meant?
The reason that Granny Weatherwax was a better witch than Magrat was that she knew that in witchcraft it didn’t matter a damn which one it was, or even if it was a piece of grass.
The reason that Magrat was a better doctor than Granny was that she thought it did.

There’s plenty of other stuff I could talk about. I have no particularly cogent analysis or insight, just a whole bunch of things I really enjoyed: the horned Cernunnos figure who serves as king of the elves, the gaming of the witches’ duel between Diamanda and Granny, Granny’s neat trick with the bees at the conclusion of the book. But I’ll leave it at that. Lords and Ladies is up there with the very best of Pratchett’s work: a tightly plotted fantasy novel which just happens to have a comedic thread running through it, rather than a lot of jokes strung together with a plot. It’s not perfect – the younger coven is brushed out of the story about halfway through (which is odd, considering Agnes later replaces Magrat) and apart from Ridcully himself, the Unseen University emissaries seem a bit out of place. But as I said before: this is, I think, the peak of the Witches series, probably the best Discworld book in the series thus far, and would easily make it into the top ten of the series overall. An excellent book.

“Go back,” said Granny. “You call yourself some kind of goddess and you know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you.”

Rereading Discworld index

On his twenty-first birthday, he was asked where he wished to go in the world, to which he immediately responded ‘Otago’—knowing that the rushes in Victoria had abated, and having long been enamoured of the idea of the prospector’s life, which he conceived of in terms quixotic and alchemical. He saw the metal shining, unseen, undiscovered, upon some lonely beach of some uncharted land; he saw the moon rising full and yellow over the open sea; he saw himself riding on horseback through the shallows of a creek, and sleeping on the bare earth, and running water through a wooden cradle, and twining digger’s dough around a stick to bake above the embers of a fire. What a fine thing it would be, he thought, to be able to say that one’s fortune was older than all the ages of men and history; to say that one had chanced upon it, had plucked it from the earth with one’s own bare hands.

– From “The Luminaries,” by Eleanor Catton

Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt (2016) 188 p.

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In the opening chapter of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? Ian Dunt paints a nightmare scenario lying ahead for the United Kingdom. No trade deal with the European Union, hard borders, re-implemented tariffs and customs red tape, and the British government at the mercy of Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. The pound plummets, the economy goes into freefall and dark times lie ahead for the British people. “That was the worst-case scenario,” Dunt explains at the beginning of the next chapter. “It is also Britain’s current destination.”

Dunt is the editor of politics.co.uk and the political editor of The Erotic Review. I’ve followed his writing for some time, and respect his level-headed and journalistic approach to writing editorials and opinion pieces, which seems increasingly uncommon on both the right and the left. By this I do not mean that he sits in the middle and gives equal respectability to all sides. I mean that he states the plain truth even when it seems unfashionable or uncomfortable to do so – and if you find the headline I just linked to strident or inflammatory, I suggest you read the entire piece. He deals with facts and figures and resents the increasing role that emotional, gut-level tribalism has come to play in politics, not just in Britain but around the world.

This has only been exacerbated by the Brexit divide in Britain. Dunt is a Remainer, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from reading this book. He wastes no time on recriminations, finger-pointing or a dissection of the referendum campaign (riven as it was with misinformation, ignorance, propaganda and outright lies). Instead he looks ahead, to the enormous challenges Britain now faces, in the hope of making the best of a bad situation. To that end he’s interviewed dozens of economists, professors, lawyers and public servants to try to provide an outlay of exactly how Britain can extract itself from a political, legal and trading network that it’s been part of for more than forty years.

As the opening chapter explains: outlook not good. The problem with Brexit is that it’s not a simple proposition. “Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May said firmly upon entering Downing Street, a meaningless tautology that will nonetheless go down in history textbooks which are unlikely to look kindly upon her and her current cabinet. After explaining exactly what the EU is and how Britain relates to it (not as silly as it sounds, since most Brits probably have only a vague idea) Dunt spends some time examining the three Brexit ministers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – and how they’ve behaved since the referendum. Johnson has published multiple articles which contradict each other and ludicrously state that freedom of movement will continue; Fox repeatedly failed to understand that it’s illegal for the UK to make trade arrangements with other countries while still part of the EU; Davis conducted a meeting shortly after the referendum with business leaders who were pulled aside by civil servants beforehand and warned to only say they were positive and excited about the “opportunities” of Brexit.

By the end of this short and sobering book it seems very clear that few British people, whether they’re Merseyside plumbers or Tory Cabinet ministers, have much of an idea about exactly what the EU does and how catastrophic Brexit has the potential to be. Go on any Facebook or Twitter thread, or the comments section of online articles, and you will find a legion of Leave voters, lecturers at the University of Some Bloke At The Pub, happy to scoff at the notion that Britain will be anything other than enormously successful. There are no challenges or problems in Brexit-land, just a happily-raised middle finger at those faceless eurocrats in Brussels.

This is the problem Dunt finds so infuriating: not the concept of Britain leaving the EU in general, but the fact that it’s doing that so recklessly, so thoughtlessly, in a maelstrom of jingoistic tub-thumping and blind nostalgia for the British glory of a forgotten age. And, worse, that this shortsighted nationalism has infected the very highest level of politics. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Michael Gove:

“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms, saying they know what’s best and consistently getting it wrong.”
Michael Gove
Justic Secretary
Sky News, 3 June 2016*

*When told that the leaders of the US, China, India, Australia, the bank of England, the IMF, the IFS, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the chief executive of the NHS and most of Britain’s trade unions opposed Britain leaving the EU.

Foreign readers may not find Brexit particularly compelling reading; I’m Australian, but I care about politics, I lived in Britain for a year and I still have a job which means I need to watch a lot of BBC and Sky. (On a side note, as an Australian, the Remainer assumption that the UK can just turn around and find all the old countries of the Commonwealth waiting for it is hilarious. Nations don’t have friends, they have interests, and they also have their own scheming politicians and hysterical tabloids.) I also think the world’s fifth-largest economy cutting off its nose to spite its face will ultimately affect all of us. But the reason I think Dunt’s book is worthwhile reading no matter where you live is because it touches on that nerve of modern ignorance: the insidious influence of populist politics and the dismissal of people who actually know what the fuck they’re talking about. The most obvious example of this is Trump, but you can see it everywhere, as Facebook echo chambers slowly replace actual news and opinion from measured, intelligent sources. A few years ago I started working for a news network and was subject to countless hours of vox populi, and the inane, pig-headed, simple-minded nonsense that spouts from the mouth of the man on the Manly ferry when you put a microphone in front of him slowly eroded any respect I ever had for the intelligence of the common citizen. I try to avoid using the word stupid – many of these people are mechanics and doctors and engineers and environmental scientists, all of their heads swimming with skills and abilities I could never have. But they’re ignorant. Everybody is ignorant of something, and nearly all of us are ignorant of EU political relationships and trade law. So putting a loosely-worded referendum to the entire populace, after years and years of tabloid propaganda, purely as a domestic political move to placate the right wing of your own party, arrogantly assuming you’ll easily win – was that maybe a stupid thing to do, Dave?

A lot of people, particularly Remainers, assume it will be no big deal. They are going to be painfully proven wrong. What we’re going to see is millions of EU citizens in the UK now living in fear of deportation, every British citizen being stripped of their EU citizenship rights, the jeopardisation of decades of peace in Northern Ireland with the possibility of the return of a hard border (astoundingly, David Davis seemed to believe in one interview that the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK), a second Scottish independence referendum, and a volatile economy and weak pound for a decade to come. But I’m sure it will be worth it for English people to get their bendy bananas back.

I’m clearly a tad more partisan about this than Dunt. But as I said, it’s not really Brexit itself: it’s the worrying trend of abandoning facts, reason and logic and replacing them with sloganeering and feelgood fantasies. It’s about understanding exactly what it is you’re tinkering with before you rip it apart (see also: the “Washington establishment”). I can guarantee you that the vast majority of Leave voters – and Remain voters, for that matter – and even the vast majority of the British Parliament would be unaware of the problems examined in this book, even now, nine months after the referendum. For those of us outside Europe, this is worthwhile reading. For those poor sods in Britain it’s essential.

Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News by Robert Hutton (2013) 135 p.

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I do closed captions for evening new bulletins. That’s my dead-end day job, and it largely entails sub-editing the absolutely atrocious scripts filed by journalists around the world, who – despite presumably having graduated not just high school but university – will still spell engine as “enjyn” and other such horrors. (Australian and Canadian journalists are far worse than the British.)

Apart from the frankly bewildering spelling errors, the more subtle thing that nags away at you is how dreadfully cliche and predictable the language of “journalese” is, whether it’s in broadcast or print. Victims always “maintain a dignified silence” in court; political meetings are always “crisis talks” which take place “behind closed doors;” scandal-gripped public figures are always “beleaguered” or “embattled.” I spend all day immersed in it, but anybody who regularly reads newspapers or watches evening bulletins will have absorbed far more of this odd dialect than they realise. Robert Hutton, a proud hack at Bloomberg, took it upon himself to compile a glossary of it which is now collected in this amusing volume. Some highlights:

designer clothes – as opposed to a sack with holes torn in it.
expenses paid– for some reason, when they hear the word ‘expenses,’ journalists assume fraud must be involved. Psychologists might be able to explain why this should be.
flat-screen colour TV – or a ‘TV,’ as they’re now known.
going forward – the reporter, possibly half-asleep, has copied out too much of the press release.
lethal cocktail – there were two drugs in their system, you say?
named locally – the cops aren’t saying who it was, but fortunately everyone in the pub knew.
smoke-filled rooms – where cosy consensuses are reached. This has survived the smoking ban.

I can’t say this would be gripping stuff to somebody who doesn’t either work in the industry or follow the news closely, but I found it quite a brief and entertaining read. Journalese is so pervasive that you don’t really notice it for what it is, and I’m pleased that Hutton has managed to comprehensively compile and articulate something that thousands of us have probably felt only as a vague, nagging sense of irritation.

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