Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry (1993) 589 p.

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(Critical spoiler warning for Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove)

Most books are about what happens. Larry McMurtry’s books are about what happens next.

Obviously that’s true of all books in a sense: the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. But Larry McMurtry shows us the course of people’s lives, and the consequences of life’s many sorrows, beyond the expected narrative constraint. This is doubly true of Streets of Laredo, the fourth and final installment of the Lonesome Dove series: not just because it’s a low-key sequel to the greatest Western novel of all time – an examination of Woodrow Call’s twilight years after the death of his life partner – but also because of what happens to Call himself at the end of the novel.

After Lonesome Dove I went and read Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon, which are chronologically the first two books in the series. They take place when Call and Gus are younger men, when the Texas frontier was truly wild, when Comanche still ruled the western plains. They lead beautifully into Lonesome Dove: a novel which is, at its heart, about memory and old age and the passage of time. The west is still wild, but only just.

Streets of Laredo takes us into the 1890s. The US census has declared the frontier officially gone, steam trains criss-cross Texas, and Captain Call is living out his old age as a bounty hunter. His reputation precedes him, but Call himself knows his glory days are long gone, the frontier tamed, his old companions mostly dead and buried. He is a grumpy old man after a lifetime spent as a grumpy young man.

I remember going into a gift shop in the American West somewhere and finding a whole section of wall plaques emblazoned with quotes from Lonesome Dove – the miniseries is a cult classic, although I’m not sure that’s the right word for something that was broadly popular. Gus is an endlessly quotable rake for all seasons, but Call also has a deep appeal to the masculine spirit of the American West and a common kind of American man. He’s a matter-of-fact stoic, a cowboy who gets things done and has little tolerance for incompetent people. (It occurred to me that incompetence is portrayed as the primary moral failing imaginable in the Western genre, much as it is in that modern TV western, The Walking Dead.) Call is a hard-working John Wayne cowboy in the classic mould. The fact is, of course, Call is also a miserable bastard. He always has been and always will be: a difficult man whom you’d trust with your life but wouldn’t invite to your dinner table. Yet he’s not unsympathetic; he’s a victim of his own nature as much as anybody else is. It’s a mark of McMurtry’s talent as a writer that trying to describe a character like Call can feel like trying to describe a real human. He does run to a groove, but still contains multitudes, still does unexpected things sometimes. There’s a moment at the start of the book where Call’s employer has a panic attack so Call kindly and gently guides him across the street to the hotel – not because kindness and gentleness are his instinctive responses, but simply because he knows they’re the most efficient way to draw someone down from panic, and Call values efficiency and common sense above all else.

I half-expected I might dislike this book because it lacks Gus, the other end of the axle that spins throughout the series, the two characters balancing each other perfectly while a whole Western universe revolves around them. Gus’ absence is certainly felt, but in many ways that only highlights the novel’s greater themes: Call is left to live on, a full fifteen years after the catastrophic Montana expedition, without his partner, often wondering what he might have done or said. That’s life. That’s death.

Streets of Laredo is, judged by itself as a novel – by its ensemble characters, by the shapes and forms of its plot – probably the weakest of the series. But as a conclusion to the Lonesome Dove series, to the saga of Gus and Call’s lives, and those of the people around them, it’s brilliant. The four books together make up one of those rare things: a story which is greater than the sum of its parts. A 3,000+ page Western epic which is, at surface level, about a friendship and partnership between two men, but which touches on a deeper level about so many more things – most notably, and most skillfully, about the nihilistic injustice of the world, about the way life doesn’t always fit to the patterns of the stories we tell ourselves, about how people cope (or don’t cope) when faced with the fact that their own narrative has gone astray. About what happens next.

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Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994) 432 p.
Discworld #16 (Death #2)

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I remembered very little of Soul Music from the first time I read it, and now – about a month after I reread it – I remember very little of it again. It’s not a memorable book. It is, easily, the weakest book in the Discworld’s teen years and probably one of the weakest overall.

Soul Music is a story of two halves, and they’re both variations on themes we’ve seen before. One of them is something from our real world taking spark as a brief fad on the Discworld – we saw this with film in Moving Pictures, and we see it now with rock music in Soul Music. As before, this is mostly an excuse for Pratchett to jam as many jokes and references in about the subject in question as possible. The second plot is the third story in the Death arc, and is about – you guessed it – Death going AWOL and experiencing the real world, resulting in somebody having to step up to take on his duty; in this case his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabel from Mort.

The gem at the heart of this story is Death’s grief over his adopted daughter’s death, which occurs at the beginning of the novel as she and Mort go over a cliff in a runaway carriage. It’s never outright stated, it’s never even suggested by any of the other characters, but grief is clearly what Death is experiencing – a new and frightening concept for him, and one which jars against his duty to guide souls into the new world. He does this without question, only briefly entertaining the possibility that, yes, he could have done something to stop her death from happening, but Death nonetheless abandons his duty henceforth and spends the rest of the book trying to forget all about his daughter to end the pain of having lost her.

It’s easy to miss that this is his motivation – I don’t think I picked up on it when I read it as a teenager – not just because it’s the third time we’re going through the motions of Death Takes A Holiday, but also because it’s drowned out by what’s going on in the foreground of the novel, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We have a story about a magical pawn shop sidling into Ankh-Morpork from another dimension, an aspiring young musician finding himself in the possession of a magical guitar which begins to possess his soul, and a new kind of music launching itself onto the Discworld. Cue predictable jokes like the avaricious CMOT Dibbler becoming the first rock band’s manager.

All of the interesting stuff in Soul Music – Susan’s repressed childhood memories about visits to Death’s Domain, Albert’s carefully hoarded precious seconds of time in the hourglass hidden beneath his bed, a flashback to the showdown at the finale of Mort – is divorced from the main storyline, much as the touching fairytale at the heart of Reaper Man bears no resemblance to the oddball story about predatory shopping trolleys that felt like it made up more than half the bulk of that book. The dissonance isn’t quite as jarring, but at the same time the Death storyline doesn’t feel quite as good as that in Reaper Man. I’m not surprised I’d forgotten most of Soul Music’s plot – forgettable is the right word for it.

Next up is a return to Rincewind’s story arc in Interesting Times.

Rereading Discworld index

On the ride back across the gray plains, the young cowboy – he was just twenty – looked rather despondent. Goodnight ignored his despondence for a while, then got tired of it. What did a healthy sprout of twenty have to be despondent about?
“What’s made you look so peaked, J.D.?” Goodnight inquired.
“Why, it’s Captain Call, I guess,” the young cowboy said.
He was glad to talk about it, to get his dark feelings out. “What about Captain Call?” Goodnight asked.
“Why, wasn’t he a great Ranger?” the boy asked. “I’ve always heard he was the greatest Ranger of all.”
“Yes, he had exceptional determination,” Goodnight told him.
“Well, but now look… what’s he doing? Sharpening sickles in a dern barn!” J.D. exclaimed.
Goodnight was silent for a bit. He wished his young cowboys would keep their minds on the stock, and not be worrying so about things they couldn’t change.
“Woodrow Call had his time,” he said, finally. “It was a long time, too. Life’s but a knife edge, anyway. Sooner or later people slip and get cut.”
“Well, you ain’t slipped,” J.D. Brown said.
“How would you know, son?” Goodnight said.

– From “Streets of Laredo,” by Larry McMurtry

 

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.

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)

lords-and-ladies-2.jpg

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

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