Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett (1990) 243 p.
Discworld #10 (stand-alone)
This is a bit of an odd one. It’s the second stand-alone in the series after Pyramids, revolving around the discovery of film by the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork. Spurred on by a newly-released hole in reality in the sunny beachside locale of Holy Wood, the Discworld soon has a thriving movie-making business going on. The main character Victor Tugelbend – student wizard, unexpected movie star and certainly one of the most forgettable characters Pratchett ever wrote – begins to uncover the origins of Holy Wood, the ancient civilisation that once lived there and the terrible danger sleeping beneath the nearby hills.
Looking at the series as a whole, Moving Pictures seems to foreshadow the twilight years of the Discworld – what some people think of as the Industrial Revolution novels, when many books would introduce new technologies or developments to Ankh-Morpork: the clacks, the newspaper, a post office, a banking system, etc. The difference was that while in each of those later books the new technology stuck around and formed part of a growing, broader fictional world, Moving Pictures may as well end with an Everything’s Back to Normal Barbecue.
It’s notable for the introduction of a few long-term characters – Gaspode the talking dog, who if memory serves will return in Men-at-Arms; Archchancellor Ridcully, the crossbow-toting new leader of Unseen University who regards most of his lazy, overweight faculty with open contempt; and that same unnamed faculty, with ludicrous professors like the Lecturer in Recent Runes and the Chair of Indefinite Studies. Oddly, the faculty aren’t introduced until about three quarters of the way through the book, and then play a part in the climax only to disappear entirely, not even worth an appearance in the sort of post-credits montage that makes up the final few pages. Yet Pratchett clearly liked them, since they’re important characters in the next book, Reaper Man. I can’t help but feel they were shoved into a late draft. We also see Detritus develop into a more complex character, although he’s still a long way from his future as a sergeant in the City Watch.
Moving Pictures, on the whole, feels too much like an excuse for Pratchett to write a bunch of jokes about the early decades of Hollywood. I actually began to find myself a little bored while reading it, which is not something I ever expect of a Discworld novel. The climax, in particular, was tiresome: creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions break through the silver screen and we have a reverse King Kong spoof as an enormous monster in the shape of a woman seizes the Librarian and climbs to the top of the Tower of Art with him. Very droll – but by my count that’s now four books revolving around the Dungeon Dimensions, three of which culminate on top of the Tower of Art.
There’s a moment in Moving Pictures where Dibbler (one of the better parts of the book – neatly going from hot-dog-selling entrepreneur to a profit-obsessed film producer) tries to explain how film works to the Patrician; Vetinari, however, has no interest in “how things work,” only in “how people work.” I think that’s true of Pratchett as well – he’s an author fascinated by human nature, by how people tick, by how we relate to each other. So I find it puzzling that even ten books into the Discworld series, when he’s already proven himself capable of writing compelling human villains (as in Pyramids and Guards, Guards) he keeps falling back on the hoary Lovecraftian trope of horrible monsters from another dimension. There’s also a lot in there about the magic of cinema and the power of human belief, the latter being one of Pratchett’s most recurrent themes, but it never solidifies into something that feels purposeful; it never seems to be elevated beyond, as I said, a bunch of jokes about Hollywood looking for a plot.