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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.

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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.

 

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