The Best Snuff You Ever Had
January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Completed: Snuff, a Discworld Novel, by Terry Pratchett
I think in this case, I’ll actually do a bit of a review because me reviewing Terry Pratchett is like an amateur hockey player criticizing Sidney Crosby: the man’s pedigree is so well-established that nothing I really say can do much to help or harm him. Pratchett, of course I mean Sir Pratchett, whether you like him or not, is golden. He writes good books. That fact is like the gravitational constant; it’s like Bernoulli’s Principle: it just is.
I want to say something pithy like “well, when you write 39 of something, you tend to lose steam somewhere along the line”, but that’s not quite what I want to say. I liked Snuff, I really did, but it was far from his best, and that’s actually what I want to talk about.
When I look at writing, or well, anything, the base assumption is that “I have to do my best”, and really, why wouldn’t you? If you intend to put your name to something, it better well be something you’re proud of. I get really frustrated when I miss simple errors in stories that I post, because I don’t like my name associated with someone who misspells “Brimir” as “Brimi” in the same story.
But artists know that perfection isn’t possible. At some point it’s as done as it’s going to be (whatever it is), and it’s time to send it along. Ta ta, auf wiedersehen, good bye. So, how does the author/artist reconcile these two things? How do you match the drive for perfection with the reality that perfection is an actual impossibility?
Snuff is a Sam Vimes story. For those of you who don’t read Discworld, Vimes is the head of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. He’s the chief of police, and his stories usually feature three things:
- Mystery and a crime, usually a murder,
- Politics from the dirt side, and
- Some moral lesson/idea
This isn’t to say it’s formulaic (but it kind of is). The mystery is pretty straightforward. That’s what cops do: they de-mysterize mysteries. The second point is that Vimes is the Duke of Ankh, thanks to his wife. He doesn’t care, as he grew up a city boy, but this means that a) he must nob with the Nobs, and b) he dislikes them immensely and tells them so. Much monocle-popping occurs, and grimy street people rejoice.
Point three is very difficult for me. Moral lessons have fallen out of favour in our post-modern world, but I’m not certain that’s always good thing. I will not defend those jerks who try and teach our children something like, evolution isn’t real (because they are such jerks) for their own moral ends, but let’s not forget the importance of teaching morals. Having rules and goals to live by isn’t a bad thing at all. It can be, but so can anything, and Pratchett can do it right.
For instance, in Night Watch, another Vimes book, Vimes has a wonderful thought about what “the People” are. I had to crib this from Wikiquote because I read the book at the Library. Yes, the Library. I love that place, and it is one glorious hyper-dimensional space where everyone comes together to read and love and smell the occasional homeless person who uses the free computers but that’s ok because we’re all people in the library and no-one’s more important than anyone else. Except the head librarian. Cross them at your own peril.
Vimes had spent his life on the streets, and had met decent men and fools and people who’d steal a penny from a blind beggar and people who performed silent miracles or desperate crimes every day behind the grubby windows of little houses, but he’d never met The People. People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people. As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.
That? That is human history summed up in one little paragraph, one that I hold near to my heart, and one that shows the power of moral lessons. Sometimes, and they’re never completely right because anything more complex than “don’t be a jerk to other people” isn’t, but sometimes they are right enough.
But going back to Snuff, I found myself troubled. It’s not the best of Pratchett’s work and the moral is kind of forced. It says “don’ treat intelligent beings as less than human”. It’s a good lesson to remember…but the goblins in the book are a far, far cry from people. It doesn’t have the power of Night Watch, or the righteous anger of Thud!. Nor does it have the simple truth of Small Gods or the Fifth Elephant, and the mystery portion is, at points, confusing. There is a group of people who are very important to the plot, called the Magistrates, and I don’t think they are once identified in the story. They are nebulous and distant, like much of the danger.
Don’t think for a moment that means it’s bad, because it’s not. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that I’ve read this book before. Vimes shows up, and is witty and wistful about being a copper. He has to cut corners in a place he has no jurisdiction, and is wistful about it. He learns something about other people he didn’t know before, and then proceeds to crush any opposition under his righteous heel. At the end, his boss needs to fix everything from the diplomatic standpoint, but it all turns out right eventually. Not immediately at the end of the book, but in some time past that.
My number-one complaint with this book is that there is no antagonist. Certainly, there are people who are opposing Vimes, but there is no-one (or thing) upon which to focus the opposition. There is no Big Bad Evil Guy/Girl, or even no Big Bad Evil Force/Organization/Nation. Hell, there’s no-one who’s even on the same level as Vimes. Whenever there is opposition, he neatly finds a way to overcome, brow-beat, arrest, or out-smart them. About half the book sets up the dominoes, and the other half is one long flying Karate kick from Vimes as he knocks them all down.
But this taught me something important: it was perfect the way it was, and this goes hand-in-hand with something I realized only after working in a bookstore: reading is not only a form of teaching and enlightenment, it is also entertainment. A book can be read for no other reason than it is a fun story to read.
Snuff is that kind of book. You read it and you enjoy the story for what it is. It’s not a perfectly crafted masterpiece that will change literature forever…and to consider it as such would be missing the point. That idea scares me, but it also reassures me. My work might not go beyond amusing people and entertaining them for awhile…but that’s what I’m actually trying to do, isn’t it?
If I wrote the Illiad and it was rejected as mere entertainment, I would be righteously pissed. But, isn’t it though? Aren’t even the greatest stories we tell each other, still stories in the end?
This week: Goliath, by Scott Westerfeld, third and last of the Leviathan trilogy. I can tell you that this series is everything good about Young Adult fiction, and that’s what I’ll talk about this week.
Now go! Read!