When I had read about fifteen or sixteen Discworld novels, I mentioned in a Bollywood web forum that I was working through them in publication order. One person replied “It might be best to start at the end and work backwards, as that way they would get better as you read more of them. Well, it’s probably not as bad if you’re in tune with his politics.” By the time I got to the end of the series, I understood why he said that.
The earlier Discworld books are good-humoured satire, with lots of laughs as they poke fun at elements of human society. The later ones are often very much less funny, as Pratchett simply vents his views on serious political issues through a tissue thin covering of “satirical fiction”. Two examples are Feet of Clay and Night Watch. The person who said “work backwards” expressed strong support for the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and Pratchett’s increasingly open statements of his own social and political views would understandably irk someone holding such an opposing view.
In some of the later Discworld novels though, Pratchett achieves a near perfect balance of the personal with the political, examining what makes a person tick, rather than just society as a whole. Two of the very best examples are Thud! and Snuff, books thirteen and twenty for me in my fiftyfiftyme challenge for 2013.
Thud! has as its political theme racism and the way historical grievances are exploited by those who see personal gain from keeping old hatreds alive, traditionalists and fundamentalists who seek to hold power at any cost. But the really interesting struggle in the book is a very personal one. Throughout the story, an ominous entity known to dwarves as The Summoning Dark keeps appearing, looking for a way in to the mind of someone that it can control. It’s only just before the dramatic climax of the book that we discover its intended victim is none other than the hero, Samuel Vines, Commander of the City Watch. The description of Vimes’ battle against the essence of Anger and the way in which he eventually triumphed made this one of the most absorbing of the series for me.
The Summoning Dark returns in Snuff. This time, Vimes is transplanted to his wife’s country estate, and Pratchett explores the way power and privilege can warp the view of those born into them. As the ultimate rags-to-riches story, Vimes finds himself struggling with the conflict between his current social status and his view of those who feel they are above the law by virtue of their standing in society. The story involves slavery, drug smuggling and genocidal attitudes, as well as Vimes’ growing acceptance and mastery of his own inner demon, the Summoning Dark, which never left him and quite literally branded him for life. It’s this idea that makes these two books such great reading, I think. Vimes is one of Pratchett’s strongest and most nuanced characters, and these books show him first struggling with and nearly succumbing to atavistic rage, then learning how to channel that powerful force and “keep it in a cage” as the dwarves say of him in Snuff.
Despite the serious subjects considered, these books are not all unrelenting darkness. There are flashes of the trademark Pratchett drollery (and punnery) in both, but only flashes. What I found especially fascinating was the sense that rather than just a generic “there’s rage in all of us” idea, these books show Pratchett himself getting the mastery of his own anger. His anger at the political, social and economic developments he attacks in the series is more controlled and expressed with more care and balance in these books than in others, and personalising the struggle makes them read less like rants, more like absorbing stories.
These books prove that, like the real world, Discworld has changed over time. Whether that change is for the better or the worse, only the reader can decide. One thing I am sure of thanks to books like Thud! and Snuff, is that no one who reads enough of the series to make their own decision will regret doing so. Reading Discworld will leave its own permanent brand, just like the Summoning Dark.