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mygif

Is this an inappropriate thread to bring up both the appalling white saviour bullshit and stirring defense of class privilege that was Snuff, and the fact that Ankh-Morpork, politically speaking, is ruled by a despot appointed by oligarchs and that the authority of both Vimes and Vetinari is deeply and explicitly fascist in nature?

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mygif

No, I think it’s appropriate. I think that had he been able to write a little longer, Pratchett probably would have written goblin protagonists, but there’s no question that ‘Snuff’ and ‘Raising Steam’ both were deeply centered in the experience of their white male protagonists and viewed the “other” primarily as someone to be uplifted or saved.

It wasn’t quite a “white savior” narrative–as I understand it, that term generally refers to a white man who immerses themselves in another culture to the point where they become the exemplar of it, allowing that culture to triumph over oppression by the majority in a way they couldn’t on their own–but it was problematic, and I think that it was only the last step in Pratchett’s evolution of the Disc on account of a certain skeletal gentleman in long black robes who refused to be patient.

As to the despotic nature of the Patrician, well…I think that’s a little more complex. Obviously, it’s not representative government as we recognize it, but it is responsive to the people. I think that Pratchett has always used the Patrician to make some interesting points about the morally ambiguous nature of power, and there’s certainly a sense about the Discworld as a whole that Pratchett deeply distrusts any form of government. The Patrician, he seems to be saying, is about the best you can hope for in a world where pretty much any power eventually corrupts–someone who uses their power wisely and well. (Or wellish, at least.)

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mygif

The Patrician doesn’t seem to be responsive to the people at all. Winder had to be removed at the tip of an assassin’s blade sponsored by a group of oligarchs (and Pratchett’s little two-step to keep Vetinari’s hands literally if not metaphorically clean in that regard is somewhat sickening), and it is heavily implied something similar happened to Snapcase.

Vetinari makes a show of being responsive to public opinion. So did Napolean Bonaparte.

And this is problematic when it comes to Vimes, because Vimes claims his moral and secular authority from the law, and the source of law in Ankh-Morpork is… the Patrician.

Lance-Constable Vimes found that problematic enough to take part in a bloody uprising. Commander Vimes is bang alongside the unaccountable despotism as long as it is his sort of unaccountable despotism.

I understand the point that Pratchett was trying to make with regard to Kings, I do. In particular, his point that the old Kings of Ankh-Morpork claimed a divine right to rule whereas the Patricians never pretend to be anything but the cleverest rat in a city full of rats is well-taken. But it’s hard to square that circle with the constant Vimes refrain of “Law! Justice!” that is in every single one of the Vimes books.

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mygif

The biggest failing of the Discworld (which can be at least partially blamed on the illness making it impossible for Pratchett to deal with it properly) is that there was never a real resolution to the matter of Vetinari’s successor, and how the city can do anything other than fall into anarchy or back to monarchy when that inevitability comes to pass.

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mygif

@Murc, Pratchett was writing as an Englishman, not an American. They have a slightly different relationship with monarchy, republics, and government than most Americans do. It’s easy for lots of Americans to miss that because we think our system is evolved from theirs, but they’re really quite different.

Also, keep in mind that Pratchett was moving from the fantasy parody trope of the merchant prince (and Vetinari, to me, has always been a pretty obvious stand in for, perhaps, a Medici style Renaissance patrician lord). He couldn’t step literally from “Here’s my merchant prince” to “here’s my elected leader” without it feeling a bit cheap, I think. I suspect that he was writing toward something where Vetinari either voluntarily stepped down, or passed away of natural causes, and someone else got power in a different way. I think he was making a statement that you can’t just jump from old-school monarch to open and free democracy without, perhaps, some bumps in the road along the way, and if you were lucky, then those bumps looked like Vetinari and Vimes, and not Snapcase and Winder.

Also, there’s no evidence in the books to suggest that the laws of Ankh-Morpork all came from the Patrician. The guild leaders certainly seem to have some say in the matter, even if only advisory. And many of the laws are mentioned as being from the days of the kings. Besides all of that, suggesting that the Vimes is just a tool of the Patrician is a point that I think is pretty well subverted by the ending of Jingo. And the end of Going Postal, for example, pretty clearly suggests that there’s no reason for the Patrician to bother with such niceties.
“‘Mr Greenyham,’ said Lord Vetinari, ‘one more uninvited outburst from you and you will be imprisoned. I hope that is clear?’

‘On what charge?’ said Greenyham, still managing to find a last reserve of hauteur from somewhere.

‘There doesn’t have to be one!'”

If you’re just looking within the text, I think a case can be made that had Pratchett had more time, he was working toward making a point about the relationship between government, power, politics and human nature. I think he would have gotten to it, had it not been for his untimely death.

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mygif

Well, the city seems unlikely to fall into anarchy for any significant period of time. The Snapcase-to-Vetinari transition was apparently quite smooth. And the city has always been quite orderly during those periods in which the Guilds decided to place Vetinari’s Patricianship into abeyance for one reason or another; it didn’t implode when he was removed during Jingo or when he was incapacitated during The Truth.

The problem of the matter of Vetinari’s successor is that the Guilds are likely to pick someone who is significantly worse at the job than Vetinari, and then what does Commander Carrot do?

(I’m assuming the Vetinari outlives Vimes, potentially by a lot. They’re the same age but Vetinari lives like a monk whereas Vimes has spent decades kicking the shit out of his body.)

Vetinari is an incredibly smart man. I absolutely buy him as a competent, successful ruler, which is rare for me to acknowledge in fictional rulers. But I think he had a big blind spot when it comes to continuity of government, which is: Vetinari thinks in terms of people. But governments don’t function in terms of people; they function in terms of institutions. Vetinari has done little to create institutions that are durable in the absence of someone like… well, like him being at the top. One of his big priorities should be to re-structure the Patricianship and the circumstances for attaining it that encourage competent stewardship. This can be done; it happens in the real world a lot, the British Civil Service is in fact a famous example of a government institution that can continue to function with a basic level of competence and success no matter what howling looney is in Downing Street.

@Sisyphus

I’ve heard this conjecture before, but one of the problems with it is that both Vetinari and Vimes are openly, witheringly contemptuous of representative government. They both regard it with a kind of horror. It’s difficult to see either of them changing that sort of long-held belief.

As for the ending of Jingo, Vimes was technically acting under color of law, but he really twisted it around to nearly the breaking point. But the only reason Vimes was able to do what he did is because the office of the Patrician is constrained to an extent, but only to an extent, by the oligarchy which elects it.

Ultimately, Vimes’ authority in Ankh-Morpork flows from the Patrician and the laws he makes and enforces. Especially because the Patrician is also, in fact, the court of last resort. (The books refer many times to Vimes bringing people in front of Vetinari to pass judgment on them.)

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mygif

@Murc: When I said “the Patrician”, I was referring to the person and not the office. Vetinari is responsive to the desires of the people, as clearly demonstrated in ‘Raising Steam’; despite his personal misgivings regarding locomotion, he decides that it would be foolish to try to outlaw an idea whose time has come.

There’s a definite issue of succession, as Jeff R. points out, but I suspect we’d have seen something regarding that had more books come along. Vetinari is fairly foresighted, and has to be aware that a bad tyrant would undo all the good that a good tyrant did.

I do think that Pratchett is pointing out an uncomfortable truth through Vetinari, much the same as he did in ‘Interesting Times’–that all the gains of democracy and representative government are primarily bequeathed to us by a parade of tyrants knee-deep in blood who killed everyone who wasn’t willing to follow their vision of enlightened and peaceful exchanges of power. :) I think the governmental structure of Ankh-Morpork is intended to be something you examine more than accept in that regard.

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mygif

I sort of got the impression that that would have been Moist’s ultimate arc; that his journey through reforming the city’s civil service was either grooming him for the job or leading to him being given the task of building a government that worked, more or less, no matter what kind of idiot or madman is heading it up.

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mygif

@Jeff R.: There’s been plenty of fan speculation supporting your posited future. Indeed, from our very first reading of “Going Postal”, my good friend in Pratchett fandom argued that Moist was being set up as a successor to Vetinari.

However, I personally held hope that Pterry would not be so unsubtle, and that perhaps some semblance of the much maligned democratic processes would eventually be installed into the A/M microcosm.

I guess we’ll never know.

ETA: [I wrote a long, wine-fuelled screed about Pratchett, belief, privilege, democracy and benevolent dictatorships, but it was all lost in a poorly judged click of the mouse. Perhaps I’ll try to re-create it tomorrow.]

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mygif

I think you’re overselling the “transition” of his writing style. All of the stuff was always there, especially the stuff about heroes – that’s pretty much the entire point of Cohen, that “legendary heroes” don’t really make the transition into the real world very well. Pratchett just started making the themes more prominent as time went on.

The big overarching theme of Pratchett’s writing is the slow but steady march of progress. Nothing is ever perfect, but Vetinari is better than his predecessors(who tended to be outright tyrants at best), Ridcully is better than his predecessors(who were a danger to each other, the city, and the world), and Vimes is better than his predecessors(who were corrupt, incompetent, or overzealous and never got much in the way of justice done).

And Snuff isn’t as bad as you guys are making it out to be. It’s not about a white guy stepping in to solve everyone’s problems(throughout the book, at no point does Vimes fail to be anticipated and manipulated by Shine, Vetinari, and the Dwarf king), it’s about someone in a position of authority having to deal with racial conflict that he doesn’t understand or have any emotional investment in it, and resisting the pressure to take the easy way out and just blame it on the people involved.

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mygif

In Murc’s defense, Snuff really is the worst thing Pterry ever wrote. I don’t think it’s worth defending, especially the racial stuff.

Also, I think it’s interesting that he brings back the elves for the final villain in the series. If there’s any Discworld villain who encapsulate the theme of “true evil is treating people like things”, it really is the elves.

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Lord Riven said on January 12th, 2016 at 10:21 am

Oh, good. I was nervously coming here to raise a criticism about Pratchett, but I see I’m in good company.

I’m in a weird place in that I adore Pratchett and his works even if I often disagree with him. For someone who so profoundly understood the importance of symbols and symbolism, he seems to hate any and all embodiments of them (kingship and monarchy, for example, always stands out to me.) As a militant agnostic, or at least a militant anti-atheist I have certain theological objections to the points where his issues with organized religion crossed over into his issues with religious faith-in-general (the nuance of Small Gods tends to disappear in later works, although admittedly no other Discworld book actually focuses on religion in remotely the same way.)

If there are serious issues with Pratchett, though, they generally come down to the later Vimes books. Vimes sis always a problematic character – the frequent invocation of Old Stoneface, for example, is a clear shout-out to Oliver Cromwell, who was a fucking monster even by the standards of his time (England did not need a bloody Civil War with a generation of recrimination that installed a military dictator far more tyrannical than the king he replaced). What drives me nuts about Vimes is the contempt he continually shows for his wife’s family, friends, and class as a whole. While he genuinely loves his wife, his endless griping about the aristocracy and everything they represent becomes really appalling after he’s been a member of the damn class for twenty years. He doesn’t give up the house, the estates, the combat butler, the power of being Commander of a nation-state’s security force – his mindset of still being that ‘guy in the gutter’ stops being reasonable by the time he’s had his kid. What I love about Night Watch is that Vimes goes back to the ‘old days’ and realizes just how much his new life means to him and how badly he’s willing to fight for it, but it doesn’t stick. Snuff is the goddamn worst offender – ‘ah these poor rural peasants not knowing how oppressed they have been,’ a sentiment that makes me want to vomit. Then of course we have the awful race thing. Vimes bitches-out the ignorant peasants for not questioning the status quo about goblins and their exploitation by the local landlords without ever really confronting the fact that he never stops thinking of himself as a peasant – he holds just as much contempt for his ‘own’ class as he does for his wife’s and… sigh. I could go on and on about this, really. I apologize if this is rambly and incoherent; I’ve been kind of rambly and incoherent since Bowie died.

[Not covered: the entrenched male privilege at the University, the sidelining of Esk for decades (need to read SH), the Ramtops kingdoms being no-less royal than Ankh-Morpork used to be but never having that come under scrutiny, the relatively few number of Susan novels, but mostly: Susan is the duchess of Sto Helit why the FUCK is that never brought up because it bothers the crap out of me!)

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mygif

Regards comments re Vimes- surely the point of Vimes position regarding Class is the fact that whilst he does enjoy the comfort etc he doesn’t believe he is /better/ than other people or /deserves/ his good fortune. He doesn’t think he has risen to the top in a meritocracy the way rich people and aristocrats in our society so frequently do, he recognises blind luck and is grateful, conflicted because he has spent so long despising wealth and aristocracy, but happy to be comfortable etc. I think he is torn between rage at the stupidity of people keeping each other down (crab bucket) and rage at people deliberately pushing others down (aristocracy) or treating them as less than human (aristocracy). I am sure there are many examples that can be deconstructed to provide counter arguments but these I think are the ideas in play as part of Vimes’ struggle with class, wealth, privelige etc. Also Vimes starts out pretty racist, possibly (though I’d have to check) a bit sexist etc and gradually alters his views through exposure etc.

Oh and I don’t think Vimes is intended to be perfect, but he is trying. He’s a complex character with both good and bad impulses etc and one of his roles is to examine how someone who might say have the capacity for great darkness can still strive to do good, be an ordinary person etc etc.

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mygif

I don’t think the racial material in ‘Snuff’ is indefensible–it’s certainly a good generation behind the times, back when it was enough for your ciswhitehetmale Hero to be enlightened enough to be kind to the stereotype minorities, rather than actually digging in and doing the hard work to treat your minority characters as the real people they are, but it at least takes the position that cruelty to the powerless is indefensible and that every culture has virtue if you pay attention to them instead of dismissing them as savages. That’s 101, I’ll agree, and I wouldn’t recommend the book as any kind of place to start when looking at themes of race in SF, but it’s a far cry from anything Castalia House might publish. :)

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mygif

@Lord Riven: I think Pratchett’s last major statement on religion is Nation, which I think is pretty good. The focus of that book is a 13 year old boy raging against God after a natural disaster wipes out everyone he knows and everything he has. My favourite quote in that book is “(God) has made us smart enough to know he doesn’t exist.”

I think Susan being a Duchess isn’t brought up because it’s a relic from an earlier time in the series. It doesn’t fit the governess/teacher that Pratchett wanted, so he just jettisoned it except for one or two jokes.

@John Seavey: I think racial stuff in Snuff is indefensible not just because it is bad for all the reasons you state, but he’s also done it better in other books. Compare the goblins in Snuff to the ones in Raising Steam. They’re far better characters, who feel like they’re in control of their own destiny. And then look at the dwarves, the trolls, the vampires, the golems, even his single solitary orc. He’s done such great bits on race relations before, what its like to be the other, that Snuff feels like a major step backwards.

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mygif

@Grazzt: Yes, but “Snuff is a major step backwards” isn’t the same thing as “Snuff is indefensible.” You want indefensible, do a Google search on “Save the Pearls”. Now _that’s_ indefensible. :)

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mygif

@John Seavey: Okay, I’ll swap out “indefensible” for “when you know he can to do better, it’s harder to defend him.” Happy? 😛

I do admit, indefensible is a loaded term and I probably shouldn’t have used it in the first place.

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mygif

Oh my god, I just realized that I was thinking of “Thud” and haven’t actually read “Snuff”.

Don’t I look stupid now.

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Christian Hansen said on January 12th, 2016 at 10:14 pm

@John Seavey

Just looked up “Save the Pearls”. I just…the author plays blackface as a straight plot point and then has the gall to claim ignorance?

I just…I can’t.

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mygif

I’d argue against “the authority of both Vimes and Vetinari is deeply and explicitly fascist in nature” – both they and the government lack the nationalism and totalitarianism that fascism requires. Ankh-Morpork under Vetinari welcomes new ideas and the city is quite a multicultural one. The state isn’t loud and everywhere telling the people how important it is, instead it is typically fairly quiet background machinery. When a state service is not quiet, it’s self-promoting – Moist’s antics with the post office don’t glorify Ankh Morpork, they’re advertisements specifically for the post office. Secret police and despots do not make a government facist.

There’s clearly plenty to discuss without evoking facism and not supporting it. (The argument *for* fascism would be fascinating!)

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mygif

@Christian Hansen: Not just a plot point–her promotional materials actually include models in blackface to demonstrate the idea. Because FUCKING TERRIBLE is why. :)

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Jonathan Roth said on January 14th, 2016 at 1:33 am

I often thought that Vimes being promoted and ending up as a duke were Vetinari’s ways of slowly raising and aiming him to be the next Patrician. As for the claim of structures, Veternari seemed to content to aim Moist at the post office and banking systems to reform them enough to be somewhat independent of the Patrician.

For me, there is something sadly and oddly appropriate about Raising Steam being the last note from Discworld. It was about the steam engine, which launched the industrial revolution in our own world. What better way to say goodbye to a changing, progressing, medieval pre-industrial world than with that?

As for Snuff, while I got a bit tired of “Super Samuel is always right” Vimes’ frustrations felt appropriate. Sometimes people do hold on to bad systems in which they are just downtrodden cogs, and change is often scary and messy. While Vimes could be frustrated by the people as a whole, an offhand joke about not liking chess and wanting to have the pawns unite and overthrow their kings showed that he wanted democracy over dictatorship. (I also found it a bit odd that the book didn’t have Death show up as a character.)

Sometimes Pratchett could be a bit reactionary (innovation was a threat in pyramids, moving pictures, etc, the reformist vampires in carpe jugulum were villains and not heroes, judging by appearances was praised in one note, and one of his bits was a too close to “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” while making the gun a bad, evil thing.) and I got a bit irritated with lines such as “people only think for themselves when you tell them to.” At times Carrot came off as too perfect, and Interesting times had a “Brits running things are best” approach when Cohen and crew took over Discworld’s China. I also though it a bit odd when he mentioned the reunited states joking the British empire again in nation, but what the hell, it was speculative alternate history.

In the end, Pratchett, despite all his faults, chose modernism, progressivism, multiculturalism, feminism, tolerance, gay rights, and the rest of what I love about the modern world, and made them work without seeming to launch into trite p.c. lectures, for the most part. (“Unnatural acts are perfectly natural” is still one of my favorites.) (Monstrous Regiment worked better for others than for me, I thought having almost every male soldier be something else was pushing it too much, but too each their own.)

It’s selfish, despite all we got from him, but I wanted several books and years more.

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mygif

@Jonathon Roth: I didn’t think Cohen and Co. were representatives of the British in Interesting Times. Remember, towards the end they find a statue of the first emperor and he looks like the same kind of person as Cohen. It was more like chaos versus order, or barbarism versus civilization.

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Jonathan Roth said on January 14th, 2016 at 2:02 am

@Grazzt: I can see your point, and it’s been a long time since I read it. To me, there just seemed to be an element of “This is how foreigners run things, it would be better if our kind ran things.” And Cohen and crew *felt* more like us, the western reader, (more specifically the U.K. reader, although I’m a Californian.) It’s more of an emotional feeling and emotional argument than a logical one, so I’m willing to admit I may be way off base on that one, and just flat out wrong. (For example, I had completely forgotten the statue you just mentioned, though I remembered the terra cotta warriors.)

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mygif

@Jonathan Roth: I’m never quite sure how much of Pratchett’s seeming reactionarism (is that the right word?) is him, and how much of it is that he’s satirizing the ultimate reactionary genre. Because let’s face it, fantasy is a genre where all change is corruption and victory is explicitly about restoring the ancient order that was lost. :)

One thing to keep in mind regarding ‘Interesting Times’ is that if it’s based on China, then there’s a long and noble tradition of being conquered by outsiders. As I’m given to understand it, Chinese emperors were believed to rule through the Mandate of Heaven, an ethereal blessing that gave them divine providence in managing the affairs of state. When they were overthrown, that was seen in the eyes of the people as the gods passing on the Mandate of Heaven to a new ruler. They saw it as a sign that the old emperor wasn’t getting shit done. So in that context, a barbarian warrior overthrowing a corrupt and vengeful emperor is simply the Mandate of Heaven asserting itself.

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mygif

I often thought that Vimes being promoted and ending up as a duke were Vetinari’s ways of slowly raising and aiming him to be the next Patrician.

I often see people voice this theory and to be honest, it baffles me.

Vimes and Vetinari are roughly the same age and Vimes is in considerably worse health than is Vetinari. He’s already having heart problems. Why would you groom someone you are very likely to outlive as your successor?

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mygif

I see Vimes as the emergency backup Patrician in the late series, the person to take over if he’s actually assassinated or deposed (with the understanding that anybody inclined to do those things would consider the prospect of a Vimes regnum considerably worse than the status quo.) But not as a long-term successor, no.

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Jonathan Roth said on January 16th, 2016 at 2:43 pm

@John Seavey Granted, reactionary is a strong word to throw around, an innovations often play the role of “new threat” whatever genre someone writes in. “moving pictures” satirized well, moving pictures, and Hollywood, and went back to the old ways in the end, but didn’t really mean that Terry saw all innovation as bad.

I’ve read the complaint that all fantasy is reactionary, and all change is corruption, and I understand it, but I don’t always agree. The Chronicles of Prydain had some of the “elves going back to the east” about their ending, with enchantments and such leaving the world, but it mostly portrayed the changes coming as a good thing, people having to work for their successes and such. I’m not sure if people would point to the Amber series and Elric and The Grey Mouser as “old ways weren’t best” but that’s a discussion for another time.

I thought of “Unseen Academicals” as one of Terry’s lesser works, but I think it was a review on this site that pointed out that by having an Orc transcend his biological origins, it was the ultimate break with Tolkien.

As for “Interesting Times”,it looks like I need to go back and reread that one at some point.

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mygif

“When they were overthrown, that was seen in the eyes of the people as the gods passing on the Mandate of Heaven to a new ruler. They saw it as a sign that the old emperor wasn’t getting shit done. So in that context, a barbarian warrior overthrowing a corrupt and vengeful emperor is simply the Mandate of Heaven asserting itself.”

This was actually the basis for the introduction of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven — the Zhou conquerors explaining to their new subjects that the Shang had gotten it all wrong, and that Heaven (non mentioned in Shang sources IIRC) had appointed them to set things right. In practice, though, people hardly ever took well to being conquered by culturally non-Chinese peoples: the (Mongol) Yuan dynasty was a period of fairly widespread dissatisfaction among the literati classes, and the early decades of the (Manchu) Qing dynasty witnessed violence, would-be restorationist movements, and an awful lot of soul-searching on the part of their new subjects.

(Apologies for the China studies-nerd derail — the discussion here is great, and I’m looking forward to bringing it along with me the next time I go back to Pratchett’s novels.)

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mygif

The most important thing to me about Pratchett was that he accepted that whilst treating people like things is horrendous and common, it simply can’t all change overnight. Vimes and Vetinari are, as discussed here, both deeply flawed characters – all of the Discworld characters are deeply flawed, and that’s one of the reasons that they’re such good representatives for people who want to see change. Vimes and Vetinari are both older people from a time that was considerably less progressive, but they are also both good people, who understand that they can often be wrong and who change their perspectives – think, for example, about the fact that when we first see Vimes he’s basically waging a racist campaign to refuse to allow non-humans in the Watch, and yet by the end of the series he’s fighting for the rights of those same people, calling out racist behaviour regularly, and doing his best to understand them. It would have been very easy for Pratchett to show goblins entirely triumphing by themselves over a very powerful civilisation, but he doesn’t because frankly that’s unrealistic and just as problematic – it could be taken to imply that any oppressed community having these very realistic problems just isn’t trying hard enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when in reality it’s that people like Vimes’ contemporaries will never listen to them unless required to do so by people like Vimes and Vetinari (just think about the parallels with Justin Trudeau and First Nations advocacy in Canada).

Pratchett discusses things – he shows you the bad and good sides of monarchy, oligarchy, imperialism, democracy and plenty of other systems of government. At no point does he say “this is good and has no flaws”, and he shows every side of some extremely complex arguments in order to help people understand them. He doesn’t settle down on a side – he makes you keep questioning, keep asking. He is an immensely challenging and diverse author who has a lot to teach, and I invite anyone who doesn’t even see that in his later work to reread it considerably more carefully, and perhaps to take a course on how to analyse literature.

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