Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pratchett's Satire

I think like a lot of us out there, I have been returning to the Discworld in quite a big way. I had one little thought about how Terry Pratchett’s satire (if that’s the right word) actually works.

It would be misleading to call Pratchett’s Discworld series a satire on heroic fantasy. What we actually find in Pratchett – including the earlier Discworld novels – is a highly flexible use of fantasy genre conventions, along with other kinds of intertextuality, for a variety of satirical ends. But that's not quite because "Pratchett's target isn't heroic fantasy" and rather "Pratchett's actual target is the world we live in." It's something else.

Rather, Pratchett’s satire tends to reconcile metafiction with worldbuilding. In other words, it dexterously balances itself between (on the one hand) artifice that asks to be interpreted in ways unavailable to Pratchett’s characters – the group “Dwarves with Altitude” in Soul Music (1994) cannot have heard of our own Roundworld Niggaz With Attitudez, just as the History Monks in Thief of Time (2002) are unfamiliar with Roundworld kung-fu cinematic cliches, even though they conform to them – and (on the other hand) a steadily accreting “secondary world” (cf. Tolkien 1947), which stands as if independent of our own, and asks its readers to become immersed in and emotionally coupled to it.

In part, such a reconciliation can happen because Pratchett’s points of reference are so diverse and diffuse. Even when an elephant wanders into the room, in the context of so much tacit megafauna, it needn’t necessarily hold our attention for long. Ankh-Morpork can serve as an example here: OK, obviously its strongest parallels are with London, but the city’s links with London and its links with other places – with New York, with Florence, with Rome (at various points in those cities’ history), as well as with fictional places such as Fritz Leiber’s teeming & labyrinthine Lankhmar – those links balance, cancel, contradict, ameliorate and complicate one another, so that Ankh-Morpork never settles down as a figuration any particular city.

That in itself is unremarkable. It is unremarkable that Ankh-Morpork possesses no perfect real-world or literary correlate, because most allegory is complicated in this way: it’s the ciphers, the perfect transpositions, the one-to-one correlations that are actually rare. And in fact, it’s exactly such one-to-one correlations which do make Pratchett’s satire remarkable. His work is capable of extremely specific and equivocal intertextual allusions, which somehow never ripple outwards to form a master key which would disrupt his worldbuilding. The River Ankh is a version the Thames, unmistakably; the Isle of Gods cannot not be a version the Isle of Dogs . . . and yet somehow Ankh-Morpork is unmistakably not just a version London. It is, for all its sins, Ankh-Morpork.

What I wonder is, firstly: does this sound right? Is it true generally in Pratchett's writing?

And, secondly: is it true when Pratchett writes about race?

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