Interesting Times

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #17
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1994
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227629-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 399

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Interesting Times is the seventeenth Discworld novel and certainly not the place to start. At the least, you will probably want to read The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic before this book, since it's a sequel to those (although Rincewind has had some intervening adventures).

Lord Vetinari has received a message from the Counterweight Continent, the first in ten years, cryptically demanding the Great Wizzard be sent immediately.

The Agatean Empire is one of the most powerful states on the Disc. Thankfully for everyone else, it normally suits its rulers to believe that the lands outside their walls are inhabited only by ghosts. No one is inclined to try to change their minds or otherwise draw their attention. Accordingly, the Great Wizzard must be sent, a task that Vetinari efficiently delegates to the Archchancellor. There is only the small matter of determining who the Great Wizzard is, and why it was spelled with two z's.

Discworld readers with a better memory than I will recall Rincewind's hat. Why the Counterweight Continent would demand a wizard notorious for his near-total inability to perform magic is a puzzle for other people. Rincewind is promptly located by a magical computer, and nearly as promptly transported across the Disc, swapping him for an unnecessarily exciting object of roughly equivalent mass and hurling him into an unexpected rescue of Cohen the Barbarian. Rincewind predictably reacts by running away, although not fast or far enough to keep him from being entangled in a glorious popular uprising. Or, well, something that has aspirations of being glorious, and popular, and an uprising.

I hate to say this, because Pratchett is an ethically thoughtful writer to whom I am willing to give the benefit of many doubts, but this book was kind of racist.

The Agatean Empire is modeled after China, and the Rincewind books tend to be the broadest and most obvious parodies, so that was already a recipe for some trouble. Some of the social parody is not too objectionable, albeit not my thing. I find ethnic stereotypes and making fun of funny-sounding names in other languages (like a city named Hunghung) to be in poor taste, but Pratchett makes fun of everyone's names and cultures rather equally. (Also, I admit that some of the water buffalo jokes, despite the stereotypes, were pretty good.) If it had stopped there, it would have prompted some eye-rolling but not much comment.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of the plot depends on the idea that the population of the Agatean Empire has been so brainwashed into obedience that they have a hard time even imagining resistance, and even their revolutionaries are so polite that the best they can manage for slogans are things like "Timely Demise to All Enemies!" What they need are a bunch of outsiders, such as Rincewind or Cohen and his gang. More details would be spoilers, but there are several deliberate uses of Ankh-Morpork as a revolutionary inspiration and a great deal of narrative hand-wringing over how awful it is to so completely convince people they are slaves that you don't need chains.

There is a depressingly tedious tendency of western writers, even otherwise thoughtful and well-meaning ones like Pratchett, to adopt a simplistic ranking of political systems on a crude measure of freedom. That analysis immediately encounters the problem that lots of people who live within systems that rate poorly on this one-dimensional scale seem inadequately upset about circumstances that are "obviously" horrific oppression. This should raise questions about the validity of the assumptions, but those assumptions are so unquestionable that the writer instead decides the people who are insufficiently upset about their lack of freedom must be defective. The more racist writers attribute that defectiveness to racial characteristics. The less racist writers, like Pratchett, attribute that defectiveness to brainwashing and systemic evil, which is not quite as bad as overt racism but still rests on a foundation of smug cultural superiority.

Krister Stendahl, a bishop of the Church of Sweden, coined three famous rules for understanding other religions:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don't compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for "holy envy."

This is excellent advice that should also be applied to politics. Most systems exist for some reason. The differences from your preferred system are easy to see, particularly those that strike you as horrible. But often there are countervailing advantages that are less obvious, and those are more psychologically difficult to understand and objectively analyze. You might find they have something that you wish your system had, which causes discomfort if you're convinced you have the best political system in the world, or are making yourself feel better about the abuses of your local politics by assuring yourself that at least you're better than those people.

I was particularly irritated to see this sort of simplistic stereotyping in Discworld given that Ankh-Morpork, the setting of most of the Discworld novels, is an authoritarian dictatorship. Vetinari quite capably maintains his hold on power, and yet this is not taken as a sign that the city's inhabitants have been brainwashed into considering themselves slaves. Instead, he's shown as adept at maintaining the stability of a precarious system with a lot of competing forces and a high potential for destructive chaos. Vetinari is an awful person, but he may be better than anyone who would replace him. Hmm.

This sort of complexity is permitted in the "local" city, but as soon as we end up in an analog of China, the rulers are evil, the system lacks any justification, and the peasants only don't revolt because they've been trained to believe they can't. Gah.

I was muttering about this all the way through Interesting Times, which is a shame because, outside of the ham-handed political plot, it has some great Pratchett moments. Rincewind's approach to any and all danger is a running (sorry) gag that keeps working, and Cohen and his gang of absurdly competent decrepit barbarians are both funnier here than they have been in any previous book and the rare highly-positive portrayal of old people in fantasy adventures who are not wizards or crones. Pretty Butterfly is a great character who deserved to be in a better plot. And I loved the trouble that Rincewind had with the Agatean tonal language, which is an excuse for Pratchett to write dialog full of frustrated non-sequiturs when Rincewind mispronounces a word.

I do have to grumble about the Luggage, though. From a world-building perspective its subplot makes sense, but the Luggage was always the best character in the Rincewind stories, and the way it lost all of its specialness here was oddly sad and depressing. Pratchett also failed to convince me of the drastic retcon of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic that he does here (and which I can't talk about in detail due to spoilers), in part because it's entangled in the orientalism of the plot.

I'm not sure Pratchett could write a bad book, and I still enjoyed reading Interesting Times, but I don't think he gave the politics his normal care, attention, and thoughtful humanism. I hope later books in this part of the Disc add more nuance, and are less confident and judgmental. I can't really recommend this one, even though it has some merits.

Also, just for the record, "may you live in interesting times" is not a Chinese curse. It's an English saying that likely was attributed to China to make it sound exotic, which is the sort of landmine that good-natured parody of other people's cultures needs to be wary of.

Followed in publication order by Maskerade, and in Rincewind's personal timeline by The Last Continent.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-04-28

Last modified and spun 2022-08-14