Terry Pratchett, The Truth (2000)
The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.
Terry Pratchett has written a LOT of books. And a lot of people have read them. He’s one of the most popular and prolific fantasy authors of our time, but while “popular” and “prolific” may call up a certain image (one that does not necessarily include literary quality), he is in a category all his own. I don’t know of another author who can both inspire laughter and provoke thought on so many levels, from the lowest of the lowbrow on up. At his best, he is brilliantly satirical without being cynical, which is no mean feat.
I don’t remember exactly why I picked up my first Pratchett. I suppose I had passed by their steadily multiplying ranks in the library often enough that curiosity finally got to me. The one I took home was The Truth, which plunged me right in the middle of the “Discworld” universe. How to explain Discworld? Well, besides being a flat earth on the back of a giant tortoise, on top of four elephants (after which “it’s elephants all the way down…”), it’s a place where Pratchett can play around with all kinds of tropes of genre fiction, inhabited as it is by witches, wizards, dwarfs, vampires, werewolves, policemen, politicians, journalists, and other strange creatures.
Pratchett builds whole sub-worlds around each of these populations (and more), which would take too much time to explain. Suffice it to say that he pulled off the feat of introducing many of them to me in this mid-series book without tedious info-dumping, and without leaving me totally mystified. I’m not sure how exactly he did this, but I do think it’s sufficient to qualify him as a master storyteller.
Part of the conceit of Discworld is that while everything has a vaguely medieval and/or Victorian feel (like much of fantasy literature), things are changing; modern innovations such as racial integration and rapid communication come into play. Of course, since this is Discworld, racial integration means dwarfs co-existing with vampires, and communication is by semaphore tower. In The Truth, the new element is the press, which comes about when the dwarfs find a way to turn lead into gold — by inventing moveable lead type, of course. Before many days have passed, the first city newspaper has been created, the guilds of Engravers and Town Criers are enraged, a rival paper is fanning the flames of sensationalism, and a mystery that strikes at the very heart of society is calling for some brave soul to find and expose that elusive thing, the truth.
On rereading, I did find that some of the repeated jokes became tiresome, such as the gangster who confusedly tries to mainline everything from rat poison to chalk. Pratchett can get too enamored of an idea like this and bring it in over and over, causing an “okay, I get it already” reaction.
But I fell in love again with many of the characters: the oddly endearing vampire photographer Otto, who has taken the pledge to abstain from “the b-word” and sings temperance hymns to stay strong; the aristocrat-turned-journalist William de Worde, who bemusedly learns that putting a story in print makes it true, even if it isn’t; the so-bad-he’s-good despot Vetinari, who when accused of attempted murder, arouses suspicion because it’s so unlike him not to succeed.
I won’t try to analyze what makes Discworld funny, except to say that Pratchett somehow manages to set up totally absurd and impossible situations that nevertheless cause us to recognize some truth about ourselves and our world. Here’s an example in which a Discworld computer (powered by a magical imp, naturally), is pitching its features to a couple of gangsters.
The imp took a deep breath. “May I introduce to you the rest of my wide range of interesting and amusing sounds, Insert Name Here?”
Mr. Pin glanced at Mr. Tulip. “All right.”
“For example, I can go ‘tra-la!’”
“An amusing bugle call?”
“Or I can be instructed to make droll and diverting comments when performing various actions.”
“Er…some people like us to say things like ‘I’ll be back when you open the box again,’ or something like that…”
“Why do you do noises?” said Mr. Pin.
“People like noises.”
“We don’t,” said Mr. Pin.
“We —ing hate noises,” said Mr. Tulip.
“Good for you! I can do lots of silence,” the imp volunteered. But suicidal programming forced it to continue: “And would you like a different color scheme?”
“What color would you like me to be?” As it spoke, one of the imp’s long ears slowly turned purple and its nose became a vaguely disquieting shade of blue.
“We don’t want any colors,” said Mr. Pin. “We don’t want noises. We don’t want cheerfulness. We just want you to do what you’re told.”
“Perhaps you would like to take a moment to fill in your registration card?” said the imp desperately, holding it up.
A knife thrown at snake speed snapped the card out of its hand and nailed it to the desk.
If you don’t find this funny, you probably won’t like The Truth. But if you chuckled, give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.