Another discussion that’s going on in various places is the intricacy of writing effective characters in your fiction. Aliette de Bodard is on a blog tour at the moment, what with her new novel, The House of Binding Thorns just out. Do take a look at what she’s saying here and elsewhere.
Plus there’s been a whole load of domestic and business administrative stuff hereabouts, none of which would make for remotely interesting blogpost material but which gets incredibly time consuming.
Best of all, we’ve been on holiday, and that was great. We headed for the Lake District, and got a very different view of the landscapes, compared to our previous visits, with the trees not yet in leaf and the undergrowth yet to start burgeoning. We also saw lots of sheep and the early lambs and the Husband became fascinated by just how different the shapes of sheep’s heads can be, when you start comparing breed with breed. We visited Penrith, and Acorn Bank, and Holker Hall, and the Lakeland Motor Museum which is highly recommended for those with even a passing interest in cars, motorbikes and cycles. The collection is very well displayed and has some real rarities and oddities. And yes, there are an awful lot of daffodils in the Lake District if you’re there at the right season.
By way of light relief, I’ve watched Marvel’s “Iron Fist” on Netflix… well, let’s just say that I am left with one question above all others… Who was that seeker of ancient truth and wisdom, who travelled all the way to the high Himalayas, and taught the monks of K’un Lun to speak English with a broad Stockport accent? That’s a story I’d really like to see told…
While we were on holiday we watched the first season of “The Expanse” in the evenings, and that was very good indeed. As are the books, though now I have to decide if I want to read on after the first three that I’ve already enjoyed, or wait, so I’m not spoiled for the TV adaptation plot..
Meantime, the Internet has been offering a whole lot of interesting things, so here are some links to pieces that have particularly caught my eye.
Incidentally, you’ll notice that I’m linking to Martha’s blog on Dreamwidth rather than Live Journal. In common with almost everyone else I know, I’m not about to sign up to LJ’s new Terms of Service. There are some big red flags and one thing I know about contracts is never sign anything with clauses for concern in the hope that ‘but it’ll never happen, right?’ In any case, this website and blog there have been my primary web presence for a good few years now. So I will be dusting off the Dreamwidth account I set up the last time it looked as though LJ was going down the drain, and looking to rebuild as much of my former LJ circle of friends over there, to continue keeping in touch. I am (unsurprisingly) JeMcK if you want to find me. I’ll be shutting down my LJ account some time later this month when I have the spare time to do the admin etc.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, ‘Timeless‘ is a prime-time, network action-SF show. The premise is straightforward: English billionaire Connor Mason funds the secret development of a time travel machine, bad guys steal the time travel machine, the authorities get involved and a square-jawed hero soldier Wyatt Logan, somewhat sheltered academic historian Lucy Preston, and Rufus Carlin, one of the science team who’d much rather stay in his lab, have to use the prototype machine to stop the bad guys wrecking history for fell purposes as yet unknown. So far, so formulaic.
Well, no, not entirely. Quite a few things lift this TV show above the mixture as before. It’s very well cast and the actors all deliver solidly committed performances. There are soon questions over how bad the bad guy Flynn’s motives might actually be, and while history’s big picture is pretty much maintained, the butterfly effect means massive changes in Lucy’s personal life when she gets back from their first mission. All enjoyably entertaining.
Then there’s Rufus Carlin being black. Not that he stands out in the present day setting; so is Connor Mason and there are more actors of varied ethnicities among the scientific support staff and government officials, men and women alike. The show has a diverse cast because there’s absolutely no reason there shouldn’t be such people in such roles in this day and age. So far so good, and so unremarkable.
But … the action is by no means limited to this day and age, is it? This is a time travel show. And as Rufus points out to Connor Mason in the first episode, “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me!”
Rufus being black adds whole new levels of complexity and interest to the writing and thus to the viewing. Not that the writers are out to beat viewers over the head with Politically Correct Messages. These things arise naturally from the situations created by the overall plot arc. Put Rufus in early 1960s Las Vegas and all of a sudden, he’s invisible because everyone just assumes he’s a waiter. Put him in 1930’s New Jersey and the overt racial bias is much less amusing. Put historical expert Lucy in 1970s Washington and she knows all about the political scandals – but has no clue about the Black Power movement because that was never something a white girl like her would study. Fortunately Rufus did, even if it was just to impress a girl. You get the idea.
The last of my selection for Novacon, this book was published in 2012, so it’s a relatively recent read, but I want to find time to go back and re-read it. It’s another Arthur C Clarke Award winner, and I was one of the jurors who selected it. For myself, I found it one of the most original SF novels I’d read in years while at the same time harking back to so many of the classic SF elements and themes which first attracted me to the genre.
There’s a lost colony, survival against the odds in an alien, hostile environment, human ingenuity rising above these challenges, as well as human frailities – selfishness and greed – threatening all that’s been achieved.
The familiarity of these ideas extends beyond SF and I suspect have contributed signficantly to the favourable reviews and reception the book deservedly won beyond fan circles, from the sort of people who’d usually say they don’t like SF&F.
However, and crucially, as with all the best contemporary SF, this story isn’t merely rehashing these familiar elements as if that will somehow be sufficient to please both the Fans and those who prefer ‘real’ literature. Beckett brings these classic narratives all up to date by examining them through the prism of our own decade and its preoccupations. Once he’s done that, Beckett uses these ideas as tools to tell a story that’s unique and compelling in itself.
A trio of spacefarers were stranded on a dark world lit only by the bioluminescence of its intensely alien flora and fauna. Their descendants live a marginal and impoverished existence with a culture woven from half-remembered Earth traditions, coloured by misunderstandings and the consequences of that first desperate struggle for survival by people never intended to be colonists. Against all the odds, the population has grown to a point where the stresses on their meagre resources means something has got to change. Who will be the agent of change? John, who wants to venture into the snowy dark and see what lies beyond the confines of Circle Valley? Or David who wants to be in charge and have everyone do as he says? What consequences will follow as these two clash, for the women who have their own narrative handed down from mother to daughter which includes the admonition to never trust a man who believes the story is all about him. Then there are the other thinkers like Jeff who believes in focusing on being right here, right now and solving the problems at hand first of all.
It’s a deceptively simple story exploring some very complex ideas about humanity’s relationships with stories, from folklore through that well-worn adage about winners being the ones who write history to our own decade’s struggles with fact versus narrative embedded in the endless rolling 24 hour news cycle. This subtext underpins but never overwhelm an enthralling and fast paced story that’s shaped by unforeseen twists as well as characters’ choices. This simplicity extends to the language as Beckett writes in a dialect stripped back to its barest essentials which nevertheless contains clues and hints about the Eden population’s history. Uncompromising peril and surprises continue to the final pages where the ending proves both satisfactory and yet inconclusive. But that’s the nature of history. Individuals’ stories are only ever part of the ceaseless flow of events.
Since this first book came out, Chris Beckett has written two more stories set in this world; Mother of Eden and Daughter of Eden, which I thoroughly enjoyed (as you can tell if you’ve read my reviews of both in Interzone). These take place decades/generations later, so one more reason why I’d take this first book to the desert island is I know I could entertain myself for hours imagining how the different factions and populations got from the end of this first story to the societies we meet in later volumes. And then I could spend still more time analysing and admiring the skills of Beckett’s writing.
And if I was truly stranded on a desert island, a tale of survival would be a good morale booster – as well as an incentive to make me do whatever was necessary to get out of there!
I’ve always loved reading fantasy books, and a huge part of the attraction has always been the settings for these stories. The rolling hills and woodlands of Narnia. The peaks and valleys in Cinda Williams Chima’s Seven Realms series. The rugged, empty beauty of the plains and mountains in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy. All of these and many more come to mind, sometimes brought to life on a movie screen, other times allowed to bloom unhindered within my imagination.
A story’s setting determines a lot about the direction the tale will take. Choosing to toss your characters into a scorching desert – or a howling hurricane at sea – means opting for a specific approach to the narrative. Climate and season are an intrinsic part of this choice.
When I first heard about the Journeys anthology from Woodbridge Press, I immediately knew I wanted to write something set in winter. I’d recently seen The Revenant and, all things bear-related aside, I was fascinated by the way the movie uses the snow and cold as a protagonist in the story. It had been a while since I’d read or watched a tale where the setting is such a huge part of things: almost a sentient character in its own right, and not merely a backdrop to the events taking place.
I moved to suburban Connecticut three years ago, after spending almost my entire life in the sub-tropical, big city sprawl of São Paulo, Brazil. In São Paulo, seasonal planning means figuring out new routes to escape the traffic snarls during the summer rainstorms that periodically flood parts of the city and make everyone’s life a very damp nightmare. Suddenly, here I was in New England, stocking up on ice melt and bottled water, and reading endless articles on correct winter prep in the face of incoming snowstorms. Different is an understatement.
(Today, as I huddle over my laptop writing this, we’ve already had eight inches of fresh snow since last night and more is falling relentlessly. And ‘thunder snow’? Is a thing, apparently.)
I wanted my story for Journeys to reflect some of the challenges that living through a cold winter presents. Not the temporary snow-sun-sparkles joy of a ski trip or mountain holiday, where you can quickly shake off the shivers in front of a log fire with a mug of something warm, and then fly home when you’ve had enough. But the bone-deep chill of day after day of cold weather, and the ‘absolutely done with it’ feeling you get when March rolls around, and there’s still an entire iceberg of snow plow leftovers sitting in your driveway, big enough to sink a cruise ship or two.
Winter, with a capital W, in all its blazing, white, complicated, wet, nasty glory.
So now I had my setting. I had the feel I wanted to capture – trudging through snow, cold hands, cold face, and warm breath that quickly turns to ice when it condenses against your scarf. All I needed was a cast of slightly shady characters (because let’s face it, you’re not going to be out travelling in the middle of winter unless you’re deeply motivated!), and a somewhat stabby little plot to move them forward. Everything in position? Ready, set, frostbite.
Juliana Spink Mills is the author of the short story Fool’s Quest in the Journeys anthology, as well as the YA urban fantasy novel Heart Blade, Book 1 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles (Woodbridge Press, February 2017).
“I blog about a variety of incredibly random and not very serious things at www.jspinkmills.com, and you can find me on Twitter as @JSpinkMills.”
One of the many interesting things about writing for an anthology is encountering new-to-me authors’ work, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, getting to know those authors themselves. Here are some interesting thoughts and observations from Dan Jones on his own path to having a story in the new Journeys anthology.
Dan Jones on his “Journeys” story – and the importance of the one before that…
When Woodbridge Press announced their open call for their forthcoming fantasy anthology Journeys, back in Spring 2016, I was immediately hooked. A stellar line-up had already been secured, including such illuminaries of the genre as Julia Knight, Adrian Tchaikovsky, John Gwynne and Gail Z. Martin – not to mention our esteemed editor Teresa Edgerton – and so I decided I would apply.
My successful submission to Journeys capped off an interesting learning experience: I had just come off the back of a rejection from Woodbridge for their previous call for submissions for the excellent Explorations: First Contact, for which I’d submitted a short story that was ultimately rejected for being not mainstream enough for the collection.
It’s highly tempting for us writers to sometimes get lost in our art, to spend so long considering the deep thematic resonance, the recurring motifs, the profound messages that occasionally we forget such fundamentals as a compelling plot and interesting characters; I am definitely guilty of sometimes getting a bit overexcited about form and structure, and it came back to bite me with that particular rejection.
For the next call, I cast aside my pretences, and for Journeys I decided to write a simple, rollicking adventure story, and it got accepted. It’s a worthwhile thing to remember: know your audience, write for your audience, and keep it simple.
Well, at least start simple, and then add the flourishes when you have the basics in place. My Journeys story, A Warm Heart, started with a very simple premise; a world-weary assassin-in-training, Tarqvist, is unwillingly joined by an unexpected companion on his first assignment, a wise-cracking, annoying and arrogant young girl he calls Nobody. From this simple set-up almost anything is possible, and it was liberating to consider all the fun things, like theme and structure, once the initial foundations were sound.
Conversely, if I think back to the story that was rejected for Explorations, I was more interested in establishing the structure first – a non-linear sequence of dream-like scenarios – and only applied plot and character afterwards, and it must have showed. It’s a well-known trope among writers that there really are only a small and finite number of plots (Christopher Booker famously posited that there are in fact only seven), so it stands to reason that establishing your plot (and the characters who will travel along that plotline) should be the first thing to get right before one starts dabbling in the trickier arts of form, structure and theme.
I’m super grateful for that rejection, as it taught me a valuable lesson and helped shape the story that now sits inside this superb collection of stories and authors, which I’m proud and exhilarated to be a part of. What’s more, it’s one of a handful of books I’ll be having published this year, including my debut novel, Man O’War, to be published by Snowbooks in October, so it’s a grand start to the year for me personally.
It’s fitting that the theme for the collection is Journeys, as I feel as though I’ve been on my own mini-quest in getting here, just as have all the other authors, I’m sure. We’re all journeymen in this business, you know.
Dan Jones is a science fiction and fantasy writer, but when not writing he works for the UK Space Agency on a space robotics technology programme, which comes in rather handy for coming up with new story ideas. His debut novel, Man O’War, will be published in October 2017 by Snowbooks.
Today sees the publication of an anthology which I’m very pleased to be part of: Journeys (from Woodbridge Press) offers fourteen epic fantasy stories of daring, death and glory from an array of talented and interesting authors. To be precise, there are tales from John Gwynne, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Gail Z. Martin, me, Julia Knight, Juliana Spink Mills, Jacob Cooper, Samanda R Primeau, Steven Poore, Davis Ashura, Dan Jones, Charlie Pulsipher, Anna Dickinson, and Thaddeus White.
My own story? Well, I may not be writing novels set in Einarinn at the moment but that world is still very much in my thoughts, both in terms of what’s going on with all the characters we know and also, I find I reflect now and then, on key moments in that world’s history. The Road to Hadrumal picks up on some hints dropped throughout those books, from The Thief’s Gamble all the way to The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, about the origins of wizardry’s organisation. I thought I’d look a little more closely at Trydek, the very first Archmage. Who was he, before he became the revered father of magic? Before he made his way to Hadrumal? What prompted him to make that particular journey? What sent elemental magic down the path that’s lead to its power and influence in Einarinn’s present day?
Well, you can read the story to find out. What I want to talk about here is how writing this particular story enabled me to show a group of aspiring SF&Fantasy writers the journey that a piece of fiction takes, whether you’re just starting out, or whether you’re someone like me with fifteen novels and umpteen short stories to your credit. More than that, I’m convinced that every story must take this journey if it’s going to be worth reading.
Last December I was teaching on a residential course at Moniack Mhor, the Scottish Creative Writing Centre, up near Inverness. As part of my preparation, I had submissions from the students to critique. This means I arrived a folder of pages extensively marked up with red pen… Now, getting your work back covered in queries, suggestions and corrections is not necessarily an easy thing to handle. Writing’s such an intensely personal thing and we invest so much time and effort in it, that seeing it criticized can really sting. I know that full well myself. So what could I offer these keen writers, to ease that impact?
I realised I could show them the editorial notes that I had been sent for this particular story. As it happened, that was a page’s worth. Now, Teresa Edgerton knows what she’s doing. She started off by telling me what she particularly liked in the story, highlighting original angles that had caught her eye and complimenting me on my clean prose. That was about three or four lines worth.
And then… she highlighted the things which I needed to address in that final draft story. Points where the pace needed looking at. Points where character motivations and their reactions needed further consideration. Points where what I had written might challenge reader engagement. She offered a few thoughts on possible routes to pursue, though of course, as all good editors agree, deciding what to do was up to me. It’s my story after all.
Those notes filled the rest of the page. Did this mean this was a bad story? Did this mean I was kidding myself calling myself a writer? Did it mean that I’d learned nothing over those fifteen novels and however many stories? Not at all. I’m an experienced author and I’ve learned to demand a high standard of myself. (Go and read some of these free stories if you want to check.)
But every story needs fresh eyes. In this particular instance, Teresa’s viewpoint was invaluable and all the more so because she’s not an established reader of my Einarinn books. Her comments made me realise that I had been subconsciously writing for people with a far greater knowledge of my existing work than was either fair or desirable in a story like this. Among other things, I was presuming background knowledge that would generate tension that wasn’t there on the page. I was including additional details to tweak tantalizing loose threads from the novels which played no direct part in these events.
Was I thrilled to learn this? No, of course I wasn’t, not initially. I told you that feedback can sting, even now, even just a little bit. Surely my story was perfect? I must have grumbled into my coffee for oh, at least two minutes…
Then I told myself that was more than enough self-indulgence and got to work. Because on my personal journey as a writer over nearly twenty years now, I’ve learned that this is how writing good fiction works. So I sat and thought and then I tightened things up here and there. I cut and trimmed elsewhere, and clarified this and that. It wasn’t a great deal of work but now that I had seen this story through Teresa’s eyes, I had a whole new, sharper focus.
So that’s the story of this particular tale’s journey. Enjoy!
Oh, and those aspiring writers at Moniack Mhor? They worked with me so positively on my feedback that I have great hopes of their future success.
This was one of those books it seemed everyone was enthusing about at the same time, when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1998. For me, it was an enthralling read which gave me all those things I’d loved in Clarke’s work, Heinlein and Asimov but brought intelligently up to date. There were really alien aliens, a wide range of believable human characters (including women with opinions and agency) and a thought-provoking subtext as the plot explores so many facets of communication and miscommunication, issues of race and colonisation, among other debates about humanity, society and belief; religious and otherwise. Most important of all, the story does all this without getting bogged down. Lucid, literate prose keeps the plot moving swiftly along. Scene setting is vivid and the dialogue natural, all making for an immersive read.
Following the plot that demands the reader’s engagement. The narrative unfolds in different strands and you need to pay attention as you read them in parallel. We see events unfolding from 2019 onwards when the SETI project picks up alien signals from Alpha Centauri. How can an expedition to make first contact be organised and financed? At the same time, we follow the investigators in 2059 who are trying to work out why the expedition ended in such lethal disaster. There’s only one survivor and something inexplicably horrible has happened to him. Sustaining this balancing act between telling the reader at the outset that disaster has struck and then compelling them to keep turning the pages to find out precisely what has happened and then how is a mighty writerly achievement.
Rereading this book in 2016, with 2019 now on the horizon is an interesting experience. Near-future SF notoriously offers up hostages to fortune, especially with the things which writers fail to predict. How many authors devised plots that would be instantly unravelled by mobile phones? Well, mobiles are not noticeable here but their presence wouldn’t make much difference. Mostly, Doria Russell avoids the worst pitfalls by blending logical extrapolation from then to roughly now with a deft lack of potentially compromising detail. The Horn of Africa is a war zone. Countries in Central and South America have refugee, economic and health crises. How these things happened isn’t directly relevant to the story, so we don’t need to know more than the broad brush strokes.
Other apparently prescient things do catch my eye. How does word of the SETI discovery spread? When an illegal download of the musical signal effectively goes viral on what looks very like the Internet. How is an interstellar mission launched? Not by NASA, the UN or any such agency. Space exploration has become the province of non-state bodies. In this case, the Catholic Church, or to be more precise, the Jesuits, take on the challenge. Doria Russell doesn’t pull this out of thin air; there’s been an observatory in the Vatican since 1774 and the Church first became interested in astronomy faced with the challenge of calculating dates for Easter and other holy festivals. This maybe SF but there’s an awareness of the depth of history (and the lessons it can offer) running through this book.
But why get involved in contacting aliens? Well, what would the presence of intelligent life elsewhere have to say about mankind’s relationship with our supposed Creator? What will the faithful do with any answers they might find? More immediately, can explorers voyaging so far with such lofty ideals actually cope with the practical challenges of an alien environment, its ecology and a complex society they don’t understand when they’re at the mercy of powerful individuals whose own concerns are their priority. As those questions are answered, we learn the chilling truth of what happened and why.
I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this book. I also recall recommending it widely at the time, including to friends and family who’d usually say they didn’t like SF but found this an enthralling read all the same. If you haven’t come across it before, do go and find it in your preferred format. And remember it the next time you see one of those ‘Best of/Must Read/Memorable’ lists that persist in erasing women authors from our genre. Ask why this book isn’t mentioned.
When she graciously invited me to visit on her blog, Juliet expressed some frustration over the problem of words—specifically, genuine, specific and appropriate words that we’re just not allowed to use, or must work in very carefully. She invited me to comment on the problem of words. Not long ago, working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, this month’s release in The Dark Apostle series, I encountered first hand the difficulty of words. Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story. In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right. And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.
Which brings me to the problem of plagues. The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance. In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense: a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.) But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast. And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s. But basically, I can’t use the word in its historically accurate sense.
My difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague. There is also the problem of things being lost in translation. Saints, that is. While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church. It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the most work common work translated was the Bible itself.
“Broadcast” is another interesting example. Nowadays, we are used to “broadcast” news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared. It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed in a wide dispersal. But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression, thinking I am using an anachronism. And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I had to use something less historically appropriate, but more suitable to a contemporary audience.
This problem of words first arose in Elisha Barber, volume one of the series, when I referred to someone as a “blackguard,” a useage which can’t be traced to before the 16th century (my editor has an OED also, which is both blessing and curse). I ended up changing the insult to “chattering churl,” which not only employs a 14th century jibe, but adds to it the tendency to use alliterative insults from the same time period. Stretching for the historically appropriate choice actually resulted in an even more historical put-down.
As you can see, there are multiple layers to this dilemma. Is the word historically accurate? Will my readers understand it? Does it have contemporary implications that were not present in the period, but will complicate or undermine my intended meaning?
My series is based around medieval medicine, and surgery in particular, requiring some amount of period jargon appropriate to the profession. In this case, I rely strongly on context to invest the reader in the words. Sometimes, I can use the reaction of another character—their horror or confusion providing an innocent to whom the word can be explained. Sometimes, the meaning becomes clear as the action proceeds, and sometimes, the specific meaning is less important than that the new word becomes part of the framework of history on which the tale is woven.
In book 3, Elisha Rex, one of my characters undergoes trepanation, an infamous medieval operation to ease a compressed skull fracture. Success rates were actually quite good, but most people rightly view with dread the idea that someone will cut a hole in their head. When that someone is a 14th century surgeon without recourse to anasthesia or antiseptic, the horror increases. The patient in the book is asked if he understands what will happen during the operation, and he replies, “Shave the scalp, make a cruciform incision, perforate, reginate, elevate.” My editor didn’t know what “reginate” means—I expect most readers don’t either–but the fact that it follows cutting open someone’s scalp, then the word “perforate” makes that unknown word all the more sinister.
In this case, I didn’t explain all of the unfamiliar terms surrounding the operation. Part of our fear of doctors stems from the fact that we don’t always understand what they say, yet we also know we need to trust them. We submit ourselves in part because of their professional demeanor, and jargon in this case is both symbolic of the doctor’s training, and of our own helplessness beneath the blade. Those mixed emotions of trust and dread link the reader’s experience with that of the character and, I hope, create a compelling scene—because of the right word, in the right place and time.
Want to know more? For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com
If picking a single Edith Nesbit title was tough, choosing which Terry Pratchett book I’d want for this particular list was nigh on impossible. But there had to be at least one. As I’ve observed before, the Discworld series is my main ‘refuge reading’ these days, which is to say, the books I reach for when I need some respite from reality, a breathing space before I return to the everyday fray.
So why ‘Men at Arms’? For me, this is where Pratchett really hits his stride with the City Watch strand of books, especially with regard to the social and political commentary underpinning his exploration of Ankh Morpork. Dwarfish culture and society are expanded upon, as are the racial tensions between the dwarfs and the trolls. There’s the uses and abuses of technology discussed and so more besides. All this really deepens and enriches the Discworld hinterland.
In particular, we see the challenges and contradictions of democracy, set against the ‘enlightened’ autocracy of Lord Vetinari. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to let someone as intelligent and cunning as he is take care of running everyday life for us all? But that relies on having someone like Vetinari willing and able to take on the job. How do we feel about having our lives run according to a very different set of rules operating under the fig leaf of monarchy? What about the destructive nostalgia of Edward d’Eath putting grubby commoners in their place? Or the self-serving machinations of Dr Cruces ensuring the elite stay rich and powerful? Or come to that, the ruthless expediency which Sam Vimes would like to apply to maintaining law and order?
The Watchmen and women themselves are very much still a work-in-progress at this point in Pratchett’s writing, making this book all the more interesting to re-read. Vimes can still believably relapse into his old drunkard ways and the differences between him and Lady Sybil remain pronounced. Is their marriage really going to happen? If it does, can it possibly work out? Carrot’s naivety is still self-evident in his creatively spelled letters home but now we see new and intriguing facets to his straight-forward approach to life. Minor characters are fleshed out, developing the ensemble. Detritus has far more than a walk-on role, particularly in his partnership with Lance Constable Cuddy.
At this point in the series though, Detritus’ character development could take any one of several paths. The same is true of Angua, and of her relationship with Carrot. Most of all, there’s uncertainty, even danger, stalking these characters in a way that’s absent in later books. At this point, no one has plot immunity and that gives this particular story a definite edge.
There are also genuine ‘whodunnit’ puzzles to solve, with regard to the murders and what really happened to poor Brother Beano. Plus, of course, the book is deftly, wickedly funny, not least thanks to the reappearance of Gaspode the talking dog, who’s evidently made his way back to the city after his experiences in ‘Talking Pictures’. And as with all the Discworld books, the bright flashes of Pratchett’s lightning wit illuminate the threats lurking in the shadows all the more clearly.
I put this particular list of books together back in September and October 2016, when the world was a very different place. We’d had the self-destructive folly of the UK Brexit vote but the US election still lay ahead. Looking at this book in early 2017? With the self-deluding Hard Brexiteers persisting in their arrogant belief that they can dictate the best of all possible deals to the rest of the EU? When every passing day gives European states less reason to do the UK any favours, let alone respect Theresa May or Boris Johnson? With President Trump in the White House and heading an administration convinced they can peddle whatever lies they like while enforcing a racist, extremist agenda and dismantling or ignoring as many checks and balances as they can?
Reading Men At Arms in these circumstances, it’s tempting to think we really could use a Lord Vetinari or a Captain Carrot about now. We seem to have slipped into a world like the Discworld era ruled by Lord Snapcase, as seen in the later novel Nightwatch. But that sort of thinking is as much of a fantasy as anything Terry Pratchett wrote. The lesson we really should take from his writing right now is that it’s no good waiting for someone else to deal with such problems. Everyone has a responsibility to act.