Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett

Truly, there is nothing more likely to have me doing re-reads than a big pile of things to read properly and review. There's a lesson here that I refuse to learn. Before I go further, I'd like to thank Womble and Hiu, whose review/mentions of G!G! pushed me into re-reading it, because I like to make sure people know who else is partly responsible for me putting you through this.

I am once again following a split review process for those who haven't read and those who have, with spoilers and deeper discussion of themes in the latter.

For First-Time Readers:

Let me ask you a question, oh would-be audience of Guards!Guards!

Have you ever thought to yourself "why isn't there a fantasy book full of bumbling guards, cruel dragons, runt dragons, scheming politicos, and hapless secret society members, all colliding with tons of action, humour, and the occasional Dirty Harry impression?"

Of course you haven't, because that isn't the idea of a sensible person. It is however the idea of Sir Terry Pratchett, and honestly it's the sort of idea where the need for further explanation is almost unnecessary. Either it's not your thing, or it is.

For the undecided though, G!G! comes well recommended on many fronts. It's above all a piece of entertainment, cramming as many jokes and as much drama as it can into its thin page count. Some of the jokes are groan-worthy puns, but there's much observational humour and plenty of surreal scenes, and some of the crowd dialogue scenes feel somewhat Pythonesque. Action wise, it's more about staying alive against seemingly impossible odds than being the impossible odds.

The plot itself doesn't do much more than bear the weight of the many, many ideas that Pratchett piled onto it. The characters are mostly stock with depth; the embittered loner cop (Vimes), the idealistic rookie (Carrot), the slimy superior (Wonse), the untrustworthy lowlifes (Colon and Nobbs). Somewhat unique is the casting of jolly aristocratic spinster Sybil Ramkin where you might get a femme fatale, and everyone's favourite friendly despotic dictator in Lord Vetinari. Yet they too are somewhat stock of their type as once again, the weight of the ideas takes most of the space. While the characters' voices and personalities are a big part of winning over most readers (and are very entertaining), this is firmly a plot driven book. The number of PoVs followed doesn't help in this regard either.

It's not just the action and jokes that are crammed in. Pratchett pushes a huge amount of theme in. If he's not taking friendly jabs at the king in disguise stereotypes or class politics, he's going for the throat with some of his takes on human nature. It's not a particularly cheery take either, doubly so given the generally upbeat nature of the storytelling. This is a moody, cynical noir fantasy story with a coating of happy-go-lucky glee and gallows humour.

It's also a rather good story. The feature of too many ideas crammed into not enough pages isn't one of my favourite ones and something that personally means the book doesn't quite reach its potential. Nevertheless, this is a classic of comic fantasy for a reason; it's almost impossible to imagine someone who likes Pratchett's sense of style disliking this book.

Highly Recommended for Everyone Half-Interested.

For Already Reads:

This is where the magic starts. If one was so inclined, these are hallowed pages.

When chatting with Womble about this after his own review, I mentioned I found the book unsatisfying compared to what the rest of the series was (which doesn't invalidate the above; partly I enjoyed it more this time around, partly I'm setting it against the single greatest series in fantasy) but noted that Sam Vimes' whole series character arc is fantastic and this book is absolutely necessary to that.

One of the fascinating things about Discworld re-reads is the way that Pratchett tinkered with setting and characters between books, never too beheld to continuity if he spotted something that worked better. It is telling that while he expanded on the City Watch he used in G!G! he didn't really replace anything. Vimes, Carrot, Colon, and Nobbs, all under the Machiavellian gaze of Vetinari and benign auspices of Lady Sybil, are the bedrock of the series. The reason for this is they all have something to say about power and authority.

The most telling moment about Colon is his unspoken hesitance in adding dwarves to the rights of men. He's an instinctual minor bigot who lacks the courage to say anything about it should there be the risk of objections, an approach that serves as his guiding rule to everything throughout the book. That Pratchett makes him one of nature's sergeants is one of the most damning insults he could give to the rank, bodies that include it, and middle management in general, but it's not without merit. I'm sure we can all think of one middle manager we know who's fawning to those above, harsh to those below, and fully of cringy statements; people who have a taste of power and to whom it is gravely important, despite and because of how poorly suited they are to having it. It's almost the entire plot of The Office for crying out loud. Colon is the intersection of humanity's mediocrity and power.

Nobbs is just human mediocrity. No, scratch that. As the joke goes, the only just about Nobbs' humanity is 'just barely' and he's not mediocre at all. Ninety per cent of the time, Nobbs dreams of touching mediocre, and the other ten per cent, he's surprisingly gifted. That ten per cent mostly covers low cunning and the art of being nice to people because Nobbs, lowest of the low, treats just about everybody as worthy of respect.  It's a trait he shares with Lady Sybil, highest of the high. It's not an accident that Pratchett designates the two characters with the least complicated class situations, and the least to fear from life, as the nicest. And when you come down to it, having little to fear from life (for want of anything to lose or so much it's impossible to imagine losing it all) is a considerable form of power.

The third member of Team 'Too Nice For Their Own Good' is Carrot, who also has the least to fear from life due to his insane optimism and overwhelming physical prowess. They're good traits for a king of yore, and the joke here is that Carrot is clearly the long-lost heir to the throne and clearly has all the traits needed, but it doesn't happen. If he became king, it would no longer be a joke. He just stays a watchman. There's rich, rich material to be mined here, but not in this book. Here he's just occasionally an example of the power of appealing to other people's better natures and being naturally strong enough to throw Trolls around the place. He is humanity's excellence compared to Colon's mediocrity.

This leaves Vetinari and Vimes, the yin and yang of cynicism, both cut off from humanity by their idiosyncratic view of the race and vaguely, just about united in their love for the city. Vetinari accepts his cynical worldview entirely, seeing himself as a necessary evil that makes the world a better place. Vimes doesn't and, unable to fight it, simply loses himself in the gutter and the bottle. Lady Sybil notes at one point that he's impotent to fight the dragon, but the dragon is a metaphor for all of humanity's wickednesses here. Vimes rages, he drinks, all because he can't fight meaningfully against the wave of wrongdoing he swore to stop. It is not an accident that the first we see of him is dead-drunk under guttering lights. And, in what may be clever understated imagery or a sheer happenstance of fate, if you search an electric copy for mentions of the word light in this book, they're normally near Vimes' name, the state of the light indicating the state of his belief. This is the story of how Vimes came to believe he could light a candle in the dark. It's the sort of story humanity badly needs right now. 

I would dearly love to know just how much of the future arc for Vimes Pratchett had considered by the time he sent off the manuscript off, but I feel fairly sure that Vetinari was a bit of a work in progress. The Evil Overlord part of his nature becomes less; this is not the same man who'd later state that as a young man, he felt the need to be more moral than nature. Or maybe it is. Does one trust anything out of Vetinari's mouth, even when making grand statement speeches? It is conceivable that he feels the impulse to morality but decides it is better to provide Vimes with a wholly nihilistic viewpoint to rage again. Indeed, one aspect of their relationship that is seeded here is that Vetinari finds it useful to wind Vimes up and point him at things. It is a cold, chilly form of leadership, one that rubs up against Pratchett's later stated insistence that evil starts with treating people as things. But effective. 

And while Carrot might be the undeclared heir to the throne, the Patrician is the man on it. Vetinari might not claim the title, but as Carrot's father notes, 97% of being king is telling people what to do. Which is Vetinari's role. Or is it? As seen here, his favourite governing style is to leave things be as much as can, and then act through people like Vimes when he can't. Arguably, Vetinari doesn't tell people what to do. He merely arranges for there to be an opportunity for people to do what they'd do anyway when good for the city, and closes the door when it isn't. He does do an awful lot of telling people what to do though. 

This ongoing discourse between the characters through their actions and personalities is what gives the series its depth, the salt that turns the jokes and mysteries and observations into something astounding. The backdrop is the mob of humanity, a fickle beast that will shy away from deliberate cruelty and close its eyes to accidental ones, always ready to rationalise whatever works best for them. It's a very difficult to argue with view of humanity these days.

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