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A Swede in Germany

Archive for March 2015

A few thoughts around the death of Terry Pratchett

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I have far more to say on the topic of Terry Pratchett than on Leonard Nimoy, yet somehow find it far harder. This is to some part because a greater amount of material is almost automatically harder to write down; to some part because most of it does not belong in this context; and to some part because Pratchett’s death had a greater personal impact. I will still charge ahead with some of the points that are closest to my heart at the moment, disregarding trifling details such as actual relevance, reasonable structuring, whatnot.

In my post on the recent death of Leonard Nimoy, the central part of my message was that it was not an occasion for tears. With Terry Pratchett, the situation is very different: He died at a, by today’s standards, young age, he was still highly productive, and with another dozen years of life he might have produced another dozen of his wonderful books. A particular loss is that (I suspect) most of the Discworld fans have been hoping for just one more book centering on their respective favourite-character-who-last-starred-ten-or-twenty-books-ago, be it Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Death, Susanne, …

While I admit that I find most of his latest books somewhat disappointing (as in “did not match my very high expectations” and as opposed to “useless crap”), his immense impact on my life cannot be denied. He has been my favourite author for close to twenty years, providing not only nearly endless entertainment but also much food for thought. (The latter makes him stand out from some authors with whom he is often compared, notably Rowling: Harry Potter was very entertaining, but lacked greater depth or higher literary value—children’s books suitable for adults. Many of Pratchett’s work showed a greater depth of insight and were more thought-provoking than most works by “serious” authors—adults’ books suitable for children. While some of his early works are mostly comedy bordering on silliness, later works have a lot to offer beneath the comedy and, as case may have it, silliness.) Between the great number of books and my repeated re-reads, there was a period of quite a few years when I spent more time on Pratchett than on the rest of the world’s authors put together (but, factoring in Wikipedia and the rest of the Web, still less than half of my readings).

Among the many great books he has written, I would recommend especially “Small Gods”, which should be mandatory reading for anyone with an interest in religion and topics like religious leaders, organizations, etc. (much of it generalizes outside the field of religion), and “Night Watch”, the premise of which fascinates me deeply: The books hero is sent back in time and has the opportunity to relive a forming period of his life through the more developed perspective of his older self and through the role of his younger self’s mentor.

My main criticism of Pratchett and what, in my eyes, keeps him from being considered one of the truly great “serious” authors, is his weak grammar and (textual) writing style. While he shows a great degree of fantasy and creativity, which is laudable, he appears to lack an understanding of and feel for “good” language. It might be fair to say that he has a strong artistic ability of writing literary texts, but that the craftsman’s ability that should underlie it is missing. This is particularly noteworthy, because Pratchett himself has repeatedly emphasized the importance of good grammar (etc.) and spoken of how his background as a journalist has helped him—claims that are paradoxical in light of his considerable weakness in just this area. The “journalist” part is particularly odd, seeing that journalists tend to be surprisingly poor writers (other weaknesses common among journalists include poor thinking skills, lack of erudition, and a tendency towards sloppy research).

I have on several occasions almost contacted Pratchett for various reasons. Most of these have been relating to the atrocious, inexcusable, reader hostile, and author defaming German mistranslations of his work: During my early years in Germany, it was still hard to find the works of even best-selling English authors in English, which left me the choice of either reading translations or not reading. While my experiences with translations have been poor in general, they have been thoroughly depressing where translations of Pratchett are concerned, comparing to the original as a photograph of a statue does to the actual statue. Problems include mistranslations, text portions simple left out, puns that disappeared, and a general lowering of the “register” of the text, to the point that I suspect that the translator and/or publisher considered the works intended solely for “young adults” and lower ages. As for puns: Translating a pun in a natural way is often impossible and almost always tricky. However, if worst comes to worst, a conscientious translator would at a minimum report what was lost in translation in a footnote. (Unfortunately, many translators appear to wish to hide the fact that a work is a translation, even at the cost of loss of meaning and other negative effects for the readers. These should not merely be banned from their profession but given to the kittens (a form of torture described in “Raising Steam” (In honor of Pratchett and his often recursive footnotes, I take the liberty of using recursive parentheses. (Seeing that footnotes are not supported by the current format.))).) In fact, the reason that this particular letter was never sent is that I wanted to strongly recommend a switch of German publisher and felt that I needed to be thorough. This resulted in two lengthy drafts, written with a few years in between, of which neither was ever completed due to the sheer mass of problems illustrated by even one single book…

(Subsequently, the German publisher was given a severe sacking, due to an unauthorized advertisement in the middle of one of the German editions. I suspect that the quality of translations also played in, seeing that there were many other Pratchett fans in Germany who disapproved of them, often very strongly, and chances are that some of these did contact Pratchett. I am uncertain whether the quality of the translations improved, however, since I had by that time switched to a strict policy of only buying the English editions.)

Another letter that I almost wrote was a faked (!), lengthy complaint concerning his repeated and “highly offensive” use of swedes (a vegetable; which I would pretend to be ignorant of) as food, with the suggestion that danish (a pastry) and/or some other food-stuffs named after a country were a preferable alternative. (Note that I am, myself, a Swede in the nationality sense.) This should also be seen in the light of Pratchett repeatedly making fun of those who tend to write complaints on a semi-professional basis, often with the (presumably false) claim of knowing the editor-in-chief, mayor, CEO, whatnot. Since I postponed writing the letter until it was too late, I will never know if the idea would have been as amusing to him as it was to me.

(To my knowledge, Pratchett never discussed his take on complaints in more detail. The types of petty complaints usually ridiculed by him are not necessarily something that I approve of either. However, it is my firm personal belief, and here he and I may differ, that the world would be a better place if more people complained, e.g. about poor political decisions or customer-hostile behaviour from various companies: Fear of a negative public opinion can have a major effect, but if none of the unsatisfied ever complain politicians and executives will just ignore them. In other cases, as with the translation issue above, someone who could influence a problem might be very willing to act—but never learns of the problem, because no-one ever bothered to complain.)

In a case of very poor timing, I had very recently actually started writing a letter for the third time (following the two aforementioned drafts concerning the translations). This after finishing my reading of “Raising Steam”, the latest and most likely last, Discworld novel. My main theme was what I considered a very odd treatment of the dwarfs. Additional themes that I may or may not have decided to include, depending on how presumptuous I felt, was the feeling that the Discworld novels had grown tired and that it might be a good idea to go back to the roots for a final “old-school” novel, possibly a joint Rincewind–Granny Weatherwax adventure, before permanently moving on to non-Discworld works; and a regret of technology taking over the magic Discworld: While this take-over has a number of interesting points and has led to several good story lines, it is also contrary to where the Discworld started. A story including long-distance travel per broomstick, e.g., fits well on the Discworld and would be amiss on a non-magical world. In contrast, a story about the early days of railways and steam-engines (as in “Raising Steam”) could just as well take place somewhere else—indeed, better, seeing that the presence of railways, telegraphs (“clacks”), etc., alter the character of the world and reduces its natural opportunities. For instance, by analogy, if the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple had access to modern CSI technology, extensive finger-print registries, and CC-TV, their stories would have turned out very different. Not necessarily worse, but different, and it is a good thing that history has provided us with different time periods that allow for different types of detective stories (explorer stories, romance stories, whatnot). The “original” Discworld provided a new set of story abilities, but these have been diminishing over time, while abilities more akin to the technological world have been introduced, making the Discworld increasingly just a carbon copy of the real world, with fewer “literary benefits”.

(To some part, this reuse of the Discworld for increasingly more technological and less magical stories might go back to a wish to reuse beloved characters; however, with Pratchett’s creativity when it comes to new characters, I would still have recommended a fresh start in another world for stories not inherently “Discworldy”.)

As for the treatment of the dwarfs, I provide a quote from my draft. Note that the text might have been revised and certainly edited further, had Pratchett’s death not occurred. Further that it is is highly helpful to know the contents of the book, and to some degree other Discworld novels, to understand the text in context. For those lacking this background knowledge, I note that dwarfs in the books of Pratchett originally made no differentiation between males and females, that (clothed) dwarfs cannot be visually recognized as male or female, and that an inquiry into someones sex was considered a very, very personal question.

Your treatment of the dwarfs is in my eyes highly unfair. I do not speak of their portrayal as the source of fanatics—real-world experience shows that such can potentially arise in a multitude from basically any human culture, creed, country, whatnot, and I consider it likely that the choice of antagonists was mostly a matter of convenience, based on what group was the easiest to adapt based on the previous books. Instead, my problem is with the question of queens, mothers being considered inferior, and the like: The developments and the statements by the Queen at the end of the book are simply entirely incongruous with how I perceive the dwarfs and their take on the sexes/sexual roles. Worse, the statements of the Queen copy the error of many real-world feminists, in that they assume a hostility that is not there, misattribute a mistreatment to sex/gender when the true cause is something different, etc.

The dwarfish take does not in anyway appear to me to be anti-woman. Instead, it is a matter of having an weird sense of what is appropriate. (Where I would even caution somewhat against judging this weirdness: It might be weird to us, but so are the modern Amish and the morals of the Britain of, possibly, a hundred years ago—and our standards may be equally weird when viewed from the other direction.)

On the contrary, dwarfish society appears to be entirely equal and “gender blind” (an ideal that so many real-world feminists claim to strive for). Females do the same jobs, carry the responsibilities, have the same opportunities, whatnot, as males, no questions asked. That the king turned out to be a Queen is entirely and utterly unremarkable—on average, assuming equal abilities and interests, a 50–50 distribution of kings and queens are only to be expected and the Queen might equally have revealed being born during the night and not during the day. (Very much unlike the situation in “Monstrous Regiments”, where the high proportion of women deviates considerably from a priori expectations.) For that matter, I strongly suspect that the revelation of a queen would not even be possible in dwarfish, where I would not expect there to be a different word for the female leader. (As a comparison, the current British queen is not a king, but Thatcher was most certainly the prime minister—woman or not.)

In addition, I cannot but help feeling that Cheery diminished herself, when she started to imitate human women (long, long ago; possibly in “Men at arms”): Not because she revealed herself to be female, not because she went contrary to dwarfish convention, not because she (as case may or may not have had it) wanted to increase her desirability among male dwarves, … No; because she jumped at those parts of human female behaviour that arguably are silly—human women often go to such lengths with make-up and clothes that it makes them less attractive than to begin with and a more down-to-earth (here, possibly, down-in-earth…) female would be a better and more attractive partner to many men. (I do not deny that tasteful and moderate application can benefit a woman’s looks, but too many women simply take it too far.) One might even consider your writing unduly anthropocentric, seeing that there is no reason why females of different species should naturally match the preferences or behaviours of another. Many earth-species have females that are larger than males, males that try to look pretty and females that remain drab, or even males that take care of the children. From that point of view, dwarves and the sudden wish to express femininity is just a bad idea. In contrast, a variation where dwarfish females had remained traditionally dwarfish would have had considerable value in terms of giving some groups of readers food for thought. (The same could conceivably have applied to a reverse variation, where male dwarfes had an interest in e.g. make-up.)

Equally, it would be incorrect to say e.g. that female dwarves adhere to the standards of male dwarves, behave “male”, etc.: This is only true when we presume to apply a human standard to dwarves—and you will note that I deliberately speak of “traditional dwarfish” rather than “male” above.

More generally, almost all problems in the world go back to human stupidity, irrationality, over-emotionality, whatnot. This appears to be a theme in many of your books (replacing “human” as necessary), and I would be highly surprised if you were unaware of it. This applies not only to the Nazis of old or the Islamist extremists of today (probably a strong inspiration to your last book, although some past depictions of dwarves have struck me as slightly Jewish Orthodox/Conservative), but also to e.g. the Christian Conservative and the Politically Correct of the U.S., homophobia, you-name-it. Importantly, it also applies very, very strongly to feminism, which is by no means a pro-equality movement—but one of the greatest problems of the Western world. (An even semi-complete analysis would cover pages, especially since feminism has many different directions, but common problems include: Denial of even the possibility of biological and evolutionary influences, contrary to main-stream science. Extreme cherry-picking of female disadvantages while ignoring male disadvantages. Painting men as the sole problem of the world. Grossly distorting, falsifying, misinterpreting, or even inventing statistics. Feminism is to equality what astrology is to astronomy or alchemy to chemistry. I also note that I have found the best way to judge a movement is to see how it treats dissenters, what its take on censorship is, whether it reasons rationally and fairly, and similar. Feminism falls as flat on its face as ISIS or Creationism does.) I would very, very strongly encourage you to not fall into the trap of feminism and not to accidentally write books that might play into the hands of feminism. On the contrary, if you are looking for new material, criticism of feminism could keep you busy for several books.

As an aside, I see a strong possibility that the revelations of the Queen and Cheery have an additional aspect not discussed here, with regards to (for want of a better phrasing) being one self in public, e.g. relating to the “coming out” of gays or transsexuals looking for acknowledgment. This aspect is more legitimate, but I do not see this road as very productive. If this is your (partial) intention, writing something more direct, e.g. actually using a gay couple or a transsexual, would be better. (No: Gladys does not count. She was put in her new role by others and adapted to the role—not the other way around. Besides, she did not originate as a man, but as a sexual tabula rasa, and considering her originally male would be a projection by the reader, the characters of the books, and/or the author.) Even such story-lines would be bordering on the hackneyed in today’s world, however.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm