Nov 1, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s Snuff is the 39th novel in the Discworld series, and the first one in the City Watch subseries since 2005’s Thud!. Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is very much in need of a break (or so the Patrician and his wife Lady Sybil say). He goes on a holiday with his wife and son to the Ramkhin’s countryside estate, and as in every policeman-on-holiday-in-a-seemingly-quiet-country-village story ever written, it doesn’t take him long to get involved in local politics and sense that something is amiss. And so begins the Discworld equivalent to a countryside mystery – featuring goblins, class dynamics, and exciting sea chases.

Snuff is full of the kind of political machinations, power struggles, and analyses of justice, privilege, institutionalised racism and class issues Discworld readers have come to expect from the City Watch books. Similarly to what has happened in previous novels with sentient species such as the golems, orcs, trolls or dwarves, this time the Goblins take the centre stage, and readers and characters alike are forced to confront their previous assumptions about them.

A few days ago, a post at Dragonfly Eye about the concept of allegorical racism in fantasy was brought to my attention. While I know that there are countless conversations that desperately need to be had about fantasy fiction and racism, I’m not sure how useful an opener to any of them a statement such as “fantasy writing is inherently racist” is going to be. Still, the idea that a fantasy world’s presentation of the species that inhabit it is worth thinking about is certainly a useful one. I have no opinion on Martin, who I have not yet read, but Snuff reminded me of this post because what it says about traditional representations of non-human sentient species is something Pratchett has been deliberately subverting for some time now, and is one of the reasons why I love Discworld so much.

Most Discworld characters believe that goblins are vermin, and in previous novels readers could easily go along with this idea (if they didn’t consider the fact that there’s generally more to Discworld than meets the eye, that is). In Snuff, we finally get to see them from the inside. They’re a people who have been pushed beyond the edge of society; they have come to believe they’re worthless because they’ve been treated as worthless for far too long. Vimes (who, as Stinky the goblin says, may be an asshole but is a kind asshole) recognises injustice when he sees it – or, as the case may be, when a goblin comes up to him demanding “just-ice”. And so begins a complicated process where even kind people have to confront their biases; a process that maybe, just maybe, may lead to the world becoming a slightly better place.

This is is not yet the dream Discworld novel where Sybil, Cheery Littlebottom and Angua win the day together, but on the bright side we get Miss Beedle, a children’s writer young Sam enthusiastically thinks of as “the poo lady”. Miss Beedle is a champion for the goblins, but she’s not portrayed as a fantasy equivalent of the “white saviour”. She’s not someone who speaks for them, but someone who listens to them when they speak.

Snuff is a dark, complicated, and satisfying novel. It covers some of the same territory as Thud!, though perhaps not quite as effectively. The similarity is no bad thing, though, as this is a kind of story that remains as pertinent as ever. Once again, Pratchett has awed me with his display of what A.S. Byatt calls “a kind of insidious wisdom about human nature” (spoilers warning for the link). Snuff is a thoughtful, humane novel, even if it’s also full of people doing very cruel things. I can’t wait to see what Pratchett will come up with next.

Interesting bits:
Vimes watched warily as his wife carefully took their son from plaque to plaque reading out the names and explaining a little about every occupant, and he felt the cold, bottomless depths of time around him, somehow breathing from the walls. How could it feel for Young Sam to know the names of all those grandfathers and grandmothers down the centuries? Vimes had never known his father. His mum told him that the man had been run over by a car, but Vimes suspected that if this was true at all, then it was probably a brewer’s cart, which had ‘run him over’ a bit at a time for years.

‘And you must think I’m a bloody fool. Some bloke they reckoned was a great thinker once said, “Know yourself.” Well, I know myself, Mister Stratford, I’m ashamed to say, right now to the depths, and because of that I know you, like I know my own face in the shaving mirror. You’re just a bully who found it easier and easier and decided that everybody else wasn’t really a person, not like you, and when you know that, there’s no crime too big, is there? No crime you won’t do.’
They read it too: Chinoiseries, Drying Ink, Evolving Books, A Librarian’s Life in Books

(You?)

19 comments:

  1. It sounds like these books are so much more than just fantasy novels, in that they explore the deeper feelings and issues that face humans today. I have the first few books in this series on my shelf, and need to get started with them. I think one of the reasons that I have sort of stayed away is because the series is just so long! I need to get over that though, as my husband read the first three and just loved them. Very intriguing review today, Ana!

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  2. I have never even thought that there might be racism in fantasy novels! You are the only person to ever get me to read a Terry Pratchett novel and for that I thank you.

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  3. The allegorical racism piece is interesting (even if, I don't know, I'm probably being unkind to the writer, it seems a bit obvious to someone who started reading fantasy as a teenager that species stand in for races in many cases and the use of this symbolic representation can be racist in some old school fantasies).

    I can't remember where I read this, but I remember reading someone (maybe Gal Novelty) who said they'd like to see less allegorical race in fantasy and more actual human racial diversity and as you can imagine automatically I thought of the way Pratchett often uses species to stand in for race. He has included human races apart from white though, I think in Jingo and I've always assumed the History Monks are Asian, because of their names, so it'd be interesting to look at what he does with real life race vs representational race and why he takes such paths.

    Maybe with his use of species to depict racial struggles he's not just drawing attention to the racial injustice of our world, but drawing attention to the way other fantasy writers use species as race, instead of including different human races...Of course now I say that, that seems just as blinking obvious as the article you linked to, because duh Pratchett started off satirising fantasy novels, before he moved his focus more to the real world. Table for Captain Obvious? ;P

    Anyway hurray for a new Pratchett novel :)

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  4. Diving into the Discworld novels is on my to do list for 2012. You gave me some good tips on where to start. I loved Nation and Good Omens, so I think I'll really love reading more of his work.

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  5. Zibilee: I'm so excited to hear you're thinking of reading him! I know what you mean about long series, but the good thing about Discworld is that with the exception of the first two novels they're all stand-alones, and it doesn't much matter where you start. A warning about the earlier ones, though: they're mostly parodies and don't have the same richness and complexity as Discworld at its best, so if they don't work for you, don't give up!

    Vivienne: You're welcome! I'm happy to spread the love :D

    Jodie: Yes, I agree about the piece, and also that the reason why he does this is because the rest of fantasy (with some exceptions of course) doesn't - we can all be Captain Obviouses together :P Of course, that still raises all sorts of questions about diversity of representation when it comes to the human characters. I also don't imagine everyone in Discworld to be white, but in Ankh-Morpork at least people seem to be for the most part. As we keep saying in all those conversations about the value of books and other media, it doesn't take away from the very wonderful and insightful things he has to say about prejudice, but it also doesn't address some very real issues in fantasy fiction. Solution: MOAR stories that do both those things.

    Melissa: If you loved those two I'm fairly sure you'll love him! I think Small Gods would be a particularly good one for you to start with.

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  6. Pretty neat blog....New e-mail subscriber.

    Stopping by to take a look around.

    Elizabeth

    http://silversolara.blogspot.com

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  7. 39th in the series? That's amazing. Pratchett is an author I feel like I need to try.

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  8. Oh, I'm SO jealous you've already got your hands on this book, and SO thrilled you loved it. I miss the Night Watch so much! Though I have enjoyed keeping company with Tiffany Aching, too :-) I think for my Dream Discworld Novel, Susan and Lobsang would have to come back, too. And there must be at least one Death cameo with the Death of Rats, too. Sigh. If only.

    I will have to buy this one soon!

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  9. I really need to get around to reading Terry Pratchett. It's been a while!

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  10. I've been wanting to read Terry Pratchett's Discworld stuff for years now. I read GOOD OMENS by him and Gaiman in 2010 and thought it was quite funny. It seems like he can be very insightful as well as funny though, which is awesome of course. :) Great review!

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  12. Every. single. time. you talk about Terry Pratchett I feel as if I should berate myself. Why? Why? Why? Why? WHY HAVE I NOT READ MORE OF HIS BOOKS YET?!!!!! How stupid is it to put off something that you know will give you an amazing experience?!! *sigh* Rich did put Small Gods on the mega-list he's making for me to read, so maybe that one at least will be in my near future.

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  13. 39th, wow. I've only read one of the ones on witches, but have the first book on my shelf, as I'd like to explore the discworld from the beginning at some point. If I like it, I guess it'll keep me busy for a while! ;-)

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  14. Kathy: He's nothing if not prolific!

    Aarti: I'd really missed the Night Watch too! I also really miss Death. and I hope we get another Death/Susan book one of these days. One odd thing about this one was that there was no Death Cameo at all! I think it's only the second Discworld novel ever without one.

    Kelly: Yes you do :P

    intoyourlungs: Yes! He does funny-and-insightful better than any other author I can think of.

    Debi: I'm so excited to hear Rich put Small Gods on your list! I have no doubt it will bring you much joy :)

    Joanna: I'm not sure if I'd recommend reading Discworld in publication order, actually, as the early ones are really not the best. But regardless of where you start, they'll be sure to last you a while :P

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  15. Kathy: He's nothing if not prolific!

    Aarti: I'd really missed the Night Watch too! I also really miss Death. and I hope we get another Death/Susan book one of these days. One odd thing about this one was that there was no Death Cameo at all! I think it's only the second Discworld novel ever without one.

    Kelly: Yes you do :P

    intoyourlungs: Yes! He does funny-and-insightful better than any other author I can think of.

    Debi: I'm so excited to hear Rich put Small Gods on your list! I have no doubt it will bring you much joy :)

    Joanna: I'm not sure if I'd recommend reading Discworld in publication order, actually, as the early ones are really not the best. But regardless of where you start, they'll be sure to last you a while :P

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  16. I've read many, though not all of Terry Pratchett's books - looking forward to reading this one.

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  17. Tracy, I hope you'll enjoy it!

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  18. I haven't read a Pratchett book in aaages, you've reminded me of what I've been missing out on!!

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  19. If you read carefully, there are some non-whites in Ankh-Morpork. Besides the caricatured Asian refugees in earlier books, there are people like All Jolson who is dark brown, and Dave of Dave's Pin Shop who has dreadlocks. "The people of Ankh-Morpork had long since ignored black and white and ganged up on green," or words to that effect.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.