History, progress, markets, satire and how fantasy can illuminate reality: An Appreciation of Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, the 2003 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists saw in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, the 2003 Prometheus winner for Best Novel:

Night Watch, the 29th book in Terry Pratchett’s bestselling Discworld series and widely hailed as one of the best, focuses in his usual tongue-in-cheek style on what it takes to build a more-modern police force that eventually will be able to keep the peace and fight violent crime in one of the most unruly cities in fiction.

Filled with individualistic, anti-authoritarian and pragmatically libertarian themes that resonate with the actual history of our own planet and how market economies and modern civilization developed, this ingenious 2002 satirical fantasy blends political intrigue and police drama in a plot that also involves time travel back to the start of a legendary street rebellion.

After chasing after one of the most notorious killers in Ankh-Morpork, police commander Sam Vimes winds up in a magical-storm-induced time vortex that takes him back three decades to the days when young Sam Vimes first joined the watch.

Guided by a bunch of wise and spiritual wizards who can manipulate time, the older Vimes has to impersonate another significant character, murdered by the same psychopathic killer who also went back in time, in order to change history, save lives and serve as a mentor to his younger self.

And if the older Vimes doesn’t succeed at his unlikely quest and avert a historical crisis, the younger Vimes will never set in motion the beginnings of a revolution in police procedures – or his beloved town, so much darker and less advanced, will never become the thriving modern metropolis that readers of the Discworld series have come to know and love.

Beyond Pratchett’s sense of humor, quirky imagination, interesting plots and amusing but truly full-bodied characters, both human and otherwise, what many libertarians find so enjoyable about not only Nightwatch but many other Disc-World stories is how they realistically chronicle our real world’s actual economic, political and social development and scientific progress, so often fueled by liberty, dissent and the linked pursuit of knowledge and commerce.

LFS leader Wiliam Stoddard, writing for Prometheus quarterly, has praised Pratchett’s Discworld novels as “highly intelligent commentary on human foibles” and splendidly funny, too.

“But Pratchett’s work has another aspect that may recommend it to other libertarians: a surprisingly sympathetic intellectual content,” Stoddard explained in the Fall 2000 issue (Vol. 18) of Prometheus quarterly in an essay about the series as a whole.

“The Discworld is a fictional place, not a planet, but a vast disk carried through space on the backs of four elephants carried on he back of an even bigger turtle, in a universe where such things are possible. It is inhabited by a variety of intelligent races, including humans, dwarfs, trolls and werewolves. This big a space offers endless room for new settings, but Pratchett repeatedly comes back to Ankh-Morpork, the greatest city on the Disc. Ankh-Morpork is an odd combination of an Italian Renaissance city-state and Victorian London, with a hint of Republican Rome in the background. It has no king – the last one was beheaded some time ago – and no faction strong enough to impose itself on anyone else. Its balance of power allows the growth of any number of private economic ventures and the accumulation of huge fortunes. None of this has any legal right to exist, and in effect Ankh-Morpork’s many centuries of laws are almost never enforced – which seems to be the secret of its survival and prosperity.”

“Several of the novels are police procedurals, with Commander sir Samuel Vimes, a descendant of the man who beheaded the city’s last king, as their central character. Pratchett’s portrayals of Vimes repeatedly emphasize his hatred of kings, aristocrats, vampires, professional assassins and other predators on the human race… The targets of his mockery are almost all deserving in libertarian eyes.”

In short, Pratchett’s surprisingly individualistic, anti-authoritarian and pragmatically libertarian stories often offer accurate lessons – disguised as very funny parodies – about the way markets actually work and have worked (messily) throughout history, the benefits of innovation and technology sparked by free markets, and how society advances right here on Earth – not through government and politics, but so often despite and around its bureaucracy and intrusive obstacles.

Note: Pratchett (1948-2015), a bestselling British sf/fantasy writer, is best known for the 41 comic-fantasy novels of his Discworld series.

Terry Pratchett in 2012. Creative Commons license

He also was nominated for Prometheus Awards for Raising Steam, a 2015 Best Novel finalist; The Long War, co-authored by Stephen Baxter and a 2014 Best Novel nominee; Snuff, a 2012 Best Novel finalist; and The Truth, a 2001 Best Novel finalist. All but The Long War, part of a five-novel parallel-earth series, are Discworld novels.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40th Anniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: F. Paul Wilson’s Sims, the 2004 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers. Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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