Over many years of reading fiction and going to movies, I've grown reluctant to look at humor or comedy. Too often I've looked at things other people found screamingly funny and felt only a sense of tedium. And so I hesitated to look at Terry Pratchett's Discworld Series, despite enjoying Good Omens on which he and Neil Gaiman collaborated. I knew it was a series of parodies of popular fantasy, and I feared the worst.
Not long ago, I decided to take a look at his newest book, The Fifth Elephant (Harper Collins, 2000, $24). It helped that it was at the local library; public libraries are one of the few statist ventures that tempt me to compromise my principles. As it happened, it did succeed in making me laugh; it also struck me as offering a highly intelligent commentary on human foibles. The next thing I knew, I had read thirteen of them …
The fact that I thought they were splendidly funny would hardly justify a review for Prometheus: after all, I've never thought of reviewing P. G. Wodehouse here. But Pratchett's work has another aspect that may recommend it to other libertarians: a surprisingly sympathetic intellectual content.
The Discworld is a fictional place, not a planet, but a vast disk carried through space on the backs of four elephants carried on the 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 everyone 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. Another novel, Lords and Ladies adds elves to the list, showing their destructive invasion of the tiny mountain kingdom of Lancre. Throughout Pratchett's fiction, the choice of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters is admirably made.
Other themes are also appealing: the follies of war fever in Jingo; the ugliness of religious intolerance in Small Gods; and the beneficial effects of technology in many novels. Pratchett never "sells his birthright for a pot of message," so it's not clear what his political outlook is—he could be anything from a libertarian to a fairly standard British liberal—but the targets of his mockery are almost all deserving in libertarian eyes.
What convinced me that I had to write about these books for Prometheus—and made me want to cheer loudly was a speech in Feet of Clay by Dorfl, the first free-willed golem: "What Better Work For One Who Loves Freedom Than The Job Of Watchman? Law Is The Servant Of Freedom. Freedom Without Limits Is Just A Word." If such sentiments appeared in more popular entertainment libertarians would find it a happier world!
-Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
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