Sunday, August 07, 2005

Special Delivery

I finished Terry Pratchett's Going Postal several days ago but haven't gotten around to mentioning that fact here. It was a fun book. On the surface it is about Moist von Lipwig, counterfeiter extraordinaire. He's finally been caught, is scheduled for hanging. The trapdoor drops, the world goes black, and Moist wakes up in a chair in Lord Vetinari's office. Lord Vetinari, "tyrant" ruler of the city of Ankh-Morpork, offers Moist a choice. He can walk through the door behind him into a deep, dark pit that will mean his death, or he can become the new Postmaster. Moist chooses Postmaster. The Ankh-Morpork post office has been closed for a very long time and is stuffed to the gills with undelivered letters. Everyone uses the newest technology, the clacks, to send messages from town to town. The clacks are a series of huge towers strung across the landscape. The system of communication is by semaphore. The towers have a series of shutters on them and the operator sits inside typing in messages from the other towers along the line. The typed in message then goes up to the towers shutters where the semaphore message is relayed the opening and closing of the clacking shutters. This method of communication can get a message 2,000 miles in a matter of an hour or two. The only problem is, the clacks towers are under new management and they keep breaking down. Moist sees his chance to make his mark and make some money. He challenges the clacks. In doing so he finds himself battling a master of deception, Reacher Gilt. But Moist knows how to play the game and keeps upping the ante. He refuses to fold and forces Reacher Gilt to call his bluff. That's the story on the surface. The book is also about fast versus slow, technology versus the human touch, corporations versus small business, greed, ambition, and putting on a good show. Pratchett takes enjoyment at poking fun at corporate-speak:

It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. Oh, yes. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency, and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although "synergistically" had probably been a whore from the start. The Grand Trunk's problems were clearly the result of some mysterious spasm in the universe and had nothing to do with greed, arrogance, and willful stupidity. Oh, the Grand Trunk management had made mistakes--oops, "well-intentioned judgments which, with the benefit of hindsight, might regrettably have been, in some respects, in error"--but these had mostly occurred, it appeared, while correcting "fundamental systemic errors" committed by the previous management. No one was sorry for anything, because no living creature had done anything wrong; bad things had happened by spontaneous generation in some weird, chilly, geometrical otherworld, and "were to be regretted."
This is an example of one of the things I like so much about Pratchett. He writes fantasy that makes fun of real world attitudes and events. Instead of writing in your face exposes, he writes a story that obviously isn't true but is obviously filled with quite a bit of truth and wry observation. He's a sort of cleaned up and pressed modern day Jonathan Swift. If you are hesitant about reading fantasy, you may find Pratchett quite palatable. Most of his books take place in Discworld but you can read them in any order without feeling like you have missed out on anything. One warning, Pratchett is British and so is his humor. If you and British humor do not get along, then you should look elsewhere for a good read. On the other hand, if you find Monty Python and Douglas Adams to be primo entertainment, you will get along just fine.