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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Terry Pratchett On Defending The Defenseless

St. Stephen's Church in Brighton, England,
currently used as a homeless shelter.

Terry Pratchett loves to write. As he told fans at last year's World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England, while other authors may take a break after completing a story, he sees his reward for finishing one book in that he gets to do another one. Then, like his beloved character, copper Sam Vimes, he "starts simple, and proceeds slowly." He may not bother himself to plan too far ahead, instead trusting his storytelling instincts. Should he get into his story, and realize he's followed a false trail, he may end up chucking that story, a portion of it, or the idea underlying it into "The Pit," as he calls it. But he doesn't mind. He can always pull something out of The Pit later, right? In the meantime, he starts off on the writing again, which for him, "goes a lot with impetus and ease."

In his recent novel Snuff, Sam Vimes tries to get out of his holiday in the country. He clearly doesn't want to leave his beloved city of Ankh-Morpork, the place where he feels he belongs. So once he's reached his grand estate, and endured stifled conversations over meals and tea parties with other members of the landed gentry, he seeks respite in the nearby village. For some reason, the locals seem suspicious of him. Why should a member of the aristocracy be visiting a poor man's public house? Why is Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch sniffing around their village? Their suspicion makes Sam Vimes wonder what, if anything, the locals may have to hide.

Given his reluctance to leave Ankh-Morpork, the time needed to familiarize himself with the running of his estate, and the opportunities he takes to spend time with his son, it takes Vimes awhile to discover his first clue as to the locals' suspicion. Readers may wonder exactly where Pratchett is going with the novel, aside from enjoying the commander's discomfort over having to endure his holiday. But then, a hundred pages in, a note from the blacksmith's son leads Vimes to a hill in the dead of night, where he discovers a blood-soaked rag, and a Goblin's severed hand. Given the amount of blood, he realizes that this Goblin must have been killed.


The thing is, no one cares about Goblins. They exist outside the law, not partaking of life in towns or cities, but eking out their existence in caves. Even Feeney Upshot, the village policeman, who has taken an oath to obey the local magistrate's interpretation of the law, finds Vimes' interest in one Goblin's death a little extreme. As Vimes discovers when he visits the chief constable's office, located in a room inside his mother's house, the young man currently has a Goblin chained up outside for stealing pigswill. Feeney has been brought up to believe certain things about Goblins, such as that they are born thieves, they carry horrible diseases, they eat their own babies, and perhaps worst of all, they stink. Or, as Vimes muses: "It wasn't so much a stink as a sensation. the sensation in fact that your dental enamel was being evaporated and any armor you might have was rusting at some speed."

Vimes takes the young Chief Constable to task on a number of issues, chief among them that the purpose of the law is to protect everyone, including the most defenseless of its citizens. The problem is that, in the eyes of the law, Goblins don't officially exist, and therefore have no legal rights. Vimes refuses to accept this. He doesn't know much about Goblins, so he visits those holed up in nearby caves, who have learned to fear and distrust Humans. He takes on the local aristocracy, and defies the village magistrate, as he investigates how Goblins have been torn from their families, and shipped off down the river. He pursues a trail of greed and corruption, all the while arguing with young Feeney, who exhibits a thorough understanding of the letter of the law, but knows little of its soul. To save the Goblins from the injustice perpetrated upon them--from the way Humans have treated them so inhumanely--Vimes risks his social status, his career, and ultimately his life. But for Vimes, that's his duty, his calling in life: to defend the defenseless. He can no more shirk his duty, and turn a blind eye to injustice and cruelty, even if the law currently protects the perpetrators and sanctions their actions.

At four hundred pages in length, Snuff is a long novel by Terry Pratchett's standards. It takes Vimes a long time to uncover a crime, which can make it difficult for the reader to immerse himself in the story. It delves into more serious themes and issues than Pratchett's fans may have expected, such as slavery and the destructive aspects of illegal drugs. Yet it offers moments of action and excitement, including a climactic rescue-effort and river-battle in which Sam Vimes takes on not just the evildoers, but the very forces of nature. Along the way, he discovers some glorious aspects of Goblin-life to counter the rumors and folklore surrounding them. Once those are made public, they will forever change the way Goblins are viewed. As in our world, such sweeping social change on Discworld starts with one person's refusal to accept a perceived injustice. It's a character with whom Terry Pratchett identifies, who seems to hold his ear* at the moment, who talks to him and tantalizes him with ideas for humorous, exciting, and insightful stories. 

His name is Vimes: Commander Samuel Vimes.

Dragon Dave

*See the previous entry. (It's a doozy).

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