Reading any Discworld novel is simply to read a description of our own world. What concerns us concerns the inhabitants of the Disc. Each novel is a well crafted fantasy centred around different characters. Rincewind, a wizzard; the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Tiffany Aching, and several others; the wizards of Unseen University; Moist von Lipwig, crook and genius at reviving failed businesses; Death; and Sam Vimes. I’ve chosen to review a Sam Vimes novel, Snuff.
Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh Morpork Watch, Duke of Ankh Morpork, Lord Vetinari’s Terrier (though not to his face) and Blackboard Monitor, is basically a copper. He views the world around him as a crime scene, and where ever he goes he is not mistaken. Snuff sees Vimes away from the streets of Ankh Morpork, reluctantly on holiday at the ancestral home of his wife Sybil’s family. Yet stuck out in the country he finds crime aplenty – murder, corruption, smuggling, and more. The story is built around these themes, but there is an underlying thread, the eternal conflict between poverty and wealth.
Sam was a son of the streets. He was born and raised in the Shades, an area that probably looked up at the slums as somewhere to aspire to. Much later in life he is one of the most important people on the Disc, though he usually fails to recognise this. When he does, it disturbs him, but as his wife, Lady Sybil, points out “…if you were killed the chanceries of the world would be in uproar and, Sam, regrettably they would not be perturbed at the death of a housemaid.” Sam is important and very rich, whether he likes it or not.
Unlike others in his position, he knows what it means to be unimportant and poor. Pratchett sums this up nicely in a passage that brings back so many memories of my grandma:
“Cockbill Street got scrubbed so often that it was surprising that it wasn’t now at a lower level than the ground around it. The doorstep was scrubbed, and then whitened; the red tiles on the floor inside were scrubbed and then polished with red lead; and the black cooking stove was blackened even further by being rubbed ferociously with black lead. Women in those days had elbows that moved like pistons. And it was all about survival, and survival was all about pride. You didn’t have much control over your life, but by Jimmy you could keep it clean and show the world you were poor but respectable.”
This passage, the first time that I read it, reminded me of the ladies of my grandma’s generation. To them, poverty was a fact of life, but there were still choices to be made. Allow poverty to drag you down, or rise above poverty and take pride in the little that you have. I remember a friend’s grandmother’s house, still with its shiny white step; the red tiles in the hall, kitchen and outside toilet; in pride of place, gleaming with black lead, the Workwell cooking range in the front room. In my own home, if you look closely it is still possible to see the ghostly outline where an identical range stood. This is the power of Pratchett’s writing, at least for me, he speaks loudly of a past that I understand.
A major part of the cast of characters of Snuff are the goblins. For them poverty has ground them down to the point that they have almost, but not quite, lost hope. They are not so much interested in survival, but in simply existing. Not for them the white step, red tiles and black grate. For the goblins it is a case of barely hanging onto existence with the tips of their rather filthy fingers. Treated as outcasts by the rest of society, the goblins live down to the perceptions of everyone else. They are at the bottom, subhuman and unwanted. That is how society sees them. That is how the see themselves, except in the matter of names. They have poetic names. Then along comes Sam Vimes who actually asks what a dead goblin’s name was. He has all the prejudices about goblins, and indeed about everyone else he meets (with the exception of Lady Sybil, young Sam, Willikins and, perhaps Captain Carrot), but he treats them with respect.
Throughout the book there are characters who represent the main players in the modern world. Lord Rust and his family are the plutocrats who believe that they have the right to do as they please because they have wealth and breeding. Lady Sybil represents the philanthropists who try to use their wealth for good, but realise that they can do only a little. Chief Constable Feeney, the local and very ineffectual policeman, is shown, by Vimes, that the law is paramount, and that no one is above the law. There are many other characters, too many to describe, but Pratchett was a master of creating the ideal representatives of different sectors of modern society and placing them within his fantasy setting.
It is perfectly possible to read Pratchett’s books purely as fantasy stories. They are well crafted page turners that will often set you laughing. However, they are also witty and telling portraits of the big issues of our own society. As such, amongst the giggles will be a few scowls. I usually find myself agreeing with what Pratchett does not say openly about our society.
If you have never read Pratchett because he is ‘only’ a fantasy writer, think again. You are missing out on some erudite discussions on wealth, poverty, sexism, social class, war and many more topics of vital importance to our world and our times, but all with a good dose of humour. Snuff is, in my opinion, one of Pratchett’s best, though in all honesty none of them are less than excellent – even the much criticised The Shepherd’s Crown is of a standard most others writers would love to achieve, though it lacks the polish of the others, being his last book before his untimely death. Although the Discworld books are chronological, I agree with those who say that it doesn’t matter where you begin. Snuff is as good a place to start as any. It is a good read, a strong story, amusing and a good introduction to Pratchett.
Give it a try even if it’s not your usual genre.
Added 25th March 2017