After Terry Pratchett’s initial glory as fantasy’s answer to Douglas Adams, he’s carried on producing novels at a stupendous rate (‘more than two a year’, to quote a recent feature). One could, however, occasionally be forgiven for thinking that having found a successful formula, he’s stuck to it at the expense of original thought. Take one hero (or, less frequently, heroine) with enough personal flaws that even the most pathetic reader can feel superior to him or her; immerse this character in a milieu of stereo/archetypes with a humorous dark side to them, and make a lot of jokes (ensuring that the really awful ones are signalled well in advance). Throw in a stock happy ending without anything too distressing happening to anyone important, and you’re laughing. So are the readers. Why knock it? It works.
Recently, though, Pratchett’s work has become more varied. His books seem to alternate between relatively light-weight retellings of myths old and new (the yokel who is actually heir to a kingdom, the detective who no one believes) and deeper, more philosophical works with an underlying darkness that’s far closer to traditional fairytales.
Men at Arms and Soul Music, taken together, provide an excellent illustration of this trend. Men at Arms is another tale of the City Guards of Ankh-Morpork. Nothing is sacred these days; Lord Vetinari has decreed that the Watch must reflect the ethnic makeup of the city, and ‘affirmative action hiring procedures’ have brought in some dubious new recruits. There’s Corporal Detritus (token troll), Lance-Constable Cuddy (token dwarf) and Lance-Constable Angua (well, she must be the token woman, Corporal Carrot reasons. She’s female.) A motley crew to track down the latest menace to society - a soon-to-be-serial killer who has left no clues behind him (or her), except for a small card with the word ‘Gonne’ lettered on it ... Meanwhile, Captain Vimes is preparing to hang up his sword and badge and retire to a life of wedded bliss with Lady Sybil Ramkin, dragon-breeder, socialite and ‘a woman out for all she can give’. Life is seldom that easy, however, and things will get worse before they get better.
Angua is introduced to the Dog Guild, in charge of scavenging rights, sunbathing spots and night-time barking duty, via Gaspode, a dog who has slept huddled up near the walls of Unseen University once too often and now is lumbered with the undoglike trait of rationality and speech. (Nobody listens, though. They hear his words as their thoughts). Angua is alarmed by the dog’s interest in her; and it’s getting around to that time of the month for her - full moon ... Just because you’re tough and independent and know how to use a sword doesn’t mean you can escape your nature.
And somewhere out in the city there is the Gonne. An invention, or discovery, of Leonard of Quirm - "I had this strange fancy I was merely assembling something that already existed" - the device has found itself a tame person and made it clear who’s boss. This is the Discworld, after all, and the Gonne has ideas of its own - it is determined to reinstate the long-defunct monarchy of Ankh-Morpork, whether the monarchy likes it or not.
Hidden in the rollicking farce, there’s a thoughtful side to this novel. Pratchett is, as usual, gleefully inventive; his ideas may be couched in flippant language, but they are not merely frivolous. For instance, ever wondered why trolls are so stupid? "Trolls evolved in cold places. Down on the muggy plains the heat build-up slowed them down and made them dull. It wasn’t that only stupid trolls came to the city. Trolls who came down to the city were often quite smart - but they became stupid."
There’s a few neat observations about the social life of gargoyles, the Fools’ Guild, and landscape gardeners (Bloody Stupid Johnson, a man who had difficulty distinguishing inches from feet. Check out the Triumphal Arch some time. They keep it in a box.)
Men At Arms has an underlying theme of tolerance and acceptance, whether it’s between troll and dwarf, dead or undead. It’s never more than a theme, though; it never gets in the way of the entertainment.
Supercooled trolls and landscape gardening are all very well, but what happens when an anthropomorphic personification is smitten with existential angst? Soul Music sees Death with the blues, sloping off to get away from it all. Death’s granddaughter Susan is enduring her education at the Quirm College for Young Ladies, her only peculiarity being an ability to escape attention - to the extent that she can sit and read philosophy books while economics lessons happen to other people. Susan’s a rationalist, so naturally she doesn’t believe that big white horses like Binky forget to come down when they jump, or that the nice young woman with the ladder and the pliers is really the Tooth Fairy. It’s only a matter of time, however, before - as her grandfather’s heir - she herself is being mistaken for the Tooth Fairy, and worse. Then, in the course of her Duty, she discovers Music with Rocks In.
Music with Rocks In? Take one troll (Lias), one dwarf (Glod), and one human (Imp), struggling musicians, with - respectively - a set of rocks, a horn, and a strange six-stringed instrument acquired in one of those shops that’s been there for years, but wasn’t there yesterday. Let them unite in the face of adversity and high Guild membership rates. Thus Music with Rocks In is born, and suddenly Ankh-Morpork is host to a new kind of music - music that’s very definitely Live.
And, of course, Music with Rocks In has a disturbing effect on angst-ridden adolescents of all ages. Playing ‘Pathway to Paradise’ and ‘Sto Helit Lace’ to the impressionable audience of the Mended Drum can only lead to trouble - people painting their bedrooms black, slicking back their hair with bacon grease and wearing modified leather coats with ‘Born to Rune’ picked out in silver studs ... and trying to build - ‘no, I just put it together’ - machines hitherto seen only in the notebooks of Leonard of Quirm (of Gonne fame). As Susan says of the guitar, "It’s not supposed to be in our history." But the music doesn’t mind. It’s the heart beat, the back beat. It’s alive again.
Meanwhile, Buddy (formerly known as Imp) has become a slave to the rhythm, a channel for something that’s been around for a very long time. (What was the sound before the birth of the Universe? "One, two, three, four ..."). Nothing in Susan’s sensible, practical upbringing has prepared her for this. At least she has help; the Death of Rats is accompanying her on her tours of Duty, proffering frequent informative SQUEAKS; there’s a raven who refuses to do the ‘N’ word, and Death’s assistant Albert is unwillingly broadening her world view no end. It’s not a world view that Susan has much patience with, though. All the good dying horribly, and the bad living to a ripe old age - it’s not fair. Now, of course, she has the power to interfere and change things for the better. Rules? Made to be broken. And while Death is behaving in an unnecessarily teenaged fashion - the ultimate rebel without a cause? - Susan has a career opportunity that any idealistic (if sensible) teenage girl would jump at - the chance to Do Good and make the world a better place. Of course, the world may not want to be a better place ...
Both Soul Music and Men at Arms play with the idea of an anachronistic cultural artefact being dumped on the Discworld by an Act of God (or The Author) and promptly taking on a life of their own, the Discworld being what it is. Soul Music is by far the more serious book; its moral dilemmas (amusing as they may be) make the mean streets and ethnic conflict of Men at Arms look pleasantly simplistic. There’s less of the farce, more of the tragedy, to Soul Music - perhaps because it cares less about people’s inadequacies, and more about the Big Questions. To say that Pratchett treats those questions seriously in a comic novel may seem a contradiction in terms; but there’s a depth, and a sense of tragedy, to this novel which is lacking in Men At Arms.