Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Truth by Terry Pratchett


Source of book: Audiobook from my brother   


Has it really been almost a year since we listened to some Pratchett? We were definitely due! Fortunately, we still have a few audiobooks at our disposal, as these make great traveling books. The only issue we are now running into is that we are not able to listen to these in order, because the “middle period” audiobooks are difficult or impossible to find. (The early books, narrated by Nigel Planer, and the later ones, by Stephen Briggs, are still in circulation. The abridged ones by Tony Robinson do not exist, as far as I am concerned.) 


The Truth is technically part of the “Industrial Revolution” series, but, as far as I can tell, they are not part of a continuing story, such as that of the Rincewind or Tiffany Aching series. Rather, they tend to stand alone just fine provided the reader has a basic knowledge of the Discworld universe, particularly the Watch and other facts of Ankh-Morpork. In this case, Lord Vetinari, “Nobby” Nobs, and Vimes play key roles, so it is good at least to understand who they are. 


This book takes a look at the printing press - and the press. Specifically, free, independent, and truth-based journalism. William de Worde, the black sheep of the rich and powerful de Worde family, becomes the founder of Ankh-Morpork journalism somewhat by accident. Some dwarves have obtained a peculiar new device - a moveable type printing press - from an exotic land, and an collision results in de Worde seeing a new way to print his “letters from Ankh-Morpork” that he sends to a few select individuals around the disc who want to keep up on current affairs. 


Before he knows it, he has a newspaper - and a bunch of new enemies. For one, the engravers’ guild is furious about being replaced by technology, so they start a tabloid rag to compete, engaging in additional skullduggery to put de Worde out of business. 


But bigger things are afoot. Lord Vetinari is accused of attempted murder and embezzlement, but things aren’t adding up, either for Vimes or for de Worde. With the help of his resourceful but naive reporter, Sacharissa Crisplock (granddaughter of an engraver, no less!), he sets out to find out what is going on. Particularly after a couple of goons show up and try to kill him. 


And who are those goons? They call themselves “the new firm,” and consist of the slender and ruthless brains of the operation, Mr. Pin; and the brawn, Mr. Tulip. 


Along the path of getting to the bottom of things, de Worde has to locate a talking dog, who is the only witness to the nefarious events surrounding Vetinari; utilize the assistance of an abstinent vampire; and learn some really unpleasant things about his father. Oh, and because this is Pratchett, it contains brilliant satire, and reads like a prescient description of the Trump Era (Fake News! Coup attempts! Racism! Corruption of government by business interests and billionaires! It’s all there. Written in 2000, by the way.) I should also mention that there is plenty of philosophizing about the nature of truth in this book too. While kids will enjoy the book, adults will appreciate his fine spoofs of the Watergate Scandal, Yellow Journalism, organized crime tropes, and Pulp Fiction.


Pratchett had a true gift in creating memorable characters, of course, but I think that he put some of his best into this book. Sacharissa (named for her supposed sweetness?) is delightful for many reasons. She has been sheltered, much like Fundie kids, and thus is naive about a lot of the darker parts of the world. But she is also highly intelligent and a quick learner, sometimes able to cut to the truth faster because of her naivete. She also exactly what de Worde needs for his paper: a brilliant marketer, editor, headline writer, and people manager. The two of them are so clearly a great pair that it doesn’t feel contrived when he asks her out at the end of the book. (Even if said date is interrupted by their job…) She also gets a good description that applies to quite a few “good Fundie girls” that I know: “She’d been a respectable young woman for some time. In certain people, that means there’s a lot of dammed-up disreputability just waiting to burst out.”


Otto Chriek, the reformed vampire, is also delightful and hilarious. His passion is photography. Well, “iconography,” the Discworld equivalent. First introduced in The Colour of Magic, these devices have a tiny “imp” inside, who quickly draws perfectly whatever picture is taken. Otto is trying to overcome both the prejudice against his race and his own inborn bloodlust, and is grateful for the chance to practice his craft. (His particular contribution to the art appears to be the use of various flashes - salamanders mostly, but in one case eels that cast “dark light” that reveals more than the eye can see.) Otto attends a 12 step program, where they drink hot chocolate and sing temperance songs (these are so hilarious, we busted up the whole time.) I am sure that the astute reader has already noted a potential problem here: vampires and light don’t go too well together. Which means that at minimum, Otto experiences agony with every flash. At worst, he crumbles to dust, and has to be reconstituted with a bit of blood. This too is pretty funny, the way Pratchett writes it. And also the bit near the end when a villain fails to realize that running a sword through a vampire only ruins his clothes. Poor Otto. 


Mr. Pin is a pretty typical nasty villain sort, although, this being Pratchett, he gets some good laughs for hitting all the necessary tropes about his sort. Mr. Tulip, on the other hand, is zany as hell. First, he is always literally mincing his oaths. He is all “-ing” this and “-ing” that. Stephen Briggs narrates this with kind of a gulp for the dash, which is perfectly done. Mr. Tulip also is, despite his otherwise non-existent intelligence, an art connoisseur. There are several scenes in which he takes quite a bit of time out to criticize bad art, poor copies, or to appreciate and protect good art. Finally, he has a bad drug habit. Or rather, he badly wants to have a drug habit, but is beyond incompetent at it. So he ends up snorting or injecting whatever rot he is able to get, from bath salts to lethal (to anyone else) toxins. As Pratchett puts it, he “has a tendency to buy and consume anything sold in little brown bags.” As part of the joke, Ankh-Morpork is positively awash in mind-altering substances, but Mr. Tulip is never able to actually buy the real stuff. 


I definitely have to mention the fate of Pin and Tulip, even if it is a bit of a spoiler. One of the bizarre realities of Discworld is that all religions are true. At least when it comes to the afterlife. You get what you believe in. Although it rarely turns out to be what you want. (See Small Gods for another funny scene involving the afterlife.) In this book, Mr. Tulip was raised…somewhere. And there, people believed that as long as you wore a potato around your neck, you would be reincarnated. And so, reluctantly, Death has to oblige both Mr. Tulip, the lifetime believer, and Mr. Pin, a deathbed convert to the belief. Mr. Tulip, because there is some potential good in him, comes back as a woodworm, where he is able to eat truly fine “-ing good” wood. Mr. Pin, on the other hand, comes back as an unusually large potato (with his face no less), that is made into chips and fried. 


So many great quotes from this book. I’ll see if I can dig up the best. Here goes:


The dwarfs found out how to turn lead into gold by doing it the hard way. The difference between that and the easy way is that the hard way works.


This is, of course, a reference to the lead letters of the press. Running one is indeed hard work, but it is quite the industry these days. And then there is this bit of a conversation involving Lord Vetinari: 


‘And these are your reasons, my Lord?’

‘Do you think I have others?’ said Lord Vetinari.  ‘My motives, as ever, are entirely transparent.’

Hughnon reflected that ‘entirely transparent’ meant either that you could see right through them or that you couldn’t see them at all.


Another Pratchett mic drop on politics. 


‘We’ve always looked beyond the walls for the invaders,’ he said.  ‘We always thought change came from outside, usually on the point of a sword.  And then we look around and find that it comes from the inside of the head of someone you wouldn’t notice in the street.  In certain circumstances it may be convenient to remove the head, but there seem to be such a lot of them these days.’


Or this one:


He'd found hard truth less hard than an easy lie. 


Perhaps this one is my favorite, though, coming from a Fundie cult that would be all too happy to create a brutal theocracy, thank you very much. 


He knew about concerned citizens.  Wherever they were, they all spoke the same private language, where ‘traditional values’ meant ‘hang someone’.


The core truth here being that any time someone starts talking about “traditional values,” you can be sure that they intend to enforce them at the point of a sword or gun. 


The quotes about journalism are great too:


Words resemble fish in that some specialist ones can survive only in a kind of reef, where their curious shapes and usages are protected from the hurly-burly of the open sea.  ‘Rumpus’ and ‘fracas’ are found only in certain newspapers (in much the same way that ‘beverages’ are found only in certain menus).  They are never used in normal conversation. 


And this one: 


‘People like to be told what they already know. Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds.’ 


If you want to understand the appeal of Faux News to a certain generation of wyte conservatives, this is a good explanation. They love it because it confirms what they already believe to be true about minorities, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, atheists, liberals, and so on. 


Speaking of other pointed commentary:


William wondered why he always disliked people who said ‘no offence meant’.  Maybe it was because they found it easier to say ‘no offence meant’ than actually refrain from giving offence.


Or this one I first heard in law school, but put most succinctly by Pratchett:


When people say clearly something, that means there’s a huge crack in their argument and they know things aren’t clear at all.


And this one: 


Character assassination. What a wonderful idea. Ordinary assassination only works once, but this one works every day.


How about this one, which is likely true about the overwhelming majority of wyte conservatives of my parents’ generation and their prejudices?


Goodmountain grinned. ‘Don’t worry too much about your father, lad. People change. My grandmother used to think humans were sort of hairless bears.  She doesn’t anymore.’

‘What changed her mind?’

‘I reckon it was the dying that did it.’ 


On a related note:


‘Mrs. Tilly, I think you wrote a lovely well-spelled and grammatical letter to us suggesting that everyone under the age of eighteen should be flogged once a week to stop them being so noisy?’

‘Once a day, Mr de Worde,’ said Mrs. Tilly. ‘That’ll teach ‘em to go around being young!’


I had to laugh at this bit, by the Machievellian Vetinari, always a bit too sharp for comfort. 


'So ... we have what the people are interested in, and human interest stories, which is what humans are interested in, and the public interest, which no one is interested in?'

'Except the public, sir,' said William, trying to keep up.

'Which isn't the same as people and humans.'

'I think it's more complicated than that, sir.'


And this one too:


In return, however,’ said the Patrician, ‘I must ask you not to upset Commander Vimes.’  He gave a little cough.  ‘More than necessary.’

‘I’m sure we can pull together, sir.’

‘Oh, I do hope not, I really do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.’  He smiled.  ‘It’s the only way to make progress.’


That is so very, very true as well. Which is why cults cannot handle any difference in opinion or practice. 


I think I will end with a couple on the nature of truth as it applies to journalism. First, a conversation between William and Sacharissa: 


‘Are you sure it's all true?'

'I'm sure it's all journalism', said William.

'And what is that supposed to mean?'

'It means it's true enough for now.'


And the closing line of the novel:


Nothing has to be true forever. Just for long enough, to tell you the truth. 


That’s….true. Our knowledge is and always has been provisional. Science acknowledges that better than religion, honestly, which is sad, considering that to a significant degree, religion has the same roots as science, a human quest to understand, to know, to explain. Religion has changed too, of course, but it hates to admit it, to grant that it might have been wrong in the past and might be wrong now. But in reality, no dogma is “true forever,” just as no paradigm is “true forever” or any explanation is “true forever.” All are, to a very real degree, “good enough” for “long enough.” And that is…okay.  


So, again, a great book, hilarious yet deeper than one might expect from a humor-fantasy mashup, but that is Pratchett in a nutshell. Also, Stephen Briggs is as outstanding as always as a narrator, so if you go for the audiobook, find this one. 




The Terry Pratchett list:



The Colour of Magic

The Light Fantastic


Faust Eric

Unseen Academicals


Tiffany Aching:

The Wee Free Men

A Hat Full of Sky


I Shall Wear Midnight



Equal Rites

Wyrd Sisters



Guards! Guards! (Stupid abridged edition, which is an abomination.)


Other Discworld:

Small Gods



The Carpet People


Dragons at Crumbling Castle

Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman)


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