Monday, May 8, 2023

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother


We are, alas, running out of Terry Pratchett audiobooks we haven’t listened to. Fortunately, it looks like they are releasing new audio versions of the earlier books, which are fairly difficult to find on CD. 

Nation is not a Discworld novel, but rather one of his stand-alone books set in the Victorian Era, but in a parallel universe. In this case, what if the future Queen Victoria had become marooned on an island in Micronesia, helping to rebuild a nation after a devastating tsunami? 


That is the basic idea behind Nation. Mau, a boy on the cusp of manhood, is rowing back from his initiation ordeal (alone on an island for a week), when his boat is caught by the tsunami. He manages to stay afloat, but returns to find his village in ruins and everyone but him dead. 


This causes, to put it mildly, a spiritual crisis, during which Mau decides that the gods do not exist. 


Meanwhile, the thirteen year old eventual second in line heir of the crown of a country which isn’t England…but is England, is on her way back to the home country from where she has been staying at a colonial outpost, when the tsunami casts the boat high up on Mau’s island. The entire crew is killed, except, as it turns out much later, the cook, who has sealed himself in a coffin boat. Ermintrude finds herself alone on the island until Mau returns. She eventually helps him recover from the ordeal of disposing of all the bodies (they are sent back to the sea as a traditional internment), and they work to learn a bit of each other’s language. 


Soon afterward, survivors of the disaster start showing up at the island: an aged priest, a traumatized woman who cannot feed her newborn, a young couple and his brother, an old woman with a storehouse of cultural knowledge, and eventually a few dozen others. Mau, as the sole survivor of The Nation, is now the chief, and has to figure out how to rebuild society from what is left. This is what humans do after disasters – it isn’t the chaos conventional (western) wisdom claims – they rebuild.


And there are a lot of things to figure out. Ermintrude has decided she hates her name and tells Mau it is Daphne. They must figure out how to feed the infant. A baby must be delivered. And beer must be carefully made so that the toxic ingredient is rendered harmless. 


Oh, and Daphne’s ship had a mutiny, and those mutineers have now joined forces with cannibal raiders and are headed for the island. 


Mau is worried that he doesn’t have a soul, because of the failed manhood ordeal. Daphne is having to figure out how to live in a completely foreign culture with expectations she struggles to understand. And both of them hear voices in their heads - the voices of Mau’s ancestors. 


And then there is the question of religion. Mau does not believe in the gods anymore, but the voices of the grandfathers keep insisting he find and replace the “god anchors” - white stones that had to have been brought from thousands of miles away. And most of his people are religious, so he can’t merely dismiss religion, but has to work with it in a way that strengthens the nation. 


The book is very philosophical throughout, exploring the relationships between faith and doubt, the problem of evil, the connection humans have with their ancestors, and the tension between tradition and science. 


Pratchett wasn’t a particularly religious person, describing himself as an atheist for most of his life. At around the time Nation was published, however - after he had been diagnosed with the early onset dementia that would kill him in a half dozen years - he made a statement in an interview that parallels a line in the book. 


“I believe in the same God that Einstein did ... And it is just possible that once you have got past all the gods that we have created with big beards and many human traits, just beyond all that on the other side of physics, there just may be the ordered structure from which everything flows."


This is as good of an explanation of the mystic religious tradition, Christian or otherwise. To reduce God to a parody of human traits seems wrong even by the standards of religion itself. Throughout his books, Pratchett’s relationship to religion is fascinating. In Discworld, the gods are real, just like magic is real. He doesn’t spend time hating on religion, but does - correctly - identify certain fundamentalist strains to be a significant source of evil in the world, along with greed and lust for power. But Pratchett doesn’t disrespect religion, choosing instead to explore the more interesting questions where philosophy and science intersect. 


Like so many of Pratchett’s books, there are bad puns, cultural references, so many ways the fictional world resembles our own. Some of the parallels are more than parallels - real life scientists from Darwin to Carl Sagan make cameos in the epilogue - and the “god anchors” and the House of the Grandfathers might be based on Nan Madol


Perhaps as a final thought, Pratchett embodies how many thoughtful Brits have a complex relationship with the Empire. Just like many of us Americans have with our own empire. Pratchett clearly loves Great Britain, even as he criticizes her faults. He is less comfortable with the legacy of the Empire, and has no illusions about its atrocities. In this book, he gently looks at the way imperialists plant flags, backed by guns, to claim what was never theirs. He also looks at cultural chauvinism, and notes that many ancient and “primitive” civilizations, in the South Pacific as well as the Americas, were actually more scientifically developed than Europe in the past. The idea that we white folks were “civilizing” and uplifting indigenous peoples was always a bunch of shit, but even more so considering what we were too blind to see or understand. 


To that end, Pratchett envisions an alternative timeline in the case of the Nation. Rather than being exploited or isolated, the island is able to enter a mutually beneficial relationship, thanks to the foresight of Mau and Daphne. The Nation becomes a member of the Royal Society, that famous club of scientists back in the day. As such, the Nation embraces its prime location for astronomy (something Pratchett himself was a bit of a proficient at himself), and finds a unique blend of tradition and new knowledge. 


Honestly, that is what I wish for my own people - and for my former religious tribe. There is that balance between tradition and science, between mysticism and empiricism. There is much of beauty in tradition that can be retained, while jettisoning its more toxic elements. As the Nation embraces a more egalitarian approach to gender, for example, it can still retain the coming-of-age rituals. It can look to the stars with scientific knowledge, while still speculating about the meaning of the gods. 


Our audiobook was narrated by Stephen Briggs, who did most of the later Pratchett audiobooks, and is his usual fabulous self. The voices were good, easily distinguishable from each other, and suited to the characters. The pacing and mixing were also excellent. Also recommended for Pratchett audiobooks are Nigel Planer and Celia Imrie, who each narrate some of the older books. I have not yet experienced the newest recordings, but friends who have say positive things about them. Avoid the Tony Robinson ones, though, as those are abridged editions - which totally misses the point of Terry Pratchett, where the details of each sentence are part of the fun. 

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