:: Article

A world, and a mirror of worlds

By Max Dunbar.


Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett, Transworld 2009

There’s a man in the Discworld’s Unseen University whose job it is to light the candles. In the opening pages of Unseen Academicals, the self-important Candle Knave is doing his rounds with a younger and brighter apprentice. The Knave has a hugely inflated sense of his own relevance: ‘Unseen University was not rich in windows, and without the Candle Knave it would be in darkness within a day. That the wizards would simply step outside and from the teeming crowds hire another man capable of climbing ladders with pockets full of candles had never featured in his thoughts.’ Finally, the Candle Knave shows his apprentice the highlight of his tour: the candle that never goes out.

It’s the size of a hill, made out of thousands of smaller candles, and in fact it does go out, all the time, and the Knave must contrive to relight it without letting his untutored colleague realise. Reading this scene is like settling into an old, comfortable sweater at a freezing Christmas. It reminds you why people return to Terry Pratchett, again and again. You have a dialogue between a stupid man trying to hide his stupidity and a clever man forced to hide his intelligence. Beneath it are the swirling, subtle, troubling observations on class and expectation. You have laugh-out-loud authorial comment (‘Nutt was young and so did not have that reverence for age that is had by, mostly, the aged’). The candle itself is pure Discworld – artifice maintained for its own sake, the sheer dark hilarity of stupid men doing pointless things for no reason.

Unseen University is the greatest magical institution on the Disc. Its wizards are capable of awesome otherworldly demonstrations but, also being academics, they prefer to sit around, eat large meals and have long, pedantic discussions. All this threatens to change when, due to a complex probate matter, the wizards are obliged to field a team in the new competition of ‘foot-the-ball’. The idea of elderly men in robes playing a game of skill and violence is surely too easy a laugh for Pratchett, but the humour remains unexpected. There’s a striker who expects fans to chant his full title and honours, so that every one of his goals is followed by: ‘There’s only one Professor Macarona D.Thau (Bug), D.Maus (Chubb), Magistaludorum (QIS), Octavium (Hons), PHGK (Blit)…’

The Disc, says Pratchett, is a world and also a mirror of worlds. Pratchett’s planet has no electricity but has managed to develop the beginnings of a national health service, a version of email, and even a Discworld IPod (basically a tiny singing demon in a box). The Ankh-Morpork version of football is a street fight with participants of thousands, just as in Victorian London. The city’s ruler, the quietly charismatic tyrant Lord Vetinari, wants to co-opt the game into something more manageable and profitable. He starts a conflict reminiscent of the terrace/stands debates of the eighties and nineties.

You can’t be a serious intellectual without recognising the power of laughter, and Pratchett’s latest book is another delightful fusion of the superficially stupid and the deadly serious. Reviewing an earlier novel, Charles Spencer wrote in the Telegraph that ‘[i]n a better world he would be acclaimed as a great writer rather than a merely successful one’. Pratchett may never get this acclaim. But he can still surprise you.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 13th, 2009.