Unseen Academicals/ The Carpet People, By Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett satirises football in his 37th Discworld novel, and adds colour to a children's book
Sunday 25 October 2009
The Terry Pratchett who emerges from his latest, 37th, Discworld novel, Unseen Academicals, is a very different proposition from the one suggested by his inaugural effort, The Colour of Magic, back in 1983. Then, aged 35, Pratchett had not yet cemented his distinctive style: the first novel was all colourful, literary flourishes, a more complicated writing style, obscure characters such as his surreally walking treasure chest ("The Luggage") and Rincewind, the cynical, ineffective wizard who has intermittently cropped up since.
By the late 1980s, he had settled into a groove: his characters were expanding (the City Watch; the indolent wizards in Unseen University; the thieves, the beggars, the movie-makers, Death et al) and the perennial Pratchett allegory began rearing its head like a two-headed beast. Cue easy pops at Hollywood (Moving Pictures) or, say, Christmas (The Hogfather).
We also must mention Pratchett's 2007 diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease; something that is clearly not affecting the quality of his work. His universe is as fresh and arch as it always was; all the more impressive considering that Pratchett has now sold almost 10 million books in the UK, generating more than £70m in revenue. He has now either written, co-written or been creatively associated (including high-profile collaborations with Neil Gaiman, another literary sorcerer) with 100 books. While the majority are based in Discworld, there is also a highly successful range of tomes for children, which include the Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (2001).
So you'd have thought that, by now, Pratchett would be running out of ideas; thankfully, however, the universe he created 25 years ago just keeps on giving. In Unseen Academicals, the focus of his mild form of satire is football (providing the principal narrative strain of the book): cue allusions to "playing them buggers in Dimwell" until 3am, and "play until full-time, first dead man or first score" in true Ankh-Morpork style. Other targets for Pratchett's satirical quill include the fashion world, former polytechnics, the tabloid media's obsession with showbiz, and even the Monica Lewinsky affair.
The plot focuses once again on Unseen University's sorcerers. The conditions of a vital bequest depend on the wizards fielding a team for a spot of what they term "foot-the-ball" or Poore Boys' Funne. ("Mobs in the streets, kicking and punching and yelling... and they were the players.") A nice sub-plot focuses on the below-stairs staff at the university, including the mysterious goblin Nutt and the model-like Juliet, a particular target of lust for the bored wizards. It's a triumphant effort.
And then comes the illustrated edition of Pratchett's The Carpet People – ostensibly one of his "kiddies" books, originally written in 1971, but rewritten 20 years later (Pratchett says he has "co-authored" it with himself). It has been published with Pratchett's own coloured-in scribbles accompanying the text. Very much in the spirit of his Truckers trilogy, the book sees a tribe, the Munrungs, navigating their way across a carpet ("The Lord of the Rings on a rug"); cue various allusions in a Honey I Shrunk the Kids way to the deathly results of vacuuming, or the mining of metals from a fallen coin. Pratchett's illustrations have a loose, less-bloody, Ralph Steadman quality to them. They are not all that numerous, however, making this principally a must for collectors.
"My memory is still pretty good. I can write, and actually I've no problem with plotting; the plot for Unseen Academicals [came] together in my head beautifully," Pratchett told The Bookseller earlier this month. "But like a lot of writers, I love the therapy of hitting the keys, with my brain going at the pace of the typewriter. It's very frustrating to lose a skill like that. [But] while I still think I can write with my brain, we'll find ways of getting round not being able to write with my hands." Long may it continue.
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