Review: Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett
eagle at eyrie.org
Thu Apr 28 19:52:03 PDT 2022
by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #17
Printing: February 2014
Format: Mass market
Interesting Times is the seventeenth Discworld novel and certainly not
the place to start. At the least, you will probably want to read The
Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic before this book, since it's a
sequel to those (although Rincewind has had some intervening
Lord Vetinari has received a message from the Counterweight Continent,
the first in ten years, cryptically demanding the Great Wizzard be sent
The Agatean Empire is one of the most powerful states on the Disc.
Thankfully for everyone else, it normally suits its rulers to believe
that the lands outside their walls are inhabited only by ghosts. No one
is inclined to try to change their minds or otherwise draw their
attention. Accordingly, the Great Wizard must be sent, a task that
Vetinari efficiently delegates to the Archchancellor. There is only the
small matter of determining who the Great Wizzard is, and why it was
spelled with two z's.
Discworld readers with a better memory than I will recall Rincewind's
hat. Why the Counterweight Continent would demanding a wizard notorious
for his near-total inability to perform magic is a puzzle for other
people. Rincewind is promptly located by a magical computer, and nearly
as promptly transported across the Disc, swapping him for an
unnecessarily exciting object of roughly equivalent mass and hurling
him into an unexpected rescue of Cohen the Barbarian. Rincewind
predictably reacts by running away, although not fast or far enough to
keep him from being entangled in a glorious popular uprising. Or, well,
something that has aspirations of being glorious, and popular, and an
I hate to say this, because Pratchett is an ethically thoughtful writer
to whom I am willing to give the benefit of many doubts, but this book
was kind of racist.
The Agatean Empire is modeled after China, and the Rincewind books tend
to be the broadest and most obvious parodies, so that was already a
recipe for some trouble. Some of the social parody is not too
objectionable, albeit not my thing. I find ethnic stereotypes and
making fun of funny-sounding names in other languages (like a city
named Hunghung) to be in poor taste, but Pratchett makes fun of
everyone's names and cultures rather equally. (Also, I admit that some
of the water buffalo jokes, despite the stereotypes, were pretty good.)
If it had stopped there, it would have prompted some eye-rolling but
not much comment.
Unfortunately, a significant portion of the plot depends on the idea
that the population of the Agatean Empire has been so brainwashed into
obedience that they have a hard time even imagining resistance, and
even their revolutionaries are so polite that the best they can manage
for slogans are things like "Timely Demise to All Enemies!" What they
need are a bunch of outsiders, such as Rincewind or Cohen and his gang.
More details would be spoilers, but there is several deliberate uses of
Ankh-Morpork as a revolutionary inspiration and a great deal of
narrative hand-wringing over how awful it is to so completely convince
people they are slaves that you don't need chains.
There is a depressingly tedious tendency of western writers, even
otherwise thoughtful and well-meaning ones like Pratchett, to adopt a
simplistic ranking of political systems on a crude measure of freedom.
That analysis immediately encounters the problem that lots of people
who live within systems that rate poorly on this one-dimensional scale
seem inadequately upset about circumstances that are "obviously"
horrific oppression. This should raise questions about the validity of
the assumptions, but those assumptions are so unquestionable that the
writer instead decides the people who are insufficiently upset about
their lack of freedom must be defective. The more racist writers
attribute that defectiveness to racial characteristics. The less racist
writers, like Pratchett, attribute that defectiveness to brainwashing
and systemic evil, which is not quite as bad as overt racism but still
rests on a foundation of smug cultural superiority.
Krister Stendahl, a bishop of the Church of Sweden, coined three famous
rules for understanding other religions:
1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask
the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
2. Don't compare your best to their worst.
3. Leave room for "holy envy."
This is excellent advice that should also be applied to politics. Most
systems exist for some reason. The differences from your preferred
system are easy to see, particularly those that strike you as horrible.
But often there are countervailing advantages that are less obvious,
and those are more psychologically difficult to understand and
objectively analyze. You might find they have something that you wish
your system had, which causes discomfort if you're convinced you have
the best political system in the world, or are making yourself feel
better about the abuses of your local politics by assuring yourself
that at least you're better than those people.
I was particularly irritated to see this sort of simplistic
stereotyping in Discworld given that Ankh-Morpork, the setting of most
of the Discworld novels, is an authoritarian dictatorship. Vetinari
quite capably maintains his hold on power, and yet this is not taken as
a sign that the city's inhabitants have been brainwashed into
considering themselves slaves. Instead, he's shown as adept at
maintaining the stability of a precarious system with a lot of
competing forces and a high potential for destructive chaos. Vetinari
is an awful person, but he may be better than anyone who would replace
This sort of complexity is permitted in the "local" city, but as soon
as we end up in an analog of China, the rulers are evil, the system
lacks any justification, and the peasants only don't revolt because
they've been trained to believe they can't. Gah.
I was muttering about this all the way through Interesting Times, which
is a shame because, outside of the ham-handed political plot, it has
some great Pratchett moments. Rincewind's approach to any and all
danger is a running (sorry) gag that keeps working, and Cohen and his
gang of absurdly competent decrepit barbarians are both funnier here
than they have been in any previous book and the rare highly-positive
portrayal of old people in fantasy adventures who are not wizards or
crones. Pretty Butterfly is a great character who deserved to be in a
better plot. And I loved the trouble that Rincewind had with the
Agatean tonal language, which is an excuse for Pratchett to write
dialog full of frustrated non-sequiturs when Rincewind mispronounces a
I do have to grumble about the Luggage, though. From a world-building
perspective its subplot makes sense, but the Luggage was always the
best character in the Rincewind stories, and the way it lost all of its
specialness here was oddly sad and depressing. Pratchett also failed to
convince me of the drastic retcon of The Colour of Magic and The Light
Fantastic that he does here (and which I can't talk about in detail due
to spoilers), in part because it's entangled in the orientalism of the
I'm not sure Pratchett could write a bad book, and I still enjoyed
reading Interesting Times, but I don't think he gave the politics his
normal care, attention, and thoughtful humanism. I hope later books in
this part of the Disc add more nuance, and are less confident and
judgmental. I can't really recommend this one, even though it has some
Also, just for the record, "may you live in interesting times" is not a
Chinese curse. It's a English saying that likely was attributed to
China to make it sound exotic, which is the sort of landmine that
good-natured parody of other people's cultures needs to be wary of.
Followed in publication order by Maskerade, and in Rincewind's personal
timeline by The Last Continent.
Rating: 6 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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