Review: Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Oct 22 20:56:06 PDT 2023

Going Postal
by Terry Pratchett

Series:    Discworld #33
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2004
Printing:  November 2014
ISBN:      0-06-233497-2
Format:    Mass market
Pages:     471

Going Postal is the 33rd Discworld novel. You could probably start here
if you wanted to; there are relatively few references to previous
books, and the primary connection (to Feet of Clay) is fully
re-explained. I suspect that's why Going Postal garnered another round
of award nominations. There are arguable spoilers for Feet of Clay,

Moist von Lipwig is a con artist. Under a wide variety of names, he's
swindled and forged his way around the Disc, always confident that he
can run away from or talk his way out of any trouble. As Going Postal
begins, however, it appears his luck has run out. He's about to be

Much to his surprise, he wakes up after his carefully performed hanging
in Lord Vetinari's office, where he's offered a choice. He can either
take over the Ankh-Morpork post office, or he can die. Moist, of
course, immediately agrees to run the post office, and then leaves town
at the earliest opportunity, only to be carried back into Vetinari's
office by a relentlessly persistent golem named Mr. Pump. He apparently
has a parole officer.

The clacks, Discworld's telegraph system first seen in The Fifth
Elephant, has taken over most communications. The city is now dotted
with towers, and the Grand Trunk can take them at unprecedented speed
to even far-distant cities like Genua. The post office, meanwhile, is
essentially defunct, as Moist quickly discovers. There are two
remaining employees, the highly eccentric Junior Postman Groat who is
still Junior because no postmaster has lasted long enough to promote
him, and the disturbingly intense Apprentice Postman Stanley, who
collects pins.

Other than them, the contents of the massive post office headquarters
are a disturbing mail sorting machine designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson
that is not picky about which dimension or timeline the sorted mail
comes from, and undelivered mail. A lot of undelivered mail. Enough
undelivered mail that there may be magical consequences.

All Moist has to do is get the postal system running again. Somehow.
And not die in mysterious accidents like the previous five postmasters.

Going Postal is a con artist story, but it's also a startup and
capitalism story. Vetinari is, as always, solving a specific problem in
his inimitable indirect way. The clacks were created by engineers
obsessed with machinery and encodings and maintenance, but it's been
acquired by... well, let's say private equity, because that's who they
are, although Discworld doesn't have that term. They immediately did
what private equity always did: cut out everything that didn't extract
profit, without regard for either the service or the employees. Since
the clacks are an effective monopoly and the new owners are ruthless
about eliminating any possible competition, there isn't much to stop
them. Vetinari's chosen tool is Moist.

There are some parts of this setup that I love and one part that I'm
grumbly about. A lot of the fun of this book is seeing Moist pulled
into the mission of resurrecting the post office despite himself. He
starts out trying to wriggle out of his assigned task, but, after a few
early successes and a supernatural encounter with the mail, he can't
help but start to care. Reformed con men often make good protagonists
because one can enjoy the charisma without disliking the ethics.
Pratchett adds the delightfully sharp-witted and cynical Adora Belle
Dearheart as a partial reader stand-in, which makes the process of
Moist becoming worthy of his protagonist role even more fun.

I think that a properly functioning postal service is one of the truly
monumental achievements of human society and doesn't get nearly enough
celebration (or support, or pay, or good working conditions). Give me a
story about reviving a postal service by someone who appreciates the
tradition and social role as much as Pratchett clearly does and I'm
there. The only frustration is that Going Postal is focused more on an
immediate plot, so we don't get to see the larger infrastructure
recovery that is clearly needed. (Maybe in later books?)

That leads to my grumble, though. Going Postal and specifically the
takeover of the clacks is obviously inspired by corporate structures in
the later Industrial Revolution, but this book was written in 2004, so
it's also a book about private equity and startups. When Vetinari puts
a con man in charge of the post office, he runs it like a startup: do
lots of splashy things to draw attention, promise big and then promise
even bigger, stumble across a revenue source that may or may not be
sustainable, hire like mad, and hope it all works out.

This makes for a great story in the same way that watching trapeze
artists or tightrope walkers is entertaining. You know it's going to
work because that's the sort of book you're reading, so you can enjoy
the audacity and wonder how Moist will manage to stay ahead of his
promises. But it is still a con game applied to a public service, and
the part of me that loves the concept of the postal service couldn't
stop feeling like this is part of the problem.

The dilemma that Vetinari is solving is a bit too realistic, down to
the requirement that the post office be self-funding and not depend on
city funds and, well, this is repugnant to me. Public services aren't
businesses. Societies spend money to build things that they need to
maintain society, and postal service is just as much one of those
things as roads are. The ability of anyone to send a letter to anyone
else, no matter how rural the address is, provides infrastructure on
which a lot of important societal structure is built. Pratchett made me
care a great deal about Ankh-Morpork's post office (not hard to do),
and now I want to see it rebuilt properly, on firm foundations, without
splashy promises and without a requirement that it pay for itself.
Which I realize is not the point of Discworld at all, but the concept
of running a postal service like a startup hits maybe a bit too close
to home.

Apart from that grumble, this is a great book if you're in the mood for
a reformed con man story. I thought the gold suit was a bit over the
top, but I otherwise thought Moist's slow conversion to truly caring
about his job was deeply satisfying. The descriptions of the clacks are
full of askew Discworld parodies of computer networking and encoding
that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. This is also the book that
introduced the now-famous (among Pratchett fans at least) GNU
instruction for the clacks, and I think that scene is the most
emotionally moving bit of Pratchett outside of Night Watch.

Going Postal is one of the better books in the Discworld series to this
point (and I'm sadly getting near the end). If you have less strongly
held opinions about management and funding models for public services,
or at least are better at putting them aside when reading fantasy
novels, you're likely to like it even more than I did. Recommended.

Followed by Thud!. The thematic sequel is Making Money.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-10-22


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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