Terry Pratchett, Unseen Acadcemicals (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
Welcome back to Discworld, that odd bit of the universe floating through space on the back of a giant turtle. More specifically, welcome back to Ankh-Morpork, the conservatively progressive city-state where folks want tomorrow to be just like today.
And, some cynics would add, want the next Discworld novel to be just like the last one.
Any book with ‘Terry Pratchett’ on the cover is an easy sell to me. I read the Discworld novels with enthusiasm, and would likely vote Vetinari. Pratchett’s writing adroitly balances complex social issues—racism, corruption, war, religion—with wildly farcical prose, losing nothing of Story in the process. He has created his own sub-genre, giving fantasy what Douglas Adams gave SF.
Sports fiction, however, seldom gets my attention, although a few notable stories in the genre do—by virtue of being just great stories. When I reported in December the advent of a Discworld sports story, I had mixed emotions.
Now, having read Unseen Academicals (2009), I still do.
The plot moves briskly, with enough bends to keep it engaging. The sports fiction bits run on the usual tracks of that genre—a team teaming up as a team to learn teamwork (it’s about HEART), culminating in (wait for it) the Big Game. But the peppering of satirical fantasy made it a new experience.
If Pratchett’s prose doesn’t quite sparkle this time, it certainly gleams. He’s writing in his center of familiarity, with effortless wordplay and smooth dialogue. For a stroll around Ankh-Morpork—with occasional muggings—Unseen Academicals doesn’t disappoint.
But it doesn’t quite reward.
The premise is simple. Lord Vetinari suggests—or requests, or commands, it’s all the same with Vetinari—that the wizarding faculty of Unseen University to assemble a university football team. (That’s soccer to American readers, or foot-the-ball if you’re in Ankh-Morpork.) The ensuing mayhem includes many of the classic elements Discworld diehards expect.
There’s the usual wizarding faculty, of course, with their devotion to teatime and neglect of everything else.
There’s Trev, the slightly ne’er-do-well street kid who starting to believe he can be something more.
There’s Juliet, the radiantly beautiful normal girl who’s failing to realize her radiant beauty, and Glenda, her best friend, who’s teaching her how to be herself.
There’s Andy, the pleasant, unpredictable psychopath.
And there’s Nutt, an erudite goblin, representing the latest hated fantasy race attempting to diversify the streets of Ankh-Morpork.
Nutt is both the book’s greatest asset and it’s greatest weakness. He joins the long ranks of Pratchett’s racial iconoclasts, vicious stabs at bigotry, maligned fantasy races proving they are, in fact, created equal.
Nutt is among the most convincing of these characters. He bears a wilting pathos, close to self-loathing, in his obsession proving his worth through education and invention. But for all his timidity, there is a resilient strength in Nutt. Only he is truly aware of how much the goblin race deserves their evil reputation. Only he is truly aware that they don’t have to.
There is simple dignity to Nutt. He is himself. And he will prove himself to himself even if the world scorns.
The strength of Nutt’s characterization, however, overshadows the rest of the plot. The book would disintegrate into a series of mildly amusing anecdotes without him. Yet he is not clearly the book’s protagonist. For anyone familiar with Discworld, the conclusion of his convoluted character arc is predictable by about page twelve.
Because Nutt studies Uberwaldian philosophy—Pratchett’s version of German scholasticism—he expounds lengthy academic discourses on the slightest provocation. They are in character, but often freeze the plot.
Unseen Academicals is a book for the Pratchett fanatic. If you enjoy Discworld, you will enjoy it. It will not be remembered as Pratchett’s magnum opus. Nor does it strike me as the best introduction to his works.
In each Discworld book, Pratchett distills the essence of his chosen lampoon, whether law enforcement or Australiana. Here, Nutt distills football:
‘You see, the thing about football is that it is not about football. It is a most fascinating multi-dimensional philosophy, an extrusion, as it were, of what Doctor Maspinder promulgated in Das Meer von Unvermeidlichkeit.’ (329-330)
The fusion of sports and Discworld is born.