THE WORLD IS FLAT
by Robert Lopresti
No short stories today. I want to talk about my current favorite police procedural novels. They star Sam Vimes, the head of his cityâ€™s police force, although he considers himself a typical street copper. While he is married to one of the cityâ€™s wealthiest aristocrats (he married her in spite of her money) he wears cheap boots and claims he can tell what part of the city he is in by the feel of the pavement beneath his feet.
Vimes is tough, honest, and smart. He is a bit uncomfortable with his new rank, which occasionally forces him into diplomacy and other non-copper duties. When we first meet him he is fairly conservative but the city adopts an affirmative action program and he eventually embraces members of some new ethnic groups to his police force: dwarfs, werewolves, trolls, gnomes, and even a zombie. But no vampires. Vimes doesnâ€™t like vampires.
The turtle moves…
By now it should be clear that these novels are not set in, say, beautiful Bellingham, Washingtion. In fact, Vimes is the head of the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork, the largest city on Discworld, a flat planet that travels on the back of four elephants that rest on the back of a very large turtle.
This city and this world are the brainchildren of Terry Pratchett, an Englishman who has been called one of the great satirists in the language. In this case â€œsatireâ€ is not a synonym for parody, but ridicule intended to expose folly.
And Pratchett finds folly everywhere. In Jingo Vimes tries to prevent a war with a desert nation over some very dubious isues. As the ambassador says, dryly: “A few square miles of uninhabitated fertile ground with superb anchorage in an unsurpassed strategic position? What sort of inconsequence is that for civilized people to war over?” In Feet of Clay he winds up protecting golems from people who think that those who arenâ€™t like themselves arenâ€™t quite, well, human.
But my favorite Vimes novel is Men at Arms, in which people are killed by a mysterious device called a “gonne,” which apparently fires small pieces of metal very fast. It was stolen from the museum of the Assassins Guild (there may not be organized crime as such in Ankh-Morpork, but the criminals themselves are very well organized.) This being Discworld the weapon can speak (“Gonnes don’t kill people; people kill people”).
The remarkable thing about Pratchett is how he can work both sides of the typewriter, so to speak. He tosses off puns and nonsense and then suddenly remind you that we’re discussing life and death, good and evil, duty, honor, all that stuff. For example, still in Men at Arms, two watchmen go into a porks futures warehouse. And while you are still amused by that concept — well, of course if the commodity markets bid on pork futures that ghostly pork must be kept somewhere, right? — the cops are suddenly fighting for their lives, and building a bond of friendship that overcomes ancient feuds.
The big picture
Of course, not all of the Discworld books are about Sam Vimes. There are several subseries, but I highly recommend starting with Small Gods, which is a stand-alone.
Pratchett can write lines as beautiful and cynically pessimistic as you would find in any private eye novel. Let me close with a sentence from Reaper Man, one of several books in which the hero is none other than Death himself (the skinny guy with the scythe). “No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”