Terry Pratchett's Fantasy As Social Commentary
English fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett is the kind of author who is deeply beloved by readers but often overlooked by critics. The enormous popularity of his books and his prodigious output have made him a staple of popular fantasy writing for many years. But his books are not merely about dragons and swords; rather, his writing is continually poignant and insightful on social issues.
Perhaps the most famous piece of Pratchett's social commentary is what is known as the Sam Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness, from Men at Arms:
“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”
This lays out, in just a couple of paragraphs, one of the struggles of being poor: having to make do with substandard and low-quality goods because they are cheap and then having to constantly spend more money to replace those goods. Anyone who has had to wear cheap boots through a wet winter will sympathize.
Pratchett's writing is full of such musings, explicitly confronting the kind of political and social issues which fantasy books often seem to shy away from. His books cover topics such as gender relations (Equal Rites), economic theory (Making Money), organized religion (Small Gods), and religious fundamentalism (Thud!). What is it about Pratchett's writing that makes it so capable of tackling difficult social topics?
Pratchett's Deviations From The Standard Fantasy Form
It is clear that Pratchett writes in the vein of fantasy which is strongly inspired by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, and E. R. Eddison. These authors laid down the archetypes of fantasy literature which Pratchett plays with: what he refers to as “public domain” plot items like “dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities.” These symbols and tropes are immediately recognizable to any fantasy fan as carrying certain connotations – you know instantly that this character is a wizard, for example, because he wears a pointy hat.
However, Pratchett differs significantly from contemporary fantasy authors. Despite sharing many tropes with authors such as George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell, or Robert Jordan, his writing is of a very different style. For a start, the tone is more deliberately light and humorous than is typical for the genre. Further, Pratchett's books are short, clocking in at a few hundred pages each as opposed to the thousand plus pages which are common in fantasy tomes. Also, although many of his books are set in a shared world, they need not be read in their entirety or in order; readers can pick up any Pratchett book and enjoy it without a lot of prior knowledge. This means that the books are accessible for both younger readers and people who are new to the fantasy genre.
It's also notable that Pratchett, while writing with obvious love and affection for the fantasy tradition, is critically aware of the stereotypes embedded in its tropes. In 1985, after the publication of his first Discworld novel, Pratchett criticized the gender divide of magic into wise male wizards and untrustworthy female witches. This ability to engage joyfully with a genre whilst not shying away from criticizing its negative associations is one of the distinctive features of his work which makes it both fun and socially aware.
Technological Developments In Pratchett's World
One feature of Pratchett's writing that I'd argue makes it uniquely suited to social commentary is the speed of technological change in his fantasy world. The Discworld, in which most of his books are set, is in some ways familiar as the vaguely Middle Ages feudal society which is so common in fantasy books. However, the setting is unusual in that developments in technology are frequent and have a direct plot-based impact on the world.
Moving Pictures shows the development of the motion picture industry, for example, and its effect on the way people think about art. Going Postal chronicles the changes that are brought about on a societal and individual level by the development of near-instant long-distance communications – through a series of semaphore towers around the world known as the clacks, which carry “c-mails”.
Unlike many fantasy worlds which seem to be frozen at a point in the past as if preserved in amber, the Discworld is constantly evolving. This means there is a constant tension between the in-world society as it exists now and the ideal society as envisioned by the developers of the technology. This tension creates the perfect space for considering how the ubiquity of real-world email has affected our relationship with the written word and with each other, in a humorous manner.
Yes, But Is It Art?
It is this same accessibility, popularity, and humor of Pratchett's books which has lead to criticism. A much-derided Guardian article argued that Pratchett was a mediocre writer who committed the unpardonable sin of “dissolving the difference between serious and light reading”. The argument here is that any book which is 'light reading' – that is, a book which brings you pleasure to read as opposed to being something that you must suffer your way through – has no business in making social commentary. Indeed, the suspicion seems to be that making social commentary a party of light reading undermines the very worth of social critique.
As well as being a particularly elitist view of the value of literature, this argument is not new. As the Daily Dot points out, this is exactly the same criticism which was leveled against Jane Austen in her time – that her work might be engaging as social commentary, but it was unfit for consideration as serious literature. Indeed, the same objection was frequently raised against Charles Dickens.
The genius of Pratchett is his ability to take the complex, difficult, multi-faceted, and fundamentally unfunny problems that exist in our world, and transpose them into a fantastical setting, offering insight into those problems in a way which is both informative and entertaining.
Header image credit: David Skinner.