Unseen Academicals

Cover Art

I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I will admit not every volume is a classic. The early books are shallow parodies, and sometimes Pratchett translates real-world phenomena much too closely and literally into the Discworld. I’m talking here about arbitrary pop culture, rather than institutions like police or postal services that would appear in some form in any functional society even in a fantasy world. Reaper Man is an excellent short novel about Death getting laid off and finding a job as a farmhand, which sadly stepped into a broken teleporter with a tedious short novel about evil shopping carts. The Last Continent is a pointless trudge through every “Australian” cliché in the Australian Cliché Encyclopedia. Moving Pictures—set in “Holy Wood,” fergodsakes—is the one Discworld book I’ve never been able to start, let alone finish.

So I wasn’t expecting much from Unseen Academicals, which features on its (U.S.) cover a bunch of Discworld hands reaching for a (British) football. But you know what? It was actually damn good.

The actual football (a.k.a. soccer) content of Unseen Academicals is low. We do get a few “look, this is how [THING] is done on the Discworld” jokes; and, yes, the book does end with the Big Game, although luckily the most tedious bits are given as sportscaster commentary set off in easy-to-skip block quotation format. But Unseen Academicals isn’t so much about football as about everything around football. It’s about how sports ritualize and manage conflicts. Or fail to. It’s another variation on the Discworld series’s major project: taking a late medieval sword-and-sorcery world and civilizing the hell out of it. Lord Vetinari had banned football because it inspired riots among the more thuggish fans; the games, and the riots, have continued in the streets. As the book opens he’s realized that to keep the violence under control he has to bring the game into the open and tame it.

(The rest of this review may contain spoilers. I’ll put it behind a link.)

This raises questions about whether Vetinari has the right to screw around with football. Not legally—he’s a just barely benign dictator—but morally. The elites are coopting the masses’ enthusiam, defanging their dreams. But football rivalries are causing real death and destruction. It is in the interest of everyone, even the fans, to channel that rage into something safer. And sometimes Ankh-Morpork’s working class does a pretty good job of keeping itself in its place. Ankh-Morpork’s lower class is in some ways open-minded, but it’s also quick to pull back anyone who might aspire to be a little bit elite themselves, and quick to turn on people who don’t “keep themselves to themselves,” who fall into some arbitrary definition of wrongness.

(The ideal model of give-and-take between the classes might be represented by Archchancellor Ridcully’s confrontation with Glenda, one of the University’s kitchen staff: he listens to what she’s telling him, and when he disagrees he doesn’t ignore her or condescend to her, but does her the courtesy of assuming she’s his intellectual equal, and argues. Glenda has similar encounters with Lord Vetinari. They also go well; he seems to be faintly mocking her, but he’s like that with everybody, and she can hold her own.)

A running thread in the Ankh-Morpork books has been the clash of cultures between the Discworld’s population of clichéd fantasy creatures—dwarves, trolls, and so forth. Pratchett is dealing with racism without doing anything as simpleminded as actually mapping these fantasy concepts onto any specific real-world situation. This time Pratchett brings in the Orcs, Footsoldiers of Evil created by J. R. R. Tolkien which were borrowed wholesale by other writers and Dungeons and Dragons, passed into general usage, and inspired a thousand other Footsoldiers of Evil in a thousand other Lord of the Rings clones.

Pratchett introduces Orcs to Ankh-Morpork in the form of the small and geeky Mr. Nutt, who is pretty much the Discworld equivalent of Droopy the dog. The Orcs were created to be scarily efficient killers—as so many Footsoldiers of Evil are—but the reason they were able to become such scarily efficient killers is that they were capable of becoming scarily efficient anything, including, in Nutt’s case, a candle designer and football coach. Pratchett is deconstructing a fantasy cliché here but in a sideways sense he’s also commenting on real-life assumptions about genetic or cultural determinism. Just because every previous generation of Orcs were raised to be tough dudes doesn’t mean that Nutt has to be one.

Which is convenient. The thing about being a tough dude is that someone always turns out to be tougher. Civilized people have rules, and referees. Ankh-Morpork’s football thugs are lucky that Mr. Nutt has so carefully internalized his personal referee.