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.) Continue reading Unseen Academicals