Friday, December 30, 2011

Sam Vimes, RIP

I'm a Terry Pratchett fan.

My credentials for that claim are, I think, impressive. I started reading his books before many of his present fans were born. I've introduced dozens of people to the Discworld. Until 2001 I was a leading light of his online fan community, and I have an e-mail address "" to prove it. I once bought the man a drink, and - indirectly at least - he first introduced me to my wife. It's no exaggeration to say, Pratchett changed my life.

So it's not a casual or flippant verdict, when I say that his latest book, Snuff, frankly isn't up to it.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a bad book. (Although I know one reviewer who would.) It was good enough to keep me up late enough to irritate the wife. Say rather that it's - unfinished.

First among its issues is pacing. The first hundred pages are, frankly, tedious. Characters whom we know as terse and economical spend page after page rambling on about nothing. And three-quarters of the way through the book, we're into the nailbiting climax... which drags on for altogether too long before seguing into another chase scene, culminating in... another confrontation, ending with the villain safely captured with 30 pages still to go. No prizes for guessing what happens next.

In between, we skim like a mayfly across the surface of the story, although 'surface' may be too flattering. Because there's also a problem with focus. In the first few pages, it's established that our villains are smugglers who peddle lethal drugs to trolls. A little later the crime seems to have morphed into trading in stolen goblin artifacts. And then there's a whole plotline about slavery. In fact our shadowy baddies are guilty of all these things, although you get the feeling it's sheer lucky coincidence that all these crimes are committed by the same handy villains - but none of them are described in enough detail to make me care as I should like about such atrocities. The evil mastermind never even appears on page, which makes it hard to feel much closure from his implied comeuppance. And at least two promising characters are introduced, then promptly forgotten, only to reappear for some particularly clunky jokes at the end.

The man formerly known as our hero, Sam Vimes, is being sent to the country on holiday.

In this book, the Vimes who has faced down dragons, clowns, assassins and kings is pitted against - a young thug whose very description reads "nondescript". If the calibre of your enemies is a measure of greatness, then Vimes has fallen far. From the indomitable, cynical rage of his earlier books, Vimes is reduced to a sort of selfconscious squirming about his place - both geographical and social.
Vimes lay there miserably, straining his ears for the reassuring noises of a drunk going home, or arguing with the sedan-chair owner about the vomit on the cushions, and the occasional street fight, domestic disturbance or even piercing scream, all punctuated at intervals by the chiming of the city clocks, no two of which, famously, ever agreed; and the more subtle sounds, like the rumble of the honey wagons as Harry King's night-soil collectors went about the business of business.

This sort of detail - which goes on for several hundred more words - would be understandable if it were Vimes's first trip outside the city - but of course it's not, he's been on much longer journeys than this before. It's hard to describe this hideous sentence as anything more charitable than 'filler'.

And that, sadly, is characteristic of the writing in this book. Even when the pace picks up after the first act, the lightness of touch from earlier volumes is gone. In the face of life-threatening urgency, characters noted for terse seriousness find themselves spouting turgid speeches that it is, frankly, hard to imagine anyone staying to hear the end of.

For comparison: here's an exchange between Vimes and Vetinari in Feet of Clay (1996):
Lord Vetinari glanced at a piece of paper. 'Did you really punch the president of the Assassins' Guild?'
'Yes, sir.'
'Didn't have a dagger, sir.'

Now here's the same two characters in Snuff (2011):
Vimes's knuckles reddened. 'They are living creatures who can think and talk and have songs and names, and he treated them like some kind of disposable tools.'
'Indeed, Vimes, but, as I have indicated, goblins have always been considered a kind of vermin. However, Ankh-Morpork, the kingdom of the Low King and also that of the Diamond King, Uberwald, Lancre and all the independent cities of the plain are passing a law to the effect that this drivel goes on for another full page.'

But by far the worst is what's happened to the character of Sam Vimes himself. He's always been a character 'on the edge', wrestling with his inner demons to act as a good man should. But now, this ultimate defender of the downtrodden against the wielders of privilege - repeatedly trades on his own privileged position. At one point the local plod turns up to arrest him, and rather than presenting his exonerating evidence, he simply intimidates the young man with his physical power and personal prestige. Within a few pages, the constable is practically tugging his forelock to his better.

Vimes has become the thing he hates: an aristocrat. He quite literally makes up the law as he goes along. And that's supposed to be all right because he's a good man.

The Pratchett of even ten years ago would have been the first to point out the problem with this. But now he seems to have given up the philosophy, along with the humour. What's left is a workmanlike story with some nice images; but if this were the first Pratchett book I read, it would also have been the last, and my life would have been quite different.