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Unseen Academicals (Terry Pratchett)

In Ankh-Morpork, the working class has a lively (understatement) tradition of football (that would be soccer to us USAnians) rivalry. As this novel opens, the wizards of the Unseen University are also catching football fever, albeit reluctantly: if they field a team, they will be able to continue their tradition of around-the-clock gourmandizing instead of settling for three austere meals per day. Hilarity, both magical and non-, ensues.

Meanwhile, below stairs at the university, Night Kitchen pie-maker extraordinaire Glenda Sugarbean is fretting over the fortunes of her dimwitted but beautiful subordinate Juliet, who is developing a (mutual) crush on overgrown street urchin Trev (who has tremendously talented feet when it comes to kicking a can), and the terribly well-mannered but distinctly odd candle dribbler Mr. Nutt is having an existential crisis as he begins to get in touch with his ethnic identity.

The resolution of these disparate story threads involves high fashion (high Dwarvish fashion, to be precise), rioting, cheerleading, non-human history and sociology, unlikely technical innovations, and of course, the seamless machinations of everyone's favorite despot, Lord Vetinari.

This one was a very hard sell for me. I had to pretty much force myself to read beyond the first chapter. Part of it is just that it's about the wizards, and they've always left me cold (the only one I really like is the Librarian, and I guess he's not really a wizard). I'm also not much of a sports fan, and the "industrial revolution" Discworld books have never done much for me. But I couldn't get into Glenda, either, and I feel as though I was meant to do so.

 

Unseen Academicals (review)

Somehow, this seems like the type of book that might have started with someone complaining to Sir Pterry that he needed to write more female characters with whom the typical woman of the twenty-first-century Western industrialized world would be able to identify. The trouble is, I have always liked the typical Pratchett female leads, like Angua, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Tiffany Aching, Magrat, Polly Perks & co., Cheery, Lady Sybil, and Agnes, and enjoyed reading about the things in which they got involved. Glenda's preoccupations are too close to the most mundane of my own preoccupations. I'm all for having female characters who are not gorgeous, young, etc., but not if all they're thinking about are the very same things I need to think about, whether I want to or not: work, friends who need direction in life (in a mundane setting), people who depend on them (in a mundane setting), etc. I can get that from mainstream fiction anytime I want (which will be no time soon). I imagine I'd find Glenda be a very decent sort of colleague at work, but I don't imagine we'd find much to talk about beyond family and cooking.

On the other hand, the book passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Of course, so did most of the Witches books, the Tiffany Aching books, Monstrous Regiment, and a couple of the Watch books, so it's not like that's some new breakthrough for Pratchett.

I was somewhat affected by Nutt and his situation. It's tough to be a member of a race condemned by fantasy tropes to being evil and violent. I did find the handling of the whole thing a bit awkward and forced.

The Mr. raised an interesting point. The new main characters in this story, especially Glenda and Nutt, are almost idolized. Pratchett usually has a good laugh at his characters, and has them laugh at themselves. But these characters are treated almost with kid gloves. And Vetinari was positively soft in some of the scenes in this one.

I'll note that the fannish world in general doesn't seem to agree with either of us: most of the big review outlets liked this one; Cory Doctorow, for example, called it one of Pratchett's top five.

Comments

( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
vom_marlowe
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:41 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I could barely finish this one. I found Vetinari hopelessly out of character, disliked the Glenda plot, and generally had to force myself to keep reading. It just didn't seem like Pratchett to me, and I feel terrible saying that.

I've always found his heroines admirable and easy to relate to--I want to be Susan when I grow up, you know? But this was just...weird.
chomiji
Oct. 15th, 2011 08:58 pm (UTC)

How could I have left out Susan? I love Susan, and Hogfather is tied with Monstrous Regiment as the Pratchett I enjoy re-reading the most!

I'm glad you concur on this one.

vom_marlowe
Oct. 15th, 2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
I listen to Hogfather every year!

I don't know if I should say this or not, but...I had even more problems with Snuff, the new Watch book. It breaks my heart, but it doesn't read like a Pratchett at all to me. I especially dislike the way Sybil appears. I actually decided to set it aside without getting more than thirty or so pages in. It just seems so off. :((
chomiji
Oct. 17th, 2011 12:01 am (UTC)

And yet the reviews on Snuff are still enthusiastic. It's a very sad situation. I might not be able to make myself read it. Maybe I'll let the Mr. do so first and see what he thinks.

telophase
Oct. 15th, 2011 09:19 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed this one quite a lot, but couldn't really tell you why. And yeah, I noted some of the same stuff you did, but it doesn't bother me as much.

I just read the newest one, and it really feels like it needed serious editing. I still enjoyed it, but it threw me out of the world quite a bit.

Mind you, at this point every new Discworld book feels like a gift to me, given what's going on with PTerry, so I'm probably way easier on them than I would have been a decade ago. :D
chomiji
Oct. 17th, 2011 12:02 am (UTC)

I know - his is a very rough road at this point, and I feel like I should buy his books regardless, to support him. But I'm not sure I can make myself continue to read them, if this is how they're going to go.

telophase
Oct. 17th, 2011 12:05 am (UTC)
Pratchett is such a comfort read to me that it doesn't matter. He hits the bits that I like, and the rest, even when it's not working great, flows right along. A lot of it is the narrative voice, rather than any particular plot or characterization.
chomiji
Oct. 17th, 2011 01:21 am (UTC)

Well, it's the voice that was striking me as being somewhat off ... but de gustibus non est disputandum!

telophase
Oct. 17th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC)
Well, with Snuff, my problem is that there's a bit too much of the voice. :) More like hitting all the high points of what a Sam Vimes Book should be, when a good editor could have pointed out that we did this bit already in this book, and that bit in that book, etc. And there's lots of going on and on in dialogue that could have been edited down.
lady_ganesh
Oct. 16th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
Not reading the spoilers, but the Librarian is totally a wizard, I think, because he was one when turned into an orangutan.

Is there Ponder Stibbons? He's my favorite.
chomiji
Oct. 17th, 2011 12:03 am (UTC)

There is plenty of Ponder Stibbons - he is a key character!

smillaraaq
Oct. 16th, 2011 11:24 pm (UTC)
It's not just you! There were a few individual scenes I liked, and I'm slightly fonder of the wizards than you and generally have really liked most of the other industrial revolution books a great deal. But Glenda and Nutt both fell pretty flat for me, and the football stuff bored me to tears.

Sad to say, I have been hearing even worse things about Snuff, particularly on the prose just not feeling properly Pterry-ish and Vetinari seeming quite OOC. It's very sad. :(
chomiji
Oct. 17th, 2011 12:09 am (UTC)

This so reminds me of the fact that sometimes a family friend who has not seen a person for a while can point out problems that indicate a medical condition, whether you're talking mental health or a physical issue (and of course, the two are much intertwined, as research increasingly shows), while the family memebers who have been living with the person every day haven't noticed the gradual change. I have a feeling that some of the reviewers are so close to the books of the series that they may not be seeing the gaps.

The Mr.'s comment about the humor with regard to the lead characters was really insightful, I thought. Because that's where Pratchett always had such an excellent sense of balance, and now it's gone off, seemingly.

smillaraaq
Oct. 17th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
I don't follow any of the Pratchett fan communities so these reports are all second-hand, take with a grain of salt, etc., but some of the folks I've seen speaking with disappointment about Snuff have mentioned claims that Pterry is no longer able to type, so Snuff -- and possibly some of the other most recent books? -- was dictated rather than typed. So even aside from any cognitive issues he may already be having from Alzheimers, the change in composition and revision technique might very well also be affecting his writing. I've certainly heard of many people talking about their writing changing a lot when they have to slow down to work longhand or on a typewriter instead of a computer, and I would not be surprised if speaking one's text can similarly affect the flavor of the end product.
chomiji
Oct. 17th, 2011 01:26 am (UTC)

Interesting, and sad. I know that Gaiman still prefers to write longhand, even though he is such a tech weenie in so many other ways, because it suits how he thinks.

Did you know that Pratchett was in town this weekend? He spoke at a library association event - my colleague saw him there. And he put in an appearance at Capclave (SF con).

smillaraaq
Oct. 17th, 2011 01:37 am (UTC)
I just went looking and it is confirmed by various legit news outlets (NPR, the Times, etc.) and here on Paul Kidby's site -- he either dictates live to his assistant or uses speech-recognition software like Dragon, and not being able to type makes it much harder for him to edit. (Just that last factor alone could have a lot to do with the most recent books feeling unpleasantly off!)

I can't find equally official sources on a quick Google, but several unofficial folks talking about the books claim the switch to dictation came in around the time of Unseen Academicals or I Shall Wear Midnight.

It's good to hear he's still well enough to travel, at least!
carmarthen
Oct. 17th, 2011 01:37 am (UTC)
I think he's been dictating for a while (I'm pretty sure the last Tiffany book was dictated, and both it and Nation were certainly post-diagnosis but IMO some of his best); but it wouldn't surprise me if his editing abilities have changed.
carmarthen
Oct. 17th, 2011 01:33 am (UTC)
I had some real issues with how both Nutt's and Glenda's storylines went, and I'm reaaally baffled/bothered by where he's gone with dwarf gender (although I never found his official take on dwarf gender to be half as interesting as fandom's). I don't know, the whole book left me pretty cold, even for a wizard book (and on that front, mainstream Pratchett fandom LOVES Rincewind, and the wizard books have always been my least favorite). I felt like it tried to be too many stories at once, and forced them all.
lilmaibe
Nov. 5th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)
Nice text. Personally I must say I downright despise the book. It just won't feel like a Discworld novel to me. The whole book is dripping with beginner's mistakes (pacing, padding, discontinuity within the story, OOCness, things and concepts that don't work when you think about them, the book telling the reader how to react to something etc) for which there is no explanation.
None.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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