Friday, 26 December 2008

Changing History

I'm probably the last Terry Pratchett fan to read his newest novel, Nation. It's not a Discworld, this one, and it gives free rein to the darker topics that one can really only touch upon in comic novels.

And I'm not sure if Pratchett intended this reaction, but the happy ending almost broke my heart.


He uses his "parallel universes get out of jail free card" for good reason here. The British Empire is at its height when a flu outbreak wipes out a great deal of important people, leaving a good, intellectual, unhappy, unprepared man as the King of England.

He's not, really, central to the story, though. A storm that wrecked the ship which carried his young daughter has also killed nearly every inhabitant of an island chain that is not located in the Pacific Ocean, no, not at all.

A young boy travels home to find his whole Nation dead. The voices of his ancestors ring in his ears, and he knows that he must keep the Nation going. He is now a chief, caring for the survivors that wash up on his shore.

Because this is a novel, the young girl is also alive, washed up on the same island.

I won't spoil the intricate plot in the middle. The King has, of course, been searching for his daughter. When they are reunited, she immediately becomes angry at the behaviour of his entourage. Turning up like that with flags and guns, insulting her friends! Treating them like they're "savages"!

And the King of England... listens. He teaches the surviving islanders cricket, with which they are less than impressed, and admires their ancient artefacts. He's not able to stay the tide of colonialism by himself, but is able to... manipulate the situation to give the people the best possible chance (at his daughter's suggestion - she has inherited his brains*).

The people tell him which trappings of "civilisation" they would like, and which they decidedly would not. On their terms.

The world isn't a fairytale. From most English characters comes the applicable bucketloads of racist hate and disdain. But at the end of the book, I was supposed to be concentrating on the two main characters... but I was almost crying, wondering if history could have gone that way in this universe, with someone in a seat of imperial power deducting from empirical evidence that brown people are people...

Incidentally, as far as I, a white person, can judge, Terry Pratchett definitely "gets" issues of race. Also, I am female-assigned, and I know that he's truly brilliant when discussing sexism. I love a certain passage in Men at Arms in which Vimes, the grumpy protagonist (I'm sure any similarities to the author are entirely coincidental) gets stuck at a dinner table with a lot of rich, powerful people. The topic turns to... immigration.

They begin their usual slightly racist (speciesist, fantasy world) ranting... and he has fun egging them on until their real, appalling opinions emerge. They don't suspect a thing.

"You know," Vimes shook his head, "you know, that's what's so damn annoying, isn't it? The way they can be so incapable of any rational thought and so bloody shrewd at the same time."

*In a scenario that is not racist, I shan't give away the joke that explains why it isn't a racist depiction, a cannibal is impressed enough to express a wish to eat them.

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