Terry Pratchett’s latest novel, Snuff, may well be his swan song. As his own personal battle with Alzheimer’s develops, each of his books feels like he is tying up the loose ends of a long and distinguished literary career.
In Snuff, Pratchett returns to perhaps his greatest character set – the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and its chief, Commander Sam Vimes. Despite being centred on the police, these books are often the most overtly political of Pratchett’s books, talking most often about class and the machinations of government.
Snuff is a bit of a return to form for Pratchett, recalling his masterpieces Jingo (a polemic against the first Gulf War) and Feet of Clay (about the emancipation of workers). The books revolve around the internal contradictions of their central character – Sam Vimes. Born into the urban poor and later becoming a member of the aristocracy, he constantly struggles with the feeling of betraying his class.
Vimes’s central contradiction is usually resolved by reference to a higher power – thus he is scrupulously honest and fervently believes that the law must be applied equally to all in society, regardless of class and status.
This reference to the law is reminiscent of a certain tradition of English radicalism. Anyone who has read Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy or listened to Tony Benn’s Writing on the Wall will be familiar with the idea that England has a particular history of rule by law that has applied across classes. Pratchett clearly believes this and Vimes is his articulation of it.
It is this element of the book that always provides the most sublime moments of class rage while at the same time providing the most frustrating fudging of class contradictions.
Pratchett carries the radical edge of his politics into the very basis of many of his novels. While not as consciously political as China Miéville and the New Weird movement, Pratchett has constantly tried to “de-Tolkienise” fantasy literature – to reconnect fantasy novels with the social reality that has spawned them.
Many of Pratchett’s books deal with themes of racism, multiculturalism and aristocracy. Snuff is no different and its central “other” is the goblins. As such, the goblins aren’t presented as mad, nasty and evil, as they are in the Tolkien books, but are more akin to Native Americans – with a different worldview but essentially equal with other humans.
This is a book that socialists could well end up discussing with friends and at work – partly because it deals with the contradictory consciousness of workers in the real world.
The fact that these politics exist in the third fastest selling book in UK history are to be applauded and socialists can both enjoy this book and use it as an opening for a much more radical discussion.
Snuff is published by Harper Collins, £5