Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett’s thirty-seventh Discworld novel follows the trend of more recent books such as Making Money and Going Postal by examining the development and modernisation of Ankh-Morpork.
Following the discovery of an archaic bequest at the Unseen University, the wizards find that they must choose between having a well-stocked cheeseboard or participating in the violent game of football. Once again, tyrannical, New-Labour-esque ruler Vetinari, realising the potential benefit of this to Ankh-Morpork, encourages the transformation of football from a violent, disorganised street battle to a marginally less violent game with added rules and regulations. Meanwhile, in the vaults of the Unseen University, a curiously over-intelligent candle dribbler called Mr Nutt slowly begins to discover his true identity…
It’s difficult to summarise Pratchett’s book because, as ever, it is so rich and complex that you’re bound to omit most of the plot points; it is impossible to sum up any Discworld novel in a broad sweep because Pratchett crams into one paragraph enough material and jokes to create an entirely new book. Having said that, these Ankh-Morpork-based storylines tend to follow similar and simple themes.
Pratchett targets in each book a particular social, cultural or political institution – cinema, banks, communications, the police force, sport – and charts their transformation from amateur to professional status. The satisfaction the reader receives from this is in watching these institutions, which have developed slowly over centuries or millennia in the real world, in Ankh-Morpork suddenly and dramatically spring into modernity.
Unseen Academicals is formed from three interlinked plot strands. The first strand follows the development of the rules and customs of football from the chanting of the fans to the invention of the ball itself. The second strand follows the story of Mr Nutt, the enigmatic hero of the novel, who turns out to be an orc, a race of violent but misunderstood semi-mythological creatures. Nutt turns out to be, not only a natural football trainer, but also a natural leader of men. The third strand follows the internal political wranglings of the Unseen University as the wizards venture out of their ivory towers to compete (without magic) in the football match. The match itself forms the climax of the story, bringing the various strands together.
Whilst reading Unseen Academicals I couldn’t help thinking about (and you’ll have to bear with me on this) the American TV series The Wire. It’s initially tempting to compare Pratchett’s world building with Tolkien, but, in fact, his focus on different institutions in each book and his satirical approach to modernisation is closer to the depiction (and fictional construction) of Baltimore in the television series.
As in The Wire, the social and cultural innovation and change in Unseen Academicals is written from the perspectives of both the street criminals forced to accept organisation and of the political and intellectual leaders of the city, precipitating the innovation but also affected by it. Pratchett uses football as a metaphor for social cohesion, demonstrated when Mr Nutt, the orc, takes to the pitch in the climax and is (sort of) accepted by the population of Ankh-Morpork.
Where Pratchett differs from the hardboiled writers of The Wire is with his pure, cheerful optimism. While he deals with his subject matter cynically (characters such as Vetinari are the very definition of morally ambiguous) he always allows the innovations to succeed in the end. This is a very British approach to the subject. In all his Ankh-Morpork books, Pratchett celebrates the eccentric inventor.
Characters such as Willaim de Worde, Moist von Lipwig, and now Mr Nutt, are all outsiders who are ridiculed and challenged, the equivalent of the British myth of the amateur in the shed building the future. Indeed, Pratchett himself can be added to this list – pictured as he often is, writing in his office facing an unlikely bank of computer monitors and surrounded by the memorabilia of Discworld.
By fusing this Britishness to the morally flexible worlds of Vetinari and the wizards, Pratchett creates an almost perfectly rounded social satire.
If I were to criticise the book at all, it would be that some of his characters, Ridcully, Nutt, Vetinari are so successfully crafted and so rounded that they actually eclipse the others. Alongside the football plot, Pratchett presents romances between Nutt and Glenda, the wizard’s cook, and between Trev Likely, a football fan, and Juliet, a budding model. Whilst brilliantly written and integral to the plot, when Pratchett focuses on the romance, I find my attention slipping waiting for the next scene with the wizards. I’m aware that to say that Pratchett’s weakness is creating characters so interesting that you don’t want to stop reading about them is not really a criticism, but I’m afraid it’s all I’ve got.
I began reading the book convinced I was going to be preoccupied by the knowledge of Pratchett’s illness, trying to detect a change or simplification of writing style, or a deterioration in the intricacy of the humour. It’s an appalling approach to take when starting a book, but given the fact the Pratchett has become the face of Alzheimer’s disease it was, for me, unavoidable. This lasted for the first twelve pages after which I realised that Unseen Academicals was going to continue the trend that I have felt when reading Pratchett’s books, that his novels are actually getting better.
I really feel that the increasing social complexity of Ankh-Morpork, and the willingness of Pratchett to engage in modern issues and events, are enhancing the Discworld novels. Unusually for a series that relies of fantasy, for me, their success has always been in the increasing similarity between Discworld and ours.
I’ll give Unseen Academicals four stars, mainly because I assume that the next Discworld book Pratchett writes will be even better – and then there won’t be any stars left.