It’s rarely a good sign when the name of a beloved author begins trending on Twitter, and so it proved over the weekend, when transphobes attempted to suggest that the works of prolific comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett support their so-called “gender critical” ideology. This is…a reach, to put it mildly: Pratchett’s Discworld series features several minor characters, chief among them the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who can be read as transgender or genderfluid, and his works generally show a tendency towards opposing all forms of hate and any ideology that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of other people. At the same time, though, those who are defending Pratchett as a sort of ultraprogressive literary hero are, I feel, massively overstating the case: he’s nowhere near as interested in gender as either the transphobes or his liberal supporters would like him to be, and he’s more than capable of being problematic in other areas too. Interesting Times, a middle-period Discworld novel, is a salient example.
The book sees cowardly wizard (or, in his own words, “Wizzard”) Rincewind summoned to the inscrutable, powerful Agatean Empire – a caricatured analogue of China/Japan – for unknown reasons. There, he finds a people’s revolution fomenting against the cruel and oppressive imperial regime, and meets the elderly barbarian Cohen, who, together with his equally elderly Silver Horde, is planning the heist of a lifetime.
Where to start with this? Well, there’s the title, which refers to the well-known “Chinese curse”, “May you live in interesting times!” – which has never been traced back to an actual Chinese-language saying. Nevertheless, Pratchett builds on the ironic understatement of the phrase to imagine a vaguely Oriental society that’s chronically polite and rigidly hierarchical: hampered by etiquette, the revolutionary Red Army uses slogans like “Untimely Demise to the Forces of Oppression!” and “Much Ownership of Means of Production!” Their revolutionary text is What I Did on My Holidays, an account of Agatean citizen Twoflower’s visit to Pratchett’s anarchic Victorian London analogue Ankh-Morpork. (Readers first met Twoflower in The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel, in which he is a caricature of a tourist.)
With all of this Pratchett is making an argument about internalised tyranny:
The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They [the Agatean peasants] obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.
While this is an interesting social dynamic to explore, and one that’s of a piece with Pratchett’s other writing on tyranny and power, it’s not one that particularly rings true in the context of historical Asia, and it’s worth considering why Pratchett felt the need to displace this particular breed of oppression into a non-Western context, when there are plenty of historical European societies that would work just as well. (The fictional Discworld country of Uberwald, which is ruled by ancient dynasties of werewolves and vampires, would have been a good place to set such a story.) Notably, Ankh-Morpork, a city ruled over by a literal tyrant, is portrayed here as a bastion of freedom and entrepreneurship, its dangers and oppressions as somehow more honest than the Empire’s. This is literally Orientalism in action, a Western-coded city-state being defined in opposition to the Eastern-coded Other, and coming out the better for the comparison.
Theoretical considerations aside, some – lots – of the jokes are just plain racist. There’s Rincewind addressing a Red Army member in a sort of broken English pidgin (which doesn’t even make sense, given that Rincewind is supposedly speaking Agatean at this point) – “Here’s bigfella keys belong door…” There are Chinese restaurant jokes. There are stereotypical, faux-exotic names that, as far as I can tell, bear no resemblance to actual Chinese nomenclature: Pretty Butterfly, One Big River. (Weirdly this actually feels more Native-coded than Chinese-coded, which just goes to show how lazy Pratchett is being in constructing Agatean culture.)
From a series perspective there is some interesting stuff going on here. Cohen and Rincewind – the ultimate hero and the arch-coward – are always good foils for each other; the fact that both end up triumphing against overwhelming odds despite their opposing worldviews is a nice touch. I like the overt metanarrative about luck and fate; that’s quite fun, despite the fact that it connects poorly to the novel’s grander themes of power and tyranny. And ultimately it’s not a nasty novel. It’s a story about putting people ahead of ideology, a story that cares about individuals in all their variety and idiosyncrasy. All the same, it’s a novel that’s aged extremely badly, and not one that Pratchett fandom should be proud of.