Oct 21 2009 11:40am

Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals (HarperCollins) is about the parallel development of football (soccer, to Americans) in the alternate and funnier reality that is the Discworld; yet as always, there’s much more swimming in the depths of his Monty Python-esque stories. Humorous but thoughtful, Unseen Academicals combines early Pratchett at his lightest (Pyramids, Moving Pictures, Guards! Guards!) with late Pratchett at his heaviest (Monstrous Regiment, Night Watch, Thud!), resulting in an easy read with a heavy afterthought. 

The structure of Unseen Academicals comes in three main parts, all of which complexly interleave and affect each other throughout. 

The first third involves the professorial wizards of Unseen University.  The “Wizards” sub-series of Discworld almost always read like Oxford novels on acid (good acid, mind you), and this part of Unseen Academicals will be quite familiar to the Pratchett reader.  We’ve got Archchancellor Ridcully at his most Ridcullyness, Ponder at his elbow, various assorted high-ranking wizard professors and students, a new Evil Wizard, the Librarian, even a Rincewind cameo. 

Shaking things up, the Dean is now an Archchancellor at the academy in Quirm.  Ridcully views his best friend’s departure as a betrayal, and when the Dean comes visiting, we see the birth of ye olde Oxford versus Cambridge rivalry on Discworld. 

The second third is medium-heavy Pratchett, reading like one of his “One-off in Ankh-Morpork” books. Here we see the development of football from the perspective of the lower class of the city of Ankh-Morpork, including the in-depth development of four new characters.  In fact, they’re part of the hierarchical Downstairs to Unseen University’s hierarchical Upstairs, something we’ve never seen much before. 

If the wizards and the Downstairs are melody and counter-melody, then the last third is the harmony—and pure heavy Pratchett.  The harmony of Unseen Academicals is discrimination. 

This is not the first time Pratchett has riffed on the theme.  Whether it’s the sexism in Equal Rites and Monstrous Regiment, the species-ism of humans versus dwarves versus trolls versus undead, or the racism—both overt and unconscious—in Jingo, satirizing these has always been part of the Pratchett profile.  Unseen Academicals adds classism—both external and internal—but also again plays with species-ism.  Except this time, the species-ism is fantastical racism that cuts close enough to real racism to bleed. 

Poor Mister Nutt, whose species is the victim of this. Unlike the other species on the Discworld, he’s truly a minority: there’s just one of him in Ankh-Morpork. Unlike other species, his kind is still strongly discriminated against, to the point where he’s thought of as not just sub-human, but sub-sentient: an unthinking primitive, a fierce and scary being reputed to have warred against “good species” out of evilness, even accused of being cannibals. This is a much closer picture of the undercurrents of racism in the real world than Pratchett’s presented before, and he brings these often submerged attitudes to the surface.

Also before, you knew that the discrimination against trolls, dwarves, undead, women, whomever, was wrong, because the protagonists knew it was wrong, or eventually knew it was wrong (witness Vimes’ long-term discrimination against vampires).  This included the perspectives of the discriminated, who always had a large measure of having accepted themselves, also how you knew discriminating against them was wrong. 

Unfortunately, Mister Nutt learned to hate his race.  This is an often ignored part of real racism, but the “whip in the head” is common amongst members of minorities.  If your race is implicitly, not to mention overtly, put down for all your life, this thinking is sometimes the result.  No one counters the ingrained ideas that your race is worth less than the dominant race, but instead said, “You will be polite and, most of all, you will never raise your hand in anger to anyone.” Other phrases that pop up in Nutt’s head are as painful, and worse—they echo what I’ve heard inside my own. 

Even the moral compasses of characters we’ve loved are less than reliable.  Or are they reliable?  For even Ponder thinks of Nutt’s race as “gray demons from a gray hell.” Ponder. Ridcully is afraid of Nutt.  Lady Margolotta put the whips in Nutt’s head, even though she rescued him and taught him to read.  The former Dean calls the children of Nutt’s race “pups” to put down.  Nobody bothers to negotiate with them, because while they’re hard to kill, people view that as something to overcome rather than to be diplomatic (once again, unlike trolls, dwarves, or undead).

Perhaps most telling, the most painfully clueless racists (and also, as it turns out, sexists) in the story tend to be the well-educated.  It’s Downstairs, not Upstairs, that accepts Mister Nutt, because they don’t know this accepted racist history.  When they do find out, they can’t match it up against the Nutt they know, and after working through serious qualms, they don’t discriminate against him.  Of course, not all of them are like this, but the new main characters are.  Their attitude towards him just about manages to balance out the reader’s opinion of Nutt’s race, until the reversal at the end. 

There is one familiar moral compass that seems to be set right... the Patrician’s. We’ve always seen him as gray because he’s a ruthless Machiavellian who nevertheless knows how to run a city.  His cold response to the former Dean’s “putting down pups” is simply, “murdering their children.” Unfortunately, the Dean is so internally racist that he ignores what the Patrician, the most feared man in the city, just said. Real life again.

(More Vetinari: you see what he’s like when he’s drunk, and learn about his experiences as a youth vacationing from Ankh-Morpork in Überwald. It’s... disturbing.)

Yes, there is a happy ending, and that ending involves football. 

Unseen Academicals is a solid entry in the Discworld series.  Pratchett is a social satirist at heart, even if he puts werewolves and the occasional dragon in, and there are few better. 

Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction and fantasy, and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation. She also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. She reviews at on a semi-biweekly basis and is a long-time Pterry fan.

1. Laughingrat
Great commentary not only on the book (I'm even more geeked-up to read it now than I was before, which I did not think possible), but on how oppression works on the minds of the oppressed.
Dru O'Higgins
2. bellman
My copy is already in the mail, so I just scanned the review, which I'm certain is literate and amusing. I paid a couple of dollars extra to be sure of geting the second cover shown.
Ashley W
3. a_neonta
Oh maaan, that UK cover is so much better! Now I'm jealous.
John Day
4. mikoday
The UK covers are always better. Thank goodness for
Arachne Jericho
5. arachnejericho
That US cover is actually a step up from previous US hardcovers. Sadly.

The UK covers for recent Pratchett books are very awesome.
Peter Hollo
6. raven
I loved this book. (And yes, the UK cover as usual is so much better - lucky we get them in Australia!)

Despite its joyful trashing of racism, classism and sexism, I wonder whether Pratchett completely succeeded with his own characterisation - particularly Juliet being gorgeous and dumb (with sparks of intelligence, sure), and Glenda being plump, plain and ultra-smart. Was it necessary to enforce these stereotypes, in the context?

And while Vetinari is a wonderful and entertaining character, having him as the ultra-competent, firm-but-fair tyrant, also threatens to undermine some of the social commentary.

Pratchett revels in using hokey-but-comfy stereotypes to make us feel warm and pleased, while simultaneously undermining stereotypes, and turning our expectations on their heads. I'm just not sure if narrativium doesn't sometimes get the better of him still, though - especially regarding the Juliet/Glenda character-types, and some of the class issues.
Peter Hollo
7. raven
Nutt's brainwashing is another case in point - the voice in his head could indeed be seen as the oppressed's self-oppression.
But actually it's the voice of Lady Margolotta, not so much whipping him down as civilising him.

And while Glenda is rightfully irate at her for this, the story is clearly telling us that Lady Margolotta got it right - Nutt is so (self-)civilised that he's better than all the humans, and overcomes any residual characteristics of his race that he might have had (but never really exhibits).
Nutt does say "It's time to meet my maker".

I know Pterry is very clever in the way he constructs his stories, so the ambiguity I'm feeling is most probably deliberate.
Arachne Jericho
8. arachnejericho

Thank you for the detailed comment!

I have one niggle: yes, for a while I thought Margolottta was perhaps right. But then Vetinari's reaction to her told me that she didn't get it all right. He actually believed that Nutt was more than simply primitive urges that needed to be bound.

And she didn't.

"They must be civilized" has particularly bad connotations to me. Do dwarves and trolls need to be forcibly civilized and reject their culture? No, they aren't treated that way in the Discworld series. Not even undead are treated as so thoroughly worthless in their "uncivilized" base state.

So why must Nutt's species be forced to reject their culture and think of themselves as inferior? Pups rather than children? Monsters rather than people? Driven by whips, whether physical or in the head?

How Margolotta achieved her ends was a horrible thing to do to people.

I've had it done to me.

I love the character, but she screwed up big time.
Peter Hollo
9. raven
Thanks Arachne. I'm willing to believe that's the intended reading, and I'll go back and check soon.
Tim Nolan
10. Dr_Fidelius
Thanks for the review Arachne. I actually felt Unseen Academicals was one of the weaker Discworld books, but you're right - Nutt's tormented psychology is different from other minorities in Ankh-Morpork and it's well worth thinking about.

To be honest I think I'd have enjoyed UA more if it was the third DW book I'd read rather than the 37th. Another Roundworld phenomenon emerges in Ankh-Morpork, ho hum. It would have been predictable if I hadn't assumed Pratchett would deliver something with more of a kick (sorry...). The discussion of class politics is particularly heavy-handed: we get the crab bucket metaphor, you don't have to keep spelling it out.

Above all, it's very safe. Nothing in it challenged my expectations of the characters or how their stories would pan out. The good folks and bad folks are rewarded and punished respectively, with the possible exception of Margolotta.

Raven also has a good point - it's one thing to deal in archetypes, but it's a real problem if you're simultaneously trying to challenge assumptions about those archetypes.

Still worth it for dedicated DW fans though. It's always a pleasure to see more of Vetinari's world, and there were some very clever football gags. So I'm forgiving him for that egregious Eliza Doolittle pun on page 49.
Derek Brine
11. Gamblor
Looking forward to reading this. I'm also extremely pleased that we can get the UK cover in Canada :)
12. myshii
i think what margolotta meant by "civilizing" the other orks was more to do with trying to give them some form of culture/species identity beyond killing stuff than destroying one they allready had (she says a little earlier in the book that "they had nothing, no history at or-" or somthing else ive just forgotton about)

i think she did screw up somewhat by being a bit too hard on nutt, possibly due to the fact that vampires have something of a sckewed view of intrapersonal relsionships/emtions of differnt kinds.

either way it made for interesting reading for the most part (although i was annoyed that her scenes with vetinari seems to lack a certian spark* to them)

* not nessisarily romance mind you just a bit of interest in the situation beyond coniciding plots)
Vicki Rosenzweig
13. vicki
I didn't read Glenda as ultra-smart, so much as reasonably smart, and very hard-working. She's spent most of her life living within invisible walls (not nearly as bad as Nutt's whips in the head, but the same sort of "it isn't done" and "be realistic" and putting in 18 hours a day to make sure people are taken care of.

She and Trevor Likely both have serious "I don't have to stay in that pattern" realizations during the book, maybe both prompted by Nutt (I haven't had much time to think about this, I finished the book about 20 minutes ago).

Again, Juliet isn't an intellectual, but that doesn't mean she's stupid: we're told in so many words that if she's incompetent, it's because every time she tries to learn or stretch herself, Glenda gets in the way and says "let me do that for you." It's not stupid to prefer getting good money to model clothes over a much lower pay rate to be assistant to the night cook. She reads celebrity magazines; Glenda reads formulaic romance novels. Equally cliched, but so are just above everything the male characters read, from the sports magazines to the stereotypically German psychology texts.
14. Merry Phil
Minor points but a)the Dean was NEVER Ridcully's friend, best or otherwise and b)it isn't Oxford vs Cambridge rivalry, it's about academic snobbery and how blue brick universities despise redbricks and former polytechnics

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