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 Tor.com on a semi-biweekly basis and is a long-time Pterry fan.