Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: The Last Continent, Part I

It’s time to hang out in kind-of Australia?

Summary

The Bledlows of the Unseen University are doing their Ceremony of Keys while the Bursar and the Dean and the rest of the wizards are seeing to the Librarian, who is very ill. He’s lost control of his morphic function and keeps changing shape; the wizards half suspect that he’ll be dead soon. Rincewind is far away on the continent of XXXX (EcksEcksEcksEcks or FourEcks), digging a hole. A thousand miles from him, an opal miner named Strewth has just made a dangerous discovery that turns out to be alive. Ponder is having a hard time because he’s been using Hex to help him turn out invisible texts (of books that haven’t been written yet, or will be written elsewhere), and from that, Ridcully got the idea of “management” into his head and has been asking people what they do. (Also Ponder is currently obsessed with how similar most animals and their skeletons are.) He wakes at his desk one evening to find that the library is now attacking anyone who enters without the Librarian to keep the books in check. Ridcully declares that they must use magic to cure the Librarian, but Ponder points out a problem—in order to do that, they need to know the Librarian’s name, and no one does. Except… possibly Rincewind, who used to be Deputy Librarian at the time the Librarian became himself.

The wizards head to the Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography to figure out how they can find Rincewind, since they can’t grab him back by magic given how that worked out last time. They can’t find him in his office, but assume he’s having a bath because they hear splashing behind a door. After going through books in the office and finding nothing particularly useful, Ridcully opens the door to what he assumes will be a bathroom and finds a tropical beach. Rincewind has been busying himself eating things that he doesn’t want to think much about and getting chased away by locals and making thong sandals from wood and creeper-woven twine. He has a journal he’s been keeping, and when he falls asleep, something erupts from the waterhole nearby and runs off. Death keeps Rincewind’s hourglass in his office because it’s such a mess, it’s as though Rincewind has backed through his own life in multiple directions and now his death is impossible to predict. He thinks that perhaps Rincewind is the eternal coward, meant to balance out the eternal hero. Noting where Rincewind has ended up, he decides to head to XXXX, assuming he’ll be needed before long.

The wizards are discussing how other wizards have used tiny black holes to jump from place to place like this and Ponder is mortified that he’s never heard of this before. They wonder if it possibly is XXXX on the other side of the door, and debate the merits of heading over and getting the Librarian (currently a book) out in the sun. They decide to head over, though Ridcully insists they are not doing this for a good time… and brings his crossbow in case he needs to hunt anything. Rincewind wakes up and a man is there who insists that he needs to feed the wizard up proper. He also insists that he’s not speaking Rincewind’s language, Rincewind is just hearing his. Then he vanishes, but he does leave a chicken sandwich behind. The wizards are at the beach and the Librarian is back to his old shape but feeling uneasy about it. But before he can put together what’s wrong with this place, he changes again. Rincewind is perplexed about why he’s suddenly finding food that’s familiar to him in the desert, but sets out toward the mountains and comes across a kangaroo who can talk. It’s about to hand him a quest so he starts to run away, but he’s headed in the right direction. The wizards realize they’re on an island and Mrs. Whitlow appears with snacks—unfortunately, she’s also closed the window they could leave through.

Rincewind has fallen into a waterhole and emerges in a cave. The kangaroo is there again, named Scrappy, and it shows him cave paintings that seem to show Rincewind. As the wizards argue about what to do about being stuck on the island, plants begin to grow. Scrappy tells Rincewind that space-time is weird here on the Last Continent because it was put together last and Rincewind arriving has changed things that have already happened. The wizards are noticing strange things about the island, like the fruits and leaves are offering up things like chocolate and cheese. Rincewind looks at the cave paintings and sees all the wizards and also his Luggage—Scrappy explains that they might be where he is, just not when he is. The kangaroo explains that Rincewind is going to save the place because he’s technically already done it. He’ll know he’s completed his task when it rains (which it never does on XXXX). Rincewind agrees to the quest, waits until the kangaroo seems to have disappeared and makes a run for it. But the fading kangaroo is grinning all the same.

Commentary

The thing is, Rincewind books are just weird, you know?

They’re not bad, that’s not what I’m saying, but what I mean is that most of Pratchett’s other Discworld novels are using framing devices that are familiar to readers via other venues. Watch books are based heavily in crime novels, and Witch books use fairy tales and theatre and Shakespeare, and Death books are dealing with bigger metaphysical questions. The one-offs are meant to tackle certain philosophical areas or rely heavily on place-and-time mechanics. We’ve got clear parameters on all of them that make those books easier to follow along with, because we’ve probably encountered their ilk before.

Rincewind books are kinda Pratchett taking all his favorite jokes and some concepts he wants to play with, and then going “how about I stick a weird quest in so he’s got stuff to be upset about?” with bonus points for constant wizard shenanigans. Like, just the general idea of let’s set the thing in Australia, only it’s fantasy Australia, which is kind of an oxymoron because do you know what’s IN Australia? Yeah, that’s where we’re going on this one. And then the time travel paradox schtick to keep things interesting.

That does mean that Rincewind books always take a while to gear up, as it were, so they’re a little harder to discuss as you go. You’ve got to spend time letting us know where the poor guy is at, and why he might be needed, and also what the hell the wizards are getting on with because there’s always something.

(I have an aside here about the fact that Pratchett started us off with this whole thing about wizards always killing each other to move up in ranks, and then having to finally acknowledge in this book that we’re going through a tranquil period in Unseen University history because he finally created an Archchancellor he enjoyed well enough to keep around indefinitely. Which I get because I wouldn’t ever want to get rid of Ridcully either, but it does make those initial books hilarious by virtue of this idea that the man installs himself and everyone’s like… well, sure, we can chill out for a bit.)

I do like the attention paid to details of Aboriginal art in this section, like noting the “x-ray painting” style and the hand outlines in ochre. I don’t much like all the mentions of spiders because, having lived in tropic areas where spiders are much bigger, I am fully aware of how horrifying they can be and please do not describe them to me. Please.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • “Ridcully was to management what King Herod was to the Bethlehem Playgroup Association.” Okay just, WOW—
  • As a kid who once went as Groucho Marx for Halloween, the idea of teaching Hex “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” is really sending me this week… but then the joke about Ridcully’s eyes “burning bright” at the mention of tigers sends me right back.
  • I do love Rincewind being like “well, I saw the planet put together and this place didn’t come into it” and Scrappy being like “eh, there are way more gods messing around than the one you saw.” It’s a nice way to un-monotheism the narrative.

Pratchettisms:

All tribal myths are true, for a given value of “true.”

“That man really makes me want to swear,” said the Bursar.

Archchancellor Ridcully, into whose head that last sentence had treacherously arranged itself, realized that he was unconsciously drafting an obituary.

It was not the chilly, bleak silence of endless space, but the burning organic silence you get when, across a thousand miles of shimmering red horizons, everything is too tired to make a sound.

But, as the ear of observation panned across the desert, it picked up something like a chant, a reedy little litany that beat against the all-embracing silence like a fly bumping against the windowpane of the universe.

They say the heat and the flies here can drive a man insane. But you don’t have to believe that, and nor does that bright mauve elephant that just cycled past.

There were rooms containing rooms which, if you entered them, turned out to contain the room you’d started with, which can be a problem if you are in a conga line.

Next week we’re up to

“In your case, only by having a cold bath, Senior Wrangler.”

citation

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