Pratchett, Terry: Nation

Terry Pratchett’s latest novel, Nation, is a non-Discworld fantasy. Set on an island in the Great Pelagic Ocean (a slightly alternate version of the Pacific) in the 19th century, it opens with a tsunami that kills every member of The Nation but one [*], a teenage boy named Mau, and shipwrecks an English girl called Daphne (née Ermintrude). Together, they begin to rebuild The Nation.

[*] Pratchet’s YA novels tend to be much darker than his “adult” ones. I think I only laughed in two places in this book, both quite late; and the more serious tone makes the handful of footnotes a rather awkward fit.

I thoroughly enjoyed this. I thought the portrayal of the tsunami and its aftermath was one of Pratchett’s more effective pieces of writing, and of course I’m a sucker for building-civilization type stories. This book reminds me somewhat of The Bromeliad in this respect, and indeed most of its themes are familiar ones in Pratchett’s work: science, faith, community, monsters (the human kind), and so forth. But because Pratchett is writing so close to the real world this time, the book is working in much more difficult territory. I’d like to offer a searching analysis of how the novel negotiates this, but I can’t. While I think it avoids the most obvious pitfalls, I so enjoyed the characters and what happen to them that I have a hard time bringing my analytic facilities to bear. About the only criticism I can muster is that I wonder if the Epilogue isn’t a little too perfect: it makes me look back at the way that perfection was achieved and see the seams in its construction.

(Spoilers, ROT-13: gur arprffnel ryrzrag vf qncuar’f sngure orpbzvat xvat, juvpu bayl unccraf orpnhfr bs gur vasyhramn, ohg gung genhzn vf oneryl zragvbarq nsgre gur bcravat. vs jr’q frra gur ratyvfu punenpgref tevrir bire fcrpvsvp qrnguf, be rira gnyx nobhg gur qvssvphyg gvzrf nurnq tvira gur uhtr cbchyngvba ybffrf, gur syh jbhyq unir sryg yrff yvxr n cybg pbairavrapr gb zr.)

After the recent distressing news about Pratchett’s health, I don’t know whether to expect more novels from him. But I’m very glad to have this one.

8 Comments

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  1. V guvax Qncuar vf fb gubebhtuyl genhzngvmrq ol gur fuvcjerpx gung gur vasyhramn uneqyl ertvfgref; gur fnzr tbrf sbe ure sngure naq ure zbgure’f qrngu va puvyqovegu. Ol gur gvzr gur raq bs gur obbx ebyyf nebhaq, gur bayl crbcyr Qncuar ybirf ner ure sngure, Pbbxvr, naq gur zrzoref bs gur Angvba; gur bayl crefba ure sngure ybirf vf Qncuar.
    Gur ybir fgbel jnf rkdhvfvgr, V rfcrpvnyyl ybirq gur ‘nurz’ naq gur pbzzrag nobhg vgf univat orra gur bayl zbzrag Qncuar naq Znh jbhyq rire trg.

  2. I see your point in the first paragraph, but I’m still not quite reconciled; the book’s in omni, after all.
    Agreed on the second paragraph.

  3. V nterr jvgu Wbadhvy nyfb V srry gurer vf ng yrnfg gur cbgragvny bs nabgure obbx ( pnyyrq Rzcver creuncf) gung jbhyq pbire jung Qncuar qvq arkg. Gung pbhyq fubj ure qrnyvat jvgu gur qvfngre va ure ubzr nf uvagrq ng whfg orsbe gur nurz.

  4. Actually, on thinking about it overnight, I don’t agree with Jonquil’s first paragraph after all.
    Gung zvtug or gehr ng gur ortvaavat bs gur obbx, ohg ol gur raq V srry yvxr Qncuar vf fhccbfrq gb unir tebja orlbaq gung, bgurejvfr jung uryc vf fur fhccbfrq gb or gb ure sngure nf ur tbireaf, nf Znh fnlf fur jvyy or?
    Francesco, that’s a very interesting possiblity and one that I hadn’t considered.

  5. V nterr jvgu lbh nobhg gur cynthr; V unq gubhtug ng gur ortvaavat bs gur obbx gung gur cynthr jbhyq or pbzcnerq naq pbagenfgrq jvgu gur gfhanzv sbe aneengvir flzzrgel. V jnf n yvggyr fhecevfrq gung gur ohyx bs gur obbx raqrq hc orvat ba gur angvba. V nyfb qvqa’g shyyl ohl Qncuar’f sngure sbe fbzr ernfba; gurer jnf gbb yvggyr erpbapvyvngvba jvgu ubj Qncuar unq “tbar angvir.” V qb guvax ure sngure vf irel bcra-zvaqrq naq unf yvirq ba bgure Cryntvp vfynaqf, ohg V rkcrpgrq fbzr zber phygher fubpx, obgu sbe Qncuar naq sbe ure sngure.

  6. Oyce: yes, I agree.

  7. Pratchett said in an interview that Nation was his greatest book, and I agree. (See video at 5:55, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/video/2009/dec/19/terry-pratchett-book-club.)
    Nation is an uplifting inversion of Lord of the Flies (zvyxvat n cvt gb fnir n onol — naq ebyyvat va cvtfuvg naq arire fnlvat n guvat — nf bccbfrq gb xvyyvat cvtf gb svg fbzr shpxrq abgvba bs znaubbq). In Lord of the Flies, children descend into savagery and become less than animals. In Nation, children ascend to adulthood, ending up more wise and responsible than the adults around them.
    In my mind, the image for the entire book is of a coffin turned into a liferaft, for Mau and Daphne and both their countries and for religion. If we accept that God is dead, will we descend like Lord of the Flies or transform that coffin into a liferaft? For Pratchett, when religion dies, we find greater wonders (gur tenaqrhe va gur pnir), realer magic, deeper love, and truer goodness. The death of religion is the turning point where Mau’s society turns from their received child identity to their self-created adult identity.
    This one is the book that Pratchett focused on when he clearly had very few books left. I have so much to say.

  8. I’ve never read _Lord of the Flies_ so that went right by me–thanks!
    PS: my spam filtering service doesn’t like your IP for some reason; if you leave an e-mail address next time I can whitelist that (it won’t be displayed).

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