The L-Space Web: Analysis

An essay on Only You Can Save Mankind

Asterios Kechagias
Electrical & Computer Engineer
Kozani, Greece

There is a common misconception that the evaluation of a work of art presupposes knowledge of the artist's biography. I will not argue with the fact that a person's experiences are of the utmost importance to his or her work. However, there always lies the danger for the reader, viewer, listener to base his or her judgement on these experiences, on some occasions praising and on others condemning a work of art without getting deep into the essence of this work. My personal knowledge about mister Pratchett is that he is British, married with a daughter and a writer of books. My first contact with his work was at the time when I bought the excellent adventure game Discworld 2 : Missing Presumed1. I then started reading his novels and became a target of ironic remarks from some friends, fans of RPGs and classic fantasy fiction, because, as one of them said, "Pratchett ridicules fantasy fiction". Of course, this friend of mine thinks Ed Greenwood, creator of Forgotten Realms, is a good writer, therefore no further comment is needed. Nevertheless, apart from the Discworld series Terry Pratchett has written a variety of great books best of which in my opinion is Only You Can Save Mankind.

Let us first clarify one thing. This book is not a children's book. It may initially be appealing to younger readers but it is best appreciated by adults of my generation (I am 25 years old). This is probably the book's only disadvantage, the fact that older people do not have computer games culture and younger people weren't alive during the Persian Gulf war and have no idea what Space Invaders are. However, this fact does not negate the book's artistic value nor does it make it less appealing.

Having no knowledge about Terry Pratchett beyond what I have already stated and having started reading his novels, the first thing that impressed me is that he has read quite a lot in his life. Of course, that should be taken for granted since one cannot write about a fantasy world without having common points of reference with prospective readers. However, as far as Only You Can Save Mankind is concerned the situation is very different, simply because the story, although pure fiction, takes place in the real world. In my opinion, it is infinitely more complex to talk about the real world than about any fantasy world. This difficulty obviously lies in people's different perception of the world around them. Most people cannot see beyond their noses, they live in their own private universes. On the other hand, Terry Pratchett sees what is actually there. He has a great eye for detail and what he sees, he writes about. It is not his fault that the world we live in is so tragically ridiculous as to make a simple account of his view of the world reach readers as irony, cynicism and ultimately great humour. Furthermore, in Only You Can Save Mankind, but also in the rest of his younger readers' books, Pratchett achieves something remarkable. He turns back time, he returns to his own childhood and views the world through a child's eyes, not as grown- ups think that children view the world but in the real, sincere and observant way they actually do. Only in Stephen King's books have I found the same quality with the exception that Stephen King always places the story above his characters and ideology and, being an American, he does not posses the European culture of which we are so proud (sometimes unjustifiably).

The "logic" behind Wobbler's Journey To Alpha Centauri game is typical of Terry Pratchett's contact with childhood. Also, the analogy between Ronald McDonald and Jesus and, in general, all dialogues between the children are impeccable. It is very insulting for children to be viewed by grown- ups as clueless. They may be immature, but that does not mean they are stupid. Johnny, having realized his family's problem, does not react to his father's sudden "need" to show him his concern and love. Likewise, although when Bigmac is with his schoolmates he is pleasant and friendly, he is forced to act in a completely different manner when he is in the company of his neighbourhood's children. Terry Pratchett uses this intelligence to present his personal views of the world in a way which cannot be questioned. Let me explain : When a mature person is concerned about a subject on which there is no absolute truth or right thing to be done (i.e. the vast majority of human problems), he takes into account, apart from his own perception of the world, all his inherited prejudice, whether a public expression of his opinion will hurt him, if the whole thing is even worth the trouble and, finally, how angry his wife is going to get, depriving him of sexual favours and sleep. On the contrary, children think simply, mostly because expressing their opinion has no consequences. Of course, simple thought will not always provide an answer, but it will certainly cause great embarrassment to grown-ups. Johnny's thoughts on the Geneva Convention are the unfiltered thoughts of Terry Pratchett himself, as well as yours and mine. Reading these thoughts one cannot help but feel deeply guilty about the world we created and all human logic.

In parallel, through a child's eyes, Pratchett focuses on things which escape grown-ups' attention, yet they are very indicative of all the stupidity inherent in human civilization, the most annoying fact being that stupidity always finds followers. During the Gulf war (history's first live war!) a reporter wearing a khaki vest with a lot of pockets appeared on our TV sets. He probably thought that this vest was useful since he could carry on him many things necessary for his work (notepad, tape recorder, photo camera, gum, condoms etc.). Since then that vest has become the emblem of war correspondents everywhere. In simple words, if you show up at a battlefield not wearing such a vest, my friend you are not trendy! Only a very observant person or a child who only listens to news reports superficially, can focus on such matters. After the indication, the irony is obvious. But Pratchett won't stop there. He has something to say about women's talk shows, computer programmers and their cool (!!!) ponytails, all mothers' hysterical reactions towards Satan's ingenious creation..role playing games! The best thing is that Pratchett merely mentions the above as results of his observation of the world. He does not criticize them, he leaves that to his readers, though his own opinion is faintly but certainly visible.

Apart from having something to say, in a novel it is equally important to be able to say it. That is where Pratchett is at his best. The novel is based on the film Alien (directed by Ridley Scott), probably the best science fiction thriller of all time and one of the most famous films of contemporary cinema. The basic element of the story is the twisting of the clichés with aliens being the innocent victims and humans the villains. That originality alone makes this novel special. From then on the story takes two directions. The first, being the more obvious, is the ability to present a humanistic and pacifistic message to readers with the aid of the juxtaposition of a war game and the Gulf war. The alien fleet's sad captain and her dialogues with Johnny, Johnny's thoughts on the Geneva Convention, the children's dialogues and the references to TV war reports are the elements that present this message. The second direction is the psychological implications of the story. Johnny is going through "trying times" at home and finds a way to escape as well as a sense of purpose playing the game2. At the beginning of the novel there is a suspicion that all things that happen to him at night in the game are simply hallucinations resulting from his stress. His sleepwalking, even in the fantasy context of the story, and his collapse in the girl's house are very indicative of the difficulties in his life.

The novel's solid structure is accompanied by Pratchett's well known narrative ability and his famous humour. All descriptions are given with remarkable clarity and artistic value. For example, depicting the dead race of Space Invaders with the use of crude blocks, reference to the primitive graphics of the first computer games, is intelligent and functional. The visual strength of "dog-poisoned earth where shopping trolleys went to die" is unrivalled. The story flows without meaningless elements and that is why, although rather short, the novel is rich in story and ideas.

If there is one thing for which Pratchett could be blamed, it is the fact that his books are more intelligent than the average reader. The average reader will probably prefer to read the Da Vinci Code which is like a Hollywood movie on paper with a huge dose of art simplification, very pleasing to people with no relation to arts, than read a Pratchett-level novel which, though popular art, requires culture to appreciate and intelligence to understand. But that does not have the slightest importance. You keep on reading Harry Potter, we will read Johnny Maxwell3.

1. It'a a very pleasing coincidence that I write this about a book based on computer games when I discovered Discworld via such a game.

2. The writer of this has personal experience and is familiar with a lot of people who found and continue to find a way to escape from the bad things in life playing computer games.

3. ...and Rincewind and Death and UU's faculty and...

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