Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thud! jokes

I could cite any number of jokes and amusing lines from Terry Pratchett's Thud!, some of them pertinent to recent posts here. But I'll highlight one sequence because it's funny, because it packs a philosophical punch, and because it reminds me of something that once happened on a beach:
"`War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?' he said.

"`Dunno, Sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?'

"`Absol— well, okay.'

"`Defending yourself against a totalitarian aggressor?'

"`All right, I'll grant you that, but—'

"`Saving civilization from a horde of—'

"`It doesn't do any good in the long run is what I'm saying, Nobby, if you'd listen for five seconds together,' said Fred Colon sharply.

"`Yeah, but in the long run, what does, Sarge?'"
What do you think of the sudden turn toward fatalism in the last line? In any case, that's not what I meant by packing a punch. The philosophical oomph lies in Nobby's undermining of his sergeant's strict pacifist position.

Look what else the passage does. It makes a pop-culture reference, and it undercuts the solemnity of the reference with comic pacing. Adding to the humor is that the two participants in the little dialogue are comic foils, the last humans, dwarfs, trolls or vampires one would expect to have such a debate. So I'd say Terry Pratchett made a few words do lots of work here.
What about the beach? One day my two nephews were building sand castles and, as boys will do when staking out territory, they began to fight. "War!" the older screamed in anguish, to which I replied, "What is it good for?" and a man on a neighboring beach towel called out "Absolutely nothing!" No prize to anyone who figures out that I cried: "Say it again!"

Something worked because, possibly amazed by their elders' invocation of Edwin Starr, the boys shut up and gave over their noisy quarreling in favor of a quiet sulk.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I like Terry P but theres a problem with that passage; if you grow up with Monty Python you'll immediately recognise the What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us routine from Life of Brian which every Brit of a certain age knows. That's the skeleton with Terry's context on top. Its a bait and switch operation but its not really kosher.

The last bit is another bit of filching from John Maynard Keynes who said "in the long run, we're all dead" which lecturers in the UK love quoting when a graduate student says "in the long run" about anything.

I dont think Pratchett does this deliberately. He writes fast (2 or 3 books a year) and there isn't much editing (the books sell very well) and from personal experience I know that he is an all round good egg, an above board guy, who loves the genre that he writes in, unlike some writers I could name.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Simpsons borrowed that routine, too, so it depends on one's attitude toward popular-culture references. I generally don't like them much, but when the author does not overinduldge, and when I like the source ...

I was thinking about a related matter in connection with the Edwin Starr reference. My mother, for example, might not get it, but an audience of a certain age will.

I couldn't have identified Keynes as the source of the "in the long run" quotation, but I did know that passage was a borrowing.

July 30, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

I dont think Pratchett does this deliberately.

I think he does, actually. But it doesn't strike me as something "not kosher". It's more homage/borrowing than copyright infringement for me.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can't read Adrian's mind, but I'd guess that laziness rather than copyright infringement is the sin into which he thinks Pratchett falls.

But I'll defer to more experienced Pratchett readers in discussions of the propriety of such references.

It may be notable that the references I cited are from the 1970s or, in the case of Keynes, earlier. That means no immediate recycling of experience into ironic reference or parody. Nor do the references appear to be more than incidental to the story. These are both points in Pratchett's favor.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Terry Pratchett is a lovely man and I dont want to rag on him, especially when he's down at the moment, but I do think a sterner editor would have reminded him about the Monty Python routine, Terry would have slapped his head and come up with something else less obvious and equally funny.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect you may be right that he didn't get much editing. On the one hand, who has time and money for such things, and who would dare edit a successful author? On the other, one might think that, with publishers concentrating so much of their effort on the big sellers, Terry Pratchett, among the biggest, would get such editorial attention as does exist.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Big sellers get editorial attention? Pfui. Read any Nora Roberts novel. Misspellings of the homophonic variety abound.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pfui is right. We are retreating into illiteracy, and we will be happier once we accept this.

Wait, we have accepted it.

You may be happy to know that Bouchercon 2009, in Indianapolis, is honoring Indiana native Rex Stout with a one conference, one book program. I forget which book will be featured, but I have received my copy, and I plan to read it before the conference.

July 30, 2009  

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