Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thud!

I begin my crime fiction/sci-fi fantasy explorations with Terry Pratchett's Thud! (Thanks to all participants in the recent discussions here on crime and sci-fi for opening my eyes, exercising my mind, and expanding my reading list.)

Pratchett's Discworld books are generally thought of as comic fantasy, but the opening pages of this novel offer enough crime-fiction tropes to keep any mystery reader or watcher smiling. From American crime, there is the besieged urban police precinct beset by racial tension in the station house and out. From British crime, there are the aristocratic police chief, his plucky, intelligent wife, and the plodding but capable sergeant.

From the world of graphic novels comes a nod to Alan Moore's Watchmen. From noir comes the cop involved with a stripper. From the art-world thriller comes the hint that a stolen painting could contain a secret code. For good measure, real life gets a supporting role, with seeming invocations of Northern Ireland's troubles.

That's a lot of allusion for forty-two pages, and if the victims, suspects and antagonists did not include trolls, dwarfs and vampires, it might seem a bit much. But it's good fun so far, and as I read, I'm sure I'll think about why and how fantasy is a good vehicle for exploring issues that might otherwise make for heavier going. For now, though, I'll throw it over to you. What freedoms does fantasy grant a writer?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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54 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Unfortunately when it comes to mystery, fantasy sometimes gives writers the excuse to not develop the central quandary very deeply. I'm thinking of ABC's now-cancelled Pushing Daisies, which was delightful but always a little light on the murder solving. There isn't much challenge when the P.I. can raise the dead.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

It's true. It's the Sherlock Holmes thing; you eliminate the impossible and whatever's left must be the truth. But how does that help you in a fantasy setting where basically nothing's impossible?

You can write fantasy that avoids bumping up against that, of course. I haven't yet read your recent crime-and-sci-fi discussion, so I don't know if others have covered this ground, but the Lord Darcy mysteries worked okay, Joel Rosenberg's two D'Shai books worked okay, and Tanya Huff's Victory Nelson series worked okay.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Whatever "freedoms" writers and readers of fantasy may champion, the basic elements of fiction always remain: plot, character, point of view, setting, style, and theme. While I would argue that the setting, style, and theme afford the greatest "freedom" to fantasy writers, they err at their own risk with to many deviations of quality in plot, character, and point of view (with the latter having only limited choices in any genre). In fact, plot and character--as demonstrated by the greatest fantasy writers and the greatest writers in any genre--are the bedrocks upon which good writing is built. Whatever the genre, plot and character are the foundations upon which the work will stand or collapse.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

CORRECTION:
Change the phrase from "with to many deviations" to "with too many deviations," and accept my apology for being a poor keyboarder (typist).

July 28, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

But how does that help you in a fantasy setting where basically nothing's impossible?

Who says nothing is impossible in a fantasy setting? What is possible or not in any fantasy world depends on the premises upon which it is created. Otherwise, the pact with the reader is broken.


v-word: stati

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

I'm with Marco. The universe of a good fantasy story has to have its own rules and follow an internal logic.

In terms of freedoms associated with the genre, I think fantasy/sci-fi is a great vehicle for exploring deeper, more heated social issues, i.e. The Twilight Zone.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I suspected that could happen in this book, with the fun and fantasy being a vehicle for evading obligations of plot. But Pratchett lays the groudwork of a mystery and of its implactions early.

The novel opens with the thud! of the title, a heavy club connecting with a head. The reader does not see who wielded the murderous weapon. "But the troll saw." That sets up a traditional murser-mystery plot in just a few words, not to mention the conflict of dwarfs and trolls. Pratchett pays attention to plot from the beginning. So far, amid the fun and the subplots, he never loses the thread of that main action. He never lets the reader forget why the cops are there.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can also well imagine that the power to raise the dead might rob murder of the finality that has made it such a popular crime for mysteries.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew, no one has mentioned those unless in comments received today. Perhaps Thud!'s very grounding in some of crime fiction's more naturalistic forms will anchor it in the possible. I'm still just 100 pages into the book. So far Pratchett has offered creatures who can perform feats that humans certainly could not, but nothing impossible. I shall keep this discussion in mind as I read.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

R.T. has got it right in saying, "Whatever the genre, plot and character are the foundations upon which the work will stand or collapse." The problem with Daisies is that the central mechanic is great for drama and comedy but bad for whodunit. It's all in how the author sets it up. (I still like the show despite that flaw.) Neil Gaiman, for example, did a great job combining the Cthulhu mythos with a logical, Sherlock Holmes-style mystery in "A Study in Emerald."

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., at the risk of sounding like a sensible conservative, freedom need not imply anarchy adn license. I like what Marco wrote about the pact with the reader -- and what I wrote in my comment immediately previous to this one.

Pratchett's dwarfs can dig deep, far and fast. Whether this great capacity for mining will come to bear on the main plot, I don't know. But the reader knows from the beginning that the dwarfs have this skill. That gives Pratchett the freedom to use this fantastical power as a plot element without wrenching the reader out of the book's created world.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., forgiveness is granted for you typographical error, and I beg similar indulgence.

One freedom granted by instant publication is that to endlessly correct one's errors.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian O', perhaps another attraction of fantasy for authors is the freedom to have fun, to pack stories with references and elements in a way that might be harder to do in a fictional world more like our real one.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Neil Gaiman, for example, did a great job combining the Cthulhu mythos with a logical, Sherlock Holmes-style mystery in "A Study in Emerald."

He set himself a high challenge by the bold reference to Holmes' title.

Pratchett's scene-setter of an (apparent) killing and an unnamed witness offers fair promise that he, too, will tell a plausible crime story in a whimiscal world.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or, perhaps more to the point, a fantastic world.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

You're all correct, of course, about what makes a story work whether there's magic in it or not. My qualms about fantasy (one of my favourite genres!) are more hypothetical than practical. I can't get away from the fact that once you let magic in the door, it creates the potential for everything to unravel on you. The writers I like best are the ones who find the best solutions to this (I'm thinking of Barbara Hambly, who has done mystery as well as fantasy); the ones I tend not to like allow their characters to become omnipotent or something silly like that.

Certainly Pratchett has everything under control.

July 28, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

He set himself a high challenge by the bold reference to Holmes' title.

It is really like a Study in Scarlet, only in a slightly different Universe.
Here. Just download the Pdf and read it. It's brilliant.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Ooh! Thanks, marco! I was wondering where to look for it.

Worlds built in fantasy still have rules; one of the challenges for the author is to persuade the reader that those rules make sense.

For example: vampires hate sunlight; werewolves only turn at the time of the full moon.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Rob Kitchin said...

I always think of Pratchett's books as allogorical. The discworld is our world kicked out of kilter with a slight tweaking of what can happen and who occupies it, but the world does have its own rules and logic (there are even a couple of books that explore the science of discworld) that Pratchett follows to explore particular themes. So 'Equal Rites' - women's liberation, 'Small Gods' - religion; 'Making Movies' - fame set in Holy Wood; 'Making Money' is about finance, etc. What Pratchett does, I think, is use fantasy to defamiliarise and estrange everyday things and ideas so we can see them afresh and to also do that through a humourous lens.

He has several discworld crime novels involving Commander Vimes, the best of which I think is 'Guards! Guards!'

July 28, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I'll jump on the Neil G. bandwagon too. I remember that story, excellent stuff, as is most (Ok all) of the G man's work. Also a very nice guy. And since I'm in the business of tying threads - how about Good Omens the novel Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote together? Pretty funny stuff.

I havent read all the Discworld books, maybe half of them, but I think Mort might be my favourite one. It's a Death Takes a Holiday premise.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I think Ankh-Morpork is an allegorical version of London.

Speaking of Good Omens, I once borrowed a copy from my local library and got a helluva surprise.

Guards, Guards! is excellent, but I'm really fond of The Truth, because it describes mass media the way I think of it these days.

captcha: reductio (ad absurdum is missing!)

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew, I'm glad you mentioned that Pratchett has things under control. My main impression, other than enjoyment, is that he knows what he's doing: He introduces the mystery element at the outset, and he constantly has other characters refer to it and its possible consequences, thereby keeping the crime element foremost.

Those of you who know the book will probably know what I mean when I say I have just come to its first truly fantastic element. It will be interesting to see what Pratchett does with this.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rob, thanks for using the a-word. I hesitated to call this book allegorical lest I mislead readers into thinking the story is any less fun than it is. But the word had occurred to me, especially with respect to racism, notably Vimes' own struggles with himself. So I'd call racism and ethnic resentment this book's theme.

One thing I like is that Pratchett also pokes fun at the boosterish neologisms so much a part of public discussions of the issue. That helps dispel any potential weightiness.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Guess I should've linked to the short. Sorry, guys -- and thanks marco!

Adrian, Good Omens was almost uniformly hilarious, even most of the blasphemous bits. My favorite part is when Aziraphale (the angelic character) is drinking a slightly vinegary Beaujolais that is very surprised to discover is has suddenly become a 1912 Château Lafite.

Uh, I think that was completely off-topic. Sorry. I'll go punish myself now.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Well, now you have me so intrigued that I have to go out and find copies of THUD! and other Pratchett books. Of course this will mean that I will not be as prepared as I should be for my upcoming classes (this week and next week) because I'll be more involved in reading something other than Shakespeare. And, because I need an excuse for the students who will wonder about why I am so distracted, I plan on telling that that tt's all your fault, Peter.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It is really like a Study in Scarlet, only in a slightly different Universe. Here. Just download the Pdf and read it. It's brilliant.

Complete with a period-style presentation, a device Alan Moore used as well. Very nice. Thanks, Marco.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Worlds built in fantasy still have rules; one of the challenges for the author is to persuade the reader that those rules make sense.

For example: vampires hate sunlight; werewolves only turn at the time of the full moon.


Linkmeister, Pratchett depends on his readers' knowing those rules, and he has fun devising plausible ways for the species to interact and to exist in one another's worlds while adhering to their own rules.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

adrian mckinty has left a new comment on your post "Thud!":

I'll jump on the Neil G. bandwagon too.


I admit to present that I have not read Neil Gaiman. I get the feeling that you lot think he might be worth reading.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, that's quite a nugget to discover. I hope your library took good care of the book. I mentioned elsewhere that a fantasy novel just might be what it would take to get me to read a fictional depiction of my own profession.

I don't know London well enough and have not read enough Pratchett to judge whether Ankh-Morpork is a version of London. So far, it works as general description of a great city early in our century.

The extreme depth of some of the dwarfs' digging does suggest the extreme depth of parts of London -- around Russell Square, for example. Perhaps that aspect of London's topography and geology sparked Pratchett's imagination.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good Omens was almost uniformly hilarious, even most of the blasphemous bits.

Why the even? One would expect blasphemy to be funny in these godless days.

And is it technically blasphemy is one pokes fun at one of the lower heavenly beings?

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I am pleased to have distracted you from worthier pursuits. If it means anything, the Discworld Wikipedia entry to which I link in my post cites Shakespeare as among Pratchett's inspirations or parody subjects.

But Shakespeare is pretty good, too. Don't feel to bad if you read him rather than Pratchett for the time being. Hamlet is high on my own to-be-reread list these days.

July 28, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Complete with a period-style presentation,

And don't miss the adverts in the newspaper:

Victor's "Vitae" (will bring life where life has long been lost)

Jekyll's powders (release the inner you!)

V.Tepes, professional exsanguinator (Don't put your health in the hands of amateurs!)

Jack's of Piccadilly: it's all in the spring! (Step in the spring with a spring in your step!)

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marvelous, "V. Tepes" especially. What a mix of fiction and the "real" world.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Indeed, Hamlet is the main event in my lit class for the next week and a half; I never tire of reading and teaching it. But, as I am so familiar with it, I will allow myself some time for Pratchett and hold you accountable for the results. :-)

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I never tire of making Shakespeare allusions at work when discussion turns to page proofs, especially of pages 2B or A2.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

The puns earn a gold-plated groan. And, as for me, the rest is silence.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I, on the other hand, never tire of words, words, words.

Hmm, I just had an idea for yet another Shakespeare post, this one inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

My friend Jim got to spend a little time with Neil G and said that he was a great guy. He speaks Yiddish too, if that'll help seal the deal. Neil that is not Jim.

I'm kind of surprised you didnt get to Sandman when you were on your comics jag a while back.

July 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I know just a bit of Yiddish, and I've read Leo Rosten.

But that comics jag isn't over yet. I still flip through Top Ten from time to time, and I have the graphic novel of Richard Stark's The Hunter on order.

I don't remember why I didn't read Sandman on one my earlier bursts. Probably because a) Brian Lindenmuth didn't give me a copy when I visited last year, and b) Sandman is fantasy, isn't it, a genre I have only just tentatively begun to read.

I plunged into Watchmen, don't forget, not because of the fantasy or sci-fi elements, but because of the superheros. I wanted to see what had happened to the genre I had read as a child.

July 29, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Sandman is fantasy, isn't it, a genre I have only just tentatively begun to read.

You did read the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest.

July 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Point taken. I even used to eat in a restaurant called Grendel's Den, so I know my monsters.

July 29, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"The Tempest" is fantasy? But Mary Stewart cites it in "This Rough Magic," so I thought it was real!

Speaking of monsters, the captcha word is guenings, which looks like it should be a monster species (or an originator of a popular TV cartoon).

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I guess that bit about an old man conjuring storms is not strict realism.

I hadn't thought of the Epic of Gilgamesh as fantasy, but there is the quest for immortality. What sticks with me from the poem are the urban references and, especially in the translation I wrote about here, the eroticism. The poem is a Mesopotamian Sex and the City, you might say.

July 30, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

I hadn't thought of the Epic of Gilgamesh as fantasy,

I would have thought demons, gods, bulls from heaven and netherworlds were a bit of a giveaway.

But I also wanted to point out that Sandman has more in common with this kind of narrations than with what you think when you think of fantasy - even the postmodern mix of tropes, clever and witty as it is, by the likes of Pratchett, Fforde and Colfer.

By the way, Gaiman has also written a short story called "Murder Mysteries", later adapted in comic book form, which deals with the investigation conducted by the angel Raguel into the first murder, which took place in Heaven before the creation of the universe and the rebellion of Lucifer.
You could try that one before Sandman.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

I must weigh in here on Gilgamesh and fantasy, though I admit to knowing little about fantasy (specifically as a genre) but something about literature (in general). My readings of Gilgamesh have always been framed by my notion that it ought to be read in terms of myth, which is almost always a cultural tradition growing out of a desire to explain a culture's unrecorded past in ways that clarify or explain the realities of the present. In this sense, then, I see Gilgamesh (and other "creation" or "historical" epics, including Genesis and other sacred texts) as something quite different from fantasy which (as I understand the genre) attempts to reinvent or distort realities for the larger purpose of advancing thematic concerns. While I'm sure that I've made myself clear when stating the distinctions, but I do see Gilgamesh and fantasy as very different species.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

CORRECTION:
I had meant to say that I am NOT sure that I made myself clear.

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And then there are the quest for immortality and a protagonist who's two-thirds god and one-third human (I've always loved that particular division). None of these are hallmarks of gritty, hard-boiled, realistic fiction. I just meant that Gilgamesh's immediacy hit me with such force -- cities in a tale at the very least 2,700 years old, not to mention the steamy sex in the new translation -- that it dominates my thinking about the story.

Thanks for that Gaiman recommendation. I had not heard of "Murder Mysteries."

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., does fantasy proliferate when we no longer believe in myths or feel the need to resort to them?

July 30, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Peter, you ask, "R.T., does fantasy proliferate when we no longer believe in myths or feel the need to resort to them? "

There may be something to that question, which I take to be somewhat rhetorical. Modern fantasy writers and readers are in the best position to explain their motives and perspectives. However, when you think about Tolkein and C.S. Lews (just to cite two writers of fantasy who are appropriate for my next point), they are using fantasy as an extension of Christian mythology (which I mean in the most positive sense of the term) and not as a replacement for lost or abandoned myths. But, in some sense, perhaps, Tolkein and Lewis might agree with you point in the sense that they recognized a need to "reinvent" Christian themes by presenting them in fantasy in order to reach readers who had abandoned or forgotten about the original presentation of those themes (i.e., the New Testament).

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter, you ask, `R.T., does fantasy proliferate when we no longer believe in myths or feel the need to resort to them?'

The question was not entirely rhetorical. I did wonder idly if the popularity and expansion of fantasy in recent decades might be due in part to a need for myth in the face of old myths' retreat. But I have thought far too little about this, and I know far too little about that sprawling genre called fantasy, to do more thatn speculate idly. My time would be better spent reading, I think.

July 30, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

My readings of Gilgamesh have always been framed by my notion that it ought to be read in terms of myth, which is almost always a cultural tradition growing out of a desire to explain a culture's unrecorded past in ways that clarify or explain the realities of the present.

And that's why I said Sandman is closer to this kind of narrations than to what is generally thought of as fantasy -because it is an one that grows out of the human need to create stories and symbols - in every culture or tradition -to explain and clarify something fundamental about human nature.

July 30, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

should read
" it is a modern myth, one that grows"
don't know how I managed to cancel it, but I've had too many beers and it's time to go the bed.
Nighty

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And that's why I said Sandman is closer to this kind of narrations than to what is generally thought of as fantasy -because it is an one that grows out of the human need to create stories and symbols - in every culture or tradition -to explain and clarify something fundamental about human nature.

Maybe that's why Sandman get dragged into discussions of fantasy -- because we don't feel comfortable calling anything a myth these days. But then, did myths ever get called myths in their own time?

July 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You honor tradition and Gilamesh, Marco:

Tablet II

Enkidu sits in front of her.

...

They placed food in front of him,
they placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
and of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:

"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."

July 30, 2009  

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