The Truth [2000]

Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series is a fascinating study in flexibility. Att different times in the series, the Discworld as a whole and Ankh-Morpork has been all things to all stories. In the early novels, there was a distinct sense of fantastic whimsy driving the stories, making them primarily adventurous romps with a comedic streak and a little satiric bite. When Twoflowers explains the concept of Insurance, for example, the reaction of the Ankh-Morpork locals expresses the logical paradox at the heart of the concept, but it’s not the focus of the novel by any stretch. Insurance is fundamentally gambling that you’re going to lose eventually. Comedy that holds a mirror up in that way is never really safe. Pratchett perfectly skewers the obfuscation that insurance creates in where someone’s best interests really lie. Is it in owning the thing, or in the thing having an “accident”? It’s a pin-prick, not a coup de grace, but it’s the pin-prick that comedy uses to create laughter. Ankh-Morpork is Pratchett’s venue for poking a little fun, taking stabs at the movies, rock music, opera, religion – you name it!

What struck me most about The Truth is how safe and comfortable it was. The basic plot is that William de Worde becomes entangled with the first movable-type press in Ankh-Morpork and accidentally invents journalism. Neither the printing press nor journalism have a squeeky-clean history in the real world. The invention of the printing press went hand-in-glove with the Protestant Reformation in Europe that tore the continent apart for a couple of generations. Modern journalism has been the site of some pretty fierce political fighting and toppled some fairly entrenched powers. The Truth was written a decade before “The News of the World” brought the profession into disrepute, but a century after the towering figures of Hurst et al used their newspapers to inspire the USA into war in Cuba and fired its colonial ambitions in the Philipines. Neither printing nor printed matter have been or should ever be this safe.

Once it became clear that Pratchett had no particular axe to grind, but just wanted to do his own write-by-numbers of the classic newspaper story [refer to, say The Paper [1994], directed by Ron Howard], I began to notice some implied world views more in what didn’t happen than what did. What’s contained in the negative space, in the zone where story didn’t happen?

The overt plot revolves around a cabal trying to dispose of Vetinari, the Patrician who rules Ankh-Morpork, using two disreputable assassins trading as “The New Firm”. The cabal is run by the father of de Worde, and the central motivation appears to be anti-immigration. Keep Ankh-Morpork for Ankh-Morporkians! The eventual defeat of the cabal and restoration of Vetinari is an overt statement against small-minded anti-immigration forces. There could hardly be anything more comfortable than that. But what this completely glosses over are the very real cultural clashes that exist when you get mingling cultures. The historical conflicts established in the setting are forgotten – so we get the Dwarven printers working alongside a Troll, without so much as a grumble. This is material already well and truly trodden earlier in the series, so perhaps it can be forgiven, but the result of those earlier explorations has become something of a bland homogeneity. Is that the cultural ideal Pratchett would endorse explicitly? I’m dubious, because polyculturalism has always been an overtly endorsed aspect of his writing.

What that means is that the Cabal has nothing approaching an understandable or “legitimate” grievance with the Patrician. They are the perfect enemy for young de Worde, because they have no redeeming platform. Being pro-immigration in a world as rich and colourful as Ankh-Morpork is a no-brainer. But when I started to think about what other motives were available, legitimate motives that could really be construed as being in the public interest, I began to draw a blank. Ankh-Morpork has moved from being an unstable and dangerous city of semi-chaos to having an almost utopian quality to it. I don’t mean that it’s perfect in a classical logical sense, but there is now definitely an underlying stability to the place that engenders a strong sense of justice in a holistic sense. Sure, the people remain imperfect, but largely things work out for the best most of the time in a way they didn’t necessarily in the early books and the way they definitely don’t in most modern writing, even comedy writing. We can see this drive for a utopian justice in the fate of “The New Firm”, whose leader, Mr Pin, suffers a catastrophic case of conscience from what is essentially a deus ex machina in the form of “black light”.

This sense of safety is perhaps best illustrated by the story not told about Otto, the “Black Ribboner” photographer. The light required to take photographs is actively dangerous to him, causing him at least pain and in the most serious incidents, disintegration. Fortunately, the sting is taken out – he carries around a vial of blood that cracks and rejuvenates him whenever he has one of his little “accidents”. There is no real sign here of a tortured passion, or the twisted psychology that causes someone to pursue a profession that causes them continuous pain. The sharp edges are all carefully blunted. Mid way through the novel, he is forced in a way to revert to monstrous type to save his human friends, but the revelation of his true dark potential has no effect whatsoever on his relationships or his self-perception.

The classic challenge with Journalism is that “The Truth Can Set You Free” – it’s even referenced explicitly in the novel. The dangerous edge of that promise has always been to be careful what you wish for. It seems fairly clear to me that in the “real” world, there are a lot of news outlets supporting the official version of events. In a fundamental sense, newspapers celebrate rather than critique the basic Western model of society – free trade, individual responsibility, a growth-based economic model, and so on. In The Truth, the Discworld-analogues of these qualities are whole-heartedly endorsed, and de Worde’s newspaper invisibly but completely becomes just such a mechanism operating in support of the established hierarchies and systems of control. Vetinari, a ruler with plenty of closetted skeletons and unsavoury aspects, is restored to power without any equivocation, and the newspaper is painlessly subsumed into the guild system that initially appeared to be a foe.

To me, this means that the clear subtext of the novel is that everything’s fine, everything’s swell. Move along folks, there’s nothing to see here. There’s nothing going on that needs a good satiric skewering or a bit of cutting down to size. It’s a novel that made me laugh, and then when I realised what it meant, made me just a little sad.

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