A Discworld Novel: Book 33
You may have noticed that the Discworld Reread has stalled temporarily, so I’ve decided to cheekily skip ahead to the 33rd novel out of sequence. Going Postal takes us deep into the vibrantly fetid streets of Ankh-Morpork for a tale of skulduggery, ambition, fiscal irresponsibility and the Royal Mail. Our hero, Moist von Lipwig, is a leading conman who has been just a little too successful. Unfortunately, this means that he’s come to the attention of Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, who makes Moist an offer he can’t refuse. (Well, he could, because the Patrician believes in freedom of choice, but it would be unwise.) Before he quite understands what’s happened, Moist finds himself invested as Ankh-Morpork’s new Postmaster, charged with revitalising a faded part of the city’s history. This is a tale of nostalgia, of dreams and of the importance of writing. Stories, as ever, are at the heart of Pratchett’s fiction, just waiting to be unleashed…
I was delighted to find out that Lord Vetinari was still alive, well, and striking the fear of the gods into all and sundry; and there were cameos by or references to many other familiar faces, from Mustrum Ridcully to Sam Vimes, Sergeant Colon and Captain Carrot. This is what’s lovely about Pratchett’s books: despite its size, the Discworld is a small place and you can usually count on stumbling across a few old friends. Even Death makes a very brief appearance. But Going Postal focuses firmly on new characters, albeit of cosily familiar types. Young Moist, like other Pratchett leading men, has a complicated past but is a fundamentally well-meaning chap caught up in the power of a story greater than himself (see Teppic in Pyramids or Victor in Moving Pictures). The withering Adora Belle Dearheart, his romantic interest, has the no-nonsense swagger of Susan Sto Helit and the panache of Katherine Hepburn. And the loyal misfits of the Post Office are the kind of passionate but odd people that also populate the City Guard. There’s elderly Groat, the last in a long line of Groats who have faithfully served the Royal Mail; and Stanley, a nervous youngster whose obsessive interest in pin-collecting is soon diverted into the new possibilities offered by postage stamps.
There’s a subtext here that I haven’t noticed in Pratchett’s earlier books: a cynicism about big money and big business that feels very modern. Moist’s Post Office is up against the Clacks, the system of signalling towers which have developed throughout the Discworld books from semaphore signals to flashing lights. New technology is challenging the old, offering quicker (if simpler) messages and funded by an ambitious cartel of businessmen who will stop at nothing to gain complete control over Ankh-Morpork’s communication networks. Is there a place for old technology in this brave new world? Do people really want letters if they can flash brief messages back and forth? What can a letter do that a clacks message can’t? While being a perfectly good fantasy romp in its own right, this is also a tale of the little guy fighting for justice against the big, bad men with the money – a kind of gender-swapped Erin Brockovich with stamps and envelopes, perhaps. And it makes a case for the power of handwritten words and real letters, real stories, over quick-fix communication (texts and emails might be a bit advanced for the Discworld at present, but it isn’t hard to see what Pratchett’s doing).
The writing remains classic Pratchett, with some wonderful turns of phrase. A personal favourite was the description of ‘a beard of the short bristled type that suggested that its owner had been interrupted halfway through eating a hedgehog‘. I’m not sure that Going Postal is quite up there with the absolute gems of the Discworld canon (and those are probably subjective), but it’s a solid instalment, full of wit and warmth. Now I’ll have to get the Reread back into motion and try to exert some form of self-control, so that I can approach the rest of the series in the right order… Although I realise that I’ve already muffed it by skipping Small Gods and Lords and Ladies in order to jump onto Men at Arms. With wrist thoroughly slapped, it’s time to retrace my steps to Small Gods.