Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Twenty-Four - Night Watch


This one is #29 in the Discworld series and I suspected by its title that I would see Captain Vimes again. I don’t recall his first name ever being mentioned in #8, Guards! Guards! but it’s Sam. He’s not a Captain any more. I like Vimes. He’s very sensible. Between #8 and this one many things have happened in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Many of these things are not good, but there does appear to be an increasing tolerance for non-human creatures, so chalk one up for diversity.

One fun thing about these books is the names Pratchett uses. Vimes is one letter away from vines – and Vimes becomes entangled in things around him. Ankh-Morpork has a “Bridge of Size.” Tangent: a weird thing about these books is that there are no chapters. I’ve just about gotten used to British books having no table of contents, but not even any chapter separations?

Night Watch begins with quantum mechanics. I am not entirely ignorant on this subject, having been tutored by my friend Mike who’s an honest to goodness astrophysicist. I was certainly never an expert but one thing I remember is the inability to predict behavior of quantum things. You cannot know how fast something is moving and know exactly where it is. It’s one or the other. It’s safe to say that quantum mechanics deals with more questions than answers. And this was the most interesting part about studying science for me – what they don’t know is so much greater than what they do and they’re willing to admit it. I kinda like that. I also noticed that scientists tend to use lots of hyphens and see beauty in stuff like mathematical patterns.

But I digress. Pratchett deals with quantum uncertainty in this book; specifically with the uncertainty/probability of an existence. There was an incident (read in Kramer’s voice) and even the “experts” in Ankh-Morpork aren’t too sure what will happen. The present can affect both the future and the past. Dude, it’ll blow your mind if you let it. But don’t you let it. Night Watch is part Somewhere In Time, part Prisoner Of Azkaban (i.e., the time turners) and part Back To The Future. Sam Vimes decides that even though he doesn’t completely understand the space-time implications, he’ll roll with it because there is something practical that needs to be done. “The job was in front of him.” Sam is one of those do-ers. He likes doing stuff. He probably works out in the yard a lot on the weekends when he’s not playing Discworld golf.

Ethical questions are prompted by the book: do you torture a torturer? When the oppressed suddenly come to power, do they treat their former oppressors kindly or do they, in turn, oppress? History teaches that the latter is true. Pratchett, by putting his characters in situations in their world, stimulates questions about our own. In our world as in Discworld, there are no easy answers. This book was published in 2002 and includes a discussion about the individual’s rights vs. the state’s need to protect. I have found, generally, when it’s one’s own rights under threat he doesn’t like it but when it’s someone else’s rights being taken away, one tends to roll with it. It’s human nature. “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” (Pastor Martin Niemoller)

Vimes, as a police officer, talks about The Beast inside. The Beast must be controlled because if a police officer loses control, society is shattered. In this book Vimes fights a crazy man and in my opinion you can’t stop crazy. I don’t mean mentally ill; I define crazy as someone who has embraced the anger and the hatred – The Beast – and has determined to let loose The Beast to do what it will. Crazy people allow the anger and fear to take over; they encourage it to burn and then fan the flame until it is a fireball of rage. That’s my conception of The Beast.

Semi-tangent: I like to listen to BBC radio at work. I used to listen to NPR but it just got so depressing. BBC radio isn’t nearly as depressing because I don’t live in Britain. No, seriously, it sorta makes sense. The MP expenses scandal didn’t enrage me because I don’t pay their salaries and therefore didn’t pay for the duck pond or the porn. The thing I’ve noticed about BBC radio is that any time something bad happens they try to figure out why it happened and how to prevent it. Why did this child die? How was that child allowed to be abused? Wasn’t the family known to social services? How was this man allowed to kill someone? And I want to say to them – you can’t stop crazy. You can’t take every child who may possibly be in danger away from his parents. You can’t lock up every potential psychopath before he goes on a murder spree. Would you want to? Where’s the balance between the individual’s rights and the need of the state to protect?

So, yes, occasionally people will be crazy. People will strap bombs to themselves to blow something up because some of the people in our society are crazy. And you can’t stop crazy. This tends to make people feel uneasy, of course, so we try to act as if we’re in control of destiny/fate/karma/insert your belief here. If we only elect these people or pass this bill, all will be well. Dude, seriously.

Tangent on the semi-tangent: what exactly is a freehold? Vimes grants someone a freehold in this book and I’ve never quite got straight what that means.

Back in the book, Pratchett details the amount of land, work and animals necessary to feed and clothe the city of Ankh-Morpork, “The City.” Imagine this as any large city anywhere in the world.
It wasn’t a city, it was a process, a weight on the world that distorted the land for hundreds of miles around. People who’d never see it in their whole life nevertheless spent that life working for it. Thousands and thousands of green acres were part of it, forests were part of it. It drew in and consumed...

… and gave back the dung from its pens, and the soot from its chimneys, and steel, and saucepans, and all the tools by which its food was made. And also clothes, and fashions, and ideas, and interesting vices, songs, and knowledge, and something which, if looked at in the right light, was called civilization. That was what civilization meant. It meant the city.

Was anyone else out there thinking about this?

Yes, Sam, others do think about these things. The residents of the city tend to take for granted the residents of the country. The country folk depend upon the city for their living, and while some of them do not have the means to move to the city, I daresay most of them choose not to. I would also venture to say that in Discworld the majority of the people who live and die and work and pay taxes and vote* don’t live in Ankh-Morpork or in any of Discworld’s large cities.

I’ve truly enjoyed the four list books in this series and look forward to reading the book Terry Pratchett co-authored with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. I see the fascination with names continues. Agnes is a Nutter!

*I’m speaking figuratively, of course, since Ankh-Morporkians do not have the right to vote.

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