Book Review – Going Postal by Terry Pratchett
Title: Going Postal
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre: Fantasy, insightful humor, social commentary
WARNING: This commentary on the novel Going Postal is loaded with spoilers.
Going Postal is an enjoyable and heartwarming story of greed, corruption, deceit, and murder. But that’s only part of it. There always seems to be more to a Terry Pratchett novel than first meets the eye. They are, of course, wonderfully enjoyable and cleverly written stories. But ingeniously woven into the plots, characters, and settings, you find deeper meaning, literary tropes, scholarly references, philosophical insights, social commentary…. Yeah, I’ve long been a Discworld fan.
At the surface, Going Postal is a story about a personable conman given a stay of execution on the condition that he performs a specific benefit to society. All we know at the beginning is that Moist Von Lipwig* is given the choice of dying for his past crimes or of taking on the job of postmaster and returning the Ankh-Morpork postal service to operation. He chooses the latter, thinking this will allow him breathing space (literally) to run as far and as fast as possible. Much to his surprise and dismay, this is not possible, and the job of postmaster is far more…complicated than he could have imagined. The post office hasn’t functioned in years—decades, in fact. The building is near ruin, it is crammed with undelivered mail…and it may be cursed. The last four appointed postmasters died suddenly shortly after taking the job. And it turns out that these aren’t the greatest challenges Moist must face.
But enough about the plot for now. Engaging as it is, there are other things I would like to point out about this book.
Pratchett’s skill with creating interesting characters is immediately apparent in Going Postal. In the first few pages we are introduced to:
• Moist von Lipwig, an ethical thief and conman who takes pride in never having hurt anyone.
• A couple of considerate jailers who wish to make the short stay of their death row guests as pleasant as possible (given the circumstances).
• ‘One Drop’ Trooper, a kindly hangman who takes pride in his work and treats his clients with friendliness and respect before he drops them through the gallows trapdoor to their very final destination.
• A moral golem, a man of clay who cheerfully says to Moist, “I Have Nothing But Good Feelings Toward You, Mr. Lipwig!”
• And then there is Vetinari, the selfless tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, whose primary, if not only, concern is the city and the wellbeing of its people.**
Do you see what he’s done here? These characters are juxtapositions of opposites, or presumed opposites: an ethical thief, considerate jailers, a kindly hangman, a moral golem, a selfless tyrant. You don’t normally think of tyrants being selfless. Tyrants are selfish, cruel, vindictive, capricious, avaricious…. What Pratchett does with these characters, other than making them interesting and inherently humorous, is to tell the reader to put their prejudices behind them for the sake of the story. Things on the Discworld are not always what you may expect them to be, and, well, you know, they may not be so on our round world either, for that matter. He doesn’t come right out and say it’s a mistake to judge people by their job or their looks or something else superficial, but he shows us in a very entertaining way that such assumptions may be wrong.
There is often some philosophical aspect to the Discworld stories. Take, for example, an early scene in this story, it which Pump 19 (the golem mentioned above who is currently serving as Moist’s probation officer) calmly informs Moist that he has killed “Two Point Three Three Eight People.” Moist objects, insisting that he’s never even carried a weapon, let alone killed anyone. This is what the golem tells him.
“No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”***
Moist may be unthinking, at times, but he’s not stupid. He understands the golem’s point and it affects him. He has always rationalized his actions as little worse than a harmless sport, and he has prided himself with never having hurt anyone, at least no one who did not deserve it. But his nonviolent crimes have hurt people, innocent people—not just bankers and moneylenders and other financial moochers—he’s harmed people who actually work for a living. He can no longer deny this to himself. It’s a moment of self-realization for Moist.
Speaking of financial moochers, the antagonist of the story personifies them in the character of Reacher Gilt.**** Gilt is another swindler, like Moist but without a conscience. Moist doesn’t want to hurt people and is upset when he can no longer deny that he has. Reacher Gilt sees hurting people as just one more way of making money for himself. The man is a corporate pirate, something he advertises with his manner and clothing. He even wears an eyepatch and has a cockatoo that constantly squawks, “Twelve-and-a-half percent.”***** Through trickery and deceit, Gilt has taken over the clacks company (a system of semaphore towers), ousted its developers, and suppressed its competitors. He’s running the clacks into the ground, but he’s making a great deal of money in the process.
The aspect of social commentary here is obvious. Pratchett is pointing out the inherent problems with things like privatization, corporate takeovers, and monopolies—actions that a morally bankrupt owner can use to squeeze a business dry for every penny it can provide. He’s not lecturing. He’s not criticizing any specific case in our world. He’s simply telling a lighthearted story, but he’s making a serious point.
Another obvious parallel to our world is the clacks as a stand in for the birth of computers and the internet. More broadly, it represents the early days of any new technology, I suspect. I imagine that the young innovators of the telephone and steam engines before that had the same drive and passion that the clacks workers in this story exhibit, and it provides a kind of tribute to such technological pioneers. They are dreamers, idealists, inventors, and tireless workers trying to bring about something not just new but revolutionary. They may be obsessed, possibly even a bit insane (like the Smoking GNU in this story), but they are the kind of people who literally change the world.
I love this quote from the book in which Pratchett praises human ingenuity in reference to the clacks:
“But what was happening now…this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse, used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the words, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal around it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this…thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.”
This review is getting a bit long, but there is one more thing I want to say about Going Postal that I feel is appropriate given Sir Terry’s recent death.****** There is a convention among the clacks operators that when one of them dies while working on the risky towers, their name is sent via a clacks ‘overhead’ message to the tower nearest their home. For some who are especially admired by their peers, the message is turned around so that it is constantly being transmitted. It’s called ‘living in the overhead’. The clacks code preceding such messages is GNU.
G – Pass this on.
N – Do not log.
U – Turn around at end of line.
So in honor of Sir Terry: GNU-Terry Pratchett—A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.
Footnotes (of course there are footnotes):
*Pratchett had a Dickensian talent for names. Going Postal includes especially marvelous examples of this with Moist von Lipwig, Adora Belle Dearheart, and Reacher Gilt.
**Vetinari is to Ankh-Morpork what Granny Weatherwax is to the Ramtops. They are strong, competent, possibly even maternal caretakers—well, protective, anyway—although not necessarily kindly, especially to those who threaten their respective charges.
***Lipwig previously told Pump 19 that the ‘w’ in his name is pronounced ‘v’.
****The name may simply be a Dickensian form that reflects that the character grabs for money, or it could be a reverse image of Ayn Rand’s John Galt character. It may be both.
*****12.5 percent as a fraction is 1/8, so Reacher Gilt’s bird is actually saying “Pieces of Eight” but in a way more suited to the world of financial businesses.
******March 12, 2015 at the far too young age of 66.
– Tropes noticed in this book: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Discworld/GoingPostal
– Dickens use of character names: http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/literature/18-memorable-character-names-from-the-works-of-charles-dickens.htm
Related Posts on this site:
• Discworld—The Final Sunrise (A Fan-Fic Short Story Tribute) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/discworld-the-final-sunrise/
• A Tribute to Terry Pratchett (Mar. 2015) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-tribute-to-terry-pratchett/
• Hogfather for the Holidays (Dec. 2014) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/hogfather-for-the-holidays/
• My Problem with Terry Pratchett (Jul. 2014) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/
• A Discworld Update (Feb. 2013) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/a-discworld-update-february-2013/
• Will the Discworld End? Should It? (Nov. 2011) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/will-the-discworld-end-should-it/
• Discworld (May 2011) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/discworld/