Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Review: Terry Pratchett's "Nation"

"One is nothing. Two is a nation."

Here's a list of some stories about islands: The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe,Lord of the Flies, Swiss Family Robinson,The End, in A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Prisoner and the entire six seasons of Lost. What they have in common, to one degree or another, is that each uses isolation and transposition to create a new society. This new society is then held up as a contrast or reflection of modern society. (Or 18th century society, or quasi-suburban gothic, or whatever the case may be) I'm currently reading Visual Thinking by Rudolph Arnheim for my multimedia comprehensive exam; Arnheim's main idea is that we need to realize how an object's context and surroundings influence what we think about it. Moving people out of their context into a new environment lets us understand that context and the people.

But I'm not here to talk about Arnheim. (Thankfully.) I'm here to talk about Nation. The book centers on two young teenage characters, Mau and Daphne. Mau is a tribesman of the island people known as Nation, and when the book starts, he is undergoing a tribal ritual to become a man. Daphne is the daughter of a Victorian-era British lord, en route on the ship The Sweet Judy to visit her father in the colonies. A giant tidal wave kills everyone in Mau's village before the ritual is complete, and shipwrecks Daphne alone on the island with him. They go through the stages of learning to communicate, and Hijinx Ensue. Other nearby survivors arrive at the island: a trauma-stressed mother with a newborn child, an elderly priest, and an expectant mother, for starters. After restructuring the age-old human experiences of child birth and milking a wild sow, more people arrive, a society forms, and the story moves towards its climax: a battle with the only surviving nearby tribe, the cannibalistic Raiders, now led by a charismatic European who also happens to be the Sweet Judy's former First Mate.

The story's themes are more wide-ranging than mere plot summary can suggest. Both Mau and Daphne cope with survival in the face of their respective restrictive moral codes; Mau, in particular, deals with being haunted by the voice of his grandfathers and challenging Death for the remaining members of his shrinking nation. There is also a heavy postcolonial element to the story. Pratchett writes Nation under a 19th century setting, the height of British colonial power. As such, he can play the two societies against each other; Daphne rejects her colonial background and devaluation of the island people, and Mau has to come to terms with the validity of his people's ways in the presence of superior European technology. Daphne's father (and consequently Daphne) is also heavily influenced by the Royal Society, and the book ultimately moves towards a conclusion reconciling faith and religion with the logical positivism of modern science.

Terry Pratchett is probably best known as the writer of the Discworld series, a comedy-fantasy series that uses parody to examine everything from religion to the post office to Santa Claus. He's such a great comedy writer that some people (okay, me) forget that he's a great writer, period, and Nation shows him at the height of his game. The book isn't without some humor, but it's hardly a comedy, either; it opens with the death of hundreds of people, after all. It's a book about ideas, and Pratchett isn't afraid to come out and say so. I think what I liked most about the book is that Pratchett explores all of these different social issues without making the book seem overly preachy; every element is carefully balanced to show multiple sides of an issue, and the social commentary is balanced well with the actual events. I don't feel that this description is entirely doing it justice, so let me just conclude with this: on a day when I was absolutely dead tired, to the point where I was literally falling asleep in mid-conversation, I stayed up all night working my way through 450 pages, just to see how everything would end.

So it's good. Read it.

Later Days.

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