In the fifth part of Interesting Times, oh lord. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For talk of rape, Orientalism/racism.
Y’all, I was so excited to see the Agatean Empire for the first time. I truly was. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. I know that my approach to reviewing here on Mark Reads may not be what people are used to (or even what they really want, apparently), but I honestly think this is so blatantly deplorable that it’s like… a joke? Maybe I’m reading an alternate version of Interesting Times and this is all part of a long-con and I’m documenting it all for the betterment of mindkind?
Except that means Pratchett gets off the hook, and I’m not interested in that right now. Again, I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, despite that I am criticizing the content of these books. I know that this kind of work makes people deeply uncomfortable, I know that it’s not entertaining most of the time, and I am well aware of the countless people who think that this type of critical analysis is worthless and pointless. (They sure do tell me that a lot.) Yet I am still surprised at how glaring these issues are. It’s not a single joke or a one-off character or a punchline with poor implications. The very framework of Interesting Times seems impossibly flawed! By that, I mean, HOW DID ANYONE EDIT THIS AND NOT SAY, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t do this?”
Look, there was (and still could be, I guess) a lot of promise in the Silver Hoard. I think the idea of a bunch of geriatric barbarians foolishly trying to plunder treasure in one last blaze of glory is A REALLY COOL IDEA. There is so much potential in that! You can make fun of fantasy tropes and you can tell stories that have emotional resonance at the same time. Pratchett does that extremely well. I daresay it’s what I’ve found most compelling about the Discworld series! Yet as many jokes and gags as he includes here about the age of these men, one of them is so egregiously offensive and crude that, again, I can’t believe someone didn’t ask him to edit it out:
“Not that there’s anything wrong with him, at all,” he said defiantly. “It’s just that his memory’s bad. We had a bit of trouble on the way over. I keep telling him, it’s rape the women and set fire to the houses.”
“Rape?” said Rincewind. “That’s not very–”
“He’s eighty-seven,” said Cohen. Don’t go and spoil an old man’s dreams.”
Don’t spoil him by telling him that rape is not a good thing? What the FUCK, Terry Pratchett??? Did these men plan on raping and pillaging? Is setting women on fire apparently a funny joke, too? The only way this is funny is if you find references to rape – in this case, raping a house – humorous, and it’s not hard to imagine that someone who has no personal history with rape must have written such a shitty joke. This is a billion times worse than that Greebo joke because there’s no mistaking the reference. There’s nothing in the text itself to tell us that anyone aside from Rincewind sees this act as something horrendous and violent and terrible. It’s just part of the humor, and I, for one, do not find it funny at all.
“That’s why they call me Teach.”
“What did you teach?”
“Geography. And I was very interested in Auriental studies.”
AHHHHHHHH WHAT ARE YOU DOING? So, Pratchett takes his need to make a pun one step further and USES A SLUR! The pun is also ENTIRELY RELIANT ON SAYING THE ACTUAL SLUR OUT LOUD. And before anyone trots out the boring, repetitive, and inaccurate argument that Pratchett and his editors could not have possibly known about this, Orientalism was published in 1978. [Note: Orientialism doesn’t specifically cover East Asian identities and cultures, either; it’s a much more general term for how the West views “the East,” and it was originally a lot more focused on the Middle East. It’s evolved since then. – Mark] Post-colonial academia had been around for YEARS prior to the publishing of Interesting Times. We had stopped referring to people as if they were rugs for a long, long time. This isn’t funny at all. It’s just a clever way for someone to get around the act of calling someone Oriental. If the joke you make about this horrible word SOUNDS EXACTLY LIKE THE ORIGINAL WORD, then what could you possibly be doing to end the stigma attached to it?
Nothing at all.
When characters are nameless, it’s hard not to see them as a stereotype, so Rincewind’s journey through the countryside on the way to Hunghung felt unbearably weird. I was so uncomfortable reading about these people because I couldn’t get a sense for whether or not Pratchett even felt pity for them or if they simply existed as background details for Rincewind. It doesn’t help that the Agatean Empire is mostly here as a set-up to about a thousand punchlines. As Rincewind interacts with the peasant farmers of this land, what joke does Pratchett rely on over and over again?
Agatean was a language of few basic syllables. It was really all in the tone, inflection, and context. Otherwise, the word for military leader was also the word for long-tailed marmot, male sexual organ, and ancient chicken coop.
He repeatedly and ruthlessly makes fun of their language.
Here’s what I was hoping: Rincewind’s perception of their language was incorrect. In that story, Pratchett could have skewered the way Rincewind bumbled through Agatean. While there’s still an element of that here, the joke still relies on the fact that Rincewind’s idea of this language is correct. Look how often he misspeaks while talking to these people! Doesn’t that support that their language is just as Rincewind claimed it was? Pratchett doubles down on this when Rincewind reads from “WHAT I DID ON MY HOLIDAYS.”
It was in bad handwriting or, rather, bad painting – the Agateans wrote with paintbrushes, assembling little word pictures out of handy components. One picture wasn’t just worth a thousand words, it was a thousand words.
I’m pretty sure that’s not how this works. Also, which language or art form is he referring to? Is this Japanese calligraphy? Something else? WHO KNOWS, because it’s all interchangeable here. Look, the main problem here is that we’ve never gotten characters or a culture like this before. Unlike Ankh-Morpork, there is no rich history. A character like Mustrum Ridcully feels so unlike a stereotype because there are like twenty other wizards in this series. Thus, he never feels like he’s representative of wizards or white men or British citizens. So when we’ve never, ever met these “Asian” characters before, and then we do, and then they’re mostly subservient, submissive farmers, it is incredibly hard not to see that as a stereotype. When you have nothing else to compare them to, they feel monolithic and homogenous, and that’s why this book is so distracting to me. How many character variations have we gotten for trolls? Dwarfs? Witches? Wizards? The undead, werewolves? Pratchett clearly has the ability to build complicated, layered characterizations, so it’s glaring that he does not of that here. These peasants are just all the same. The antagonists are all the same. Where’s the nuance? Why don’t the Agateans get any of that?
I’m still only a quarter of the way through Interesting Times, and it would be awesome if I was proven wrong, if the remainder of this book took these tropes and stereotypes and tipped them all over, and I got to write a review that admitted how I just had to wait. That would be ideal. Yet I’m worried that this isn’t coming. What sort of book is this if Pratchett never addresses any of this?
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