In the fifteenth part of Interesting Times, the two armies face-off… sort of. Intrigued? Then it’s time to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of racial stereotypes, Orientalism.
Let’s talk about satire, because this section has coincidentally provided me with an example of how Pratchett succeeds at it and then completely fails at it.
There’s an incredible joke that opens this part of the book that is entirely based on satirizing fantasy narratives. Rincewind is the straight man in this scenario, and he cannot understand the logic the Hunghungese subscribe to. Namely, this make no sense to him:
“When seven men go out to fight an army 100,000 times bigger there’s only one way it can end,” said Twoflower.
“Right. I’m glad you see sense.”
“They’ll win,” said Twoflower. “They’ve got to. Otherwise the world’s just not working properly.”
“You look educated,” said Rincewind to Butterly. “Explain to him why he’s wrong. It’s because of a little thing we have in our country. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it – it’s called mathematics.“
Here’s Pratchett taking a trope we’re all familiar with, and he’s exaggerating it to make a point. How many times have we all read a fantasy book or watched a fantasy film and saw this exact dynamic play out? How many times has a small band of warriors defeated a larger force despite the impossible odds? How often does this ENTERTAIN THE HELL OUT OF US? Frequently, I admit. I love a good underdog story, and I’m certain that many of you do, too. It taps into our desires as individuals who face forces and movements and organizations that are bigger and more powerful than we are. From Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to half the fantasy I’ve read on this site to most of the fantasy you’ve probably read, too, WE ALL KNOW THIS TROPE. Now, I don’t get the sense that Pratchett is saying it’s a terrible trope to use; he’s utilized it numerous times himself! But the joke is in the gentle prodding. He pushes the numbers further and further away from any reasonable level and then points out how absurd it all is.
Luggage and Adventures
And then, Pratchett’s execution of a few jokes and scenes falters. Not the worst thing by any stretch, but the jokes about the first “female” Luggage are just so weird. Like, I think Pratchett is trying to point out how absurd it is to gender luggage, and he points out each of the weird things that might make this difficult for Rincewind. But then he just barrels forward and genders the luggage anyway? It’s strange! Who painted the toenails on the other Luggage? How does it even have toenails at all? And I’m thinking about satire and pushing things to extremes in order to make fun of them, and I see that as the basis for this joke. I recognize that was probably the intent, but the toenail thing just throws me off. SERIOUSLY, WHO DID THAT? INQUIRING MINDS NEED TO KNOW.
But it’s not an awful joke unless Pratchett then genders the Luggage repeatedly from here on out. I also don’t think that Rincewind’s extended speech about his involvement in this war is bad, either. In fact, I liked that he repeatedly invokes the fact that he really shouldn’t be involved. But I’m not sure Pratchett is trying to comment on the themes of imperialism or privilege that could be read into this. Rincewind has a long, long history of wishing to just be left alone, and he knows that if he gets involved in other people’s business, he’ll be swept up into another situation he wants nothing to do with. Because of that, I’m anticipating that the joke will be yet another bizarre twist that sends Rincewind right into the heart of the action. How that’s going to work while he’s walking out of town is beyond me, but Fate and Lady Luck aren’t gonna let him off unscathed, are they?
Except then he does a really weird thing. I think there is a lot of value in the idea of a scene where Rincewind is the first person to ever ask a peasant in this empire what they want. And while Pratchett does repeatedly state that this man is not simple because of “native stupidity,” he still portrays the peasants as gloriously simple. So simple that they have no interest in anything but a longer string? I’d have less of an issue with this if any of these characters were named ever or existed for any other reason than to push other characters or the story along. But if Pratchett is going to reference peasant revolutions, the least he could do is paint peasants as complicated, fully-formed people.
I’m saving the worst for last.
And yet the heat wrapped the plain like a blanket. The air felt thick. In a minute it was going to rain cats and food.
I misunderstood this joke as I read it. In my head, cat food was raining down because come on, that would be so convenient and nice, wouldn’t it? But then it hit me what this joke was supposed to be, and goddamn it. It’s awful. Terrible. Extremely, extremely racist, and there’s not a bit of context here to even remotely explain it away. It’s a completely throwaway gag whose end result is, “Ha ha, Asian people eat dogs.”
I noticed plenty of people (most of them private, all of them white) get upset that I and others had issues with this stereotype. “But it’s based in a real truth!” many people said, which ignores any sort of specific context or historical accuracy in favor of false equivalency. If some cultures within a greater cultural umbrella do one thing, then it is perfectly fine for Pratchett to make a joke about all of the people within that umbrella. Again, the people in the Agatean Empire are a mish-mash of about ten different cultures, as if they’re all interchangeable, and thus, it becomes extremely dangerous to ascribe the cultural beliefs of one group to another. On top of that, there’s nothing here to suggest that this is a joke you shouldn’t make in other situations. Pratchett invokes it so casually and with literally no subtextual negativity that it makes it seem like it’s perfectly normal to claim that Asian people eat dogs.
This is really awful, y’all.
The best joke in this entire bit, however, is most certainly that moment where, after a long performance from Cohen, he walks up to Lord Hong with a blood-covered handkerchief to talk surrender. He was finally realizing how impossible this was, I thought.
Oh my gods.
“Lay down your arms.” Lord Hong snorted. “That means put down your weapons.”
Cohen gave him a puzzled look. “Why should we put down our weapons?”
“Are we not talking about your surrender?”
HAHAHAHAHA, THIS IS BEAUTIFULLY HILARIOUS. Even I fell for it! And the best part is that Cohen is totally, 100% serious about this. A TRUE BARBARIAN HERO.
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