In the eighteenth and final part of Interesting Times, Rincewind faces Lord Hong. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For talk of racism, Orientalism, and imperialism.
There are a few things here that feel genuinely great, but even in the end, Interesting Times suffers from Pratchett’s apparent inability to think of the implications of what he’s written.
The world is full of white savior stories. Just yesterday, my partner sat and watched Blood Diamond, a film that slipped by him long ago. He’s a fan of Djimon Hounsou and DeCaprio, but was largely disappointed by the film. As he put it, he thought was watching a film “about a Sierra Leonean in Sierra Leone,” but it was “actually a white guy’s redemption story.” As he spoke to me about it, I thought of The Constant Gardener. Which made me think of Dangerous Minds and the whole slew of films like it. Then there’s Avatar, and then there’s how Avatar: The Last Airbender got turned INTO a white savior movie by terrible people. Sort of how The Blind Side also got turned into a movie about something else, too.
It’s in literature, too. I wrote about it while reading Song of the Lioness and the Trickster duology by Tamora Pierce. I remember hating a great deal of classic science fiction and fantasy for this same reason, too. I don’t need to sit here and give y’all example after example because the point is that this trope – of focusing stories set in other countries or in other cultures almost entirely on the white characters or their fictional counterparts – is pervasive. It’s everywhere. It has been for a while. Now, Pratchett knows his tropes. He knows subversion better than most authors, and the sixteen books in this series that come before Interesting Times are a long, detailed example of that.
Knowing his skill is why this book has been so frustrating to me, and here, at the end of it, he completely undermines one of his main themes of the novel. If we accept that Interesting Times works as a social commentary on revolution and tyranny, then I think you could also state that what he wanted to pull off is best summarized by Rincewind’s earlier scene with a peasant. No one bothered to ask the poor what they wanted. No one who fought this revolution ever thought to include those they were fighting for. This is a really valid argument! It’s an important thing to consider in all activism! Are you making this about yourself or about a group who is disenfranchised and oppressed?
Rincewind provides that criticism to the revolutionary forces, and while I still think it’s weird to have an outsider do it, I can still recognize why it’s in the book. Here’s where I have an issue with the ending. I initially thought that perhaps Pratchett was setting up a punchline with this exchange, to be delivered by the end of the book:
“But it was a famous victory!” said Twoflower.
“Mr. Cohen’s been made Emperor!”
“Well, not made, no one made him, he just came along and took it. And everyone says he’s the preincarnation of the first Emperor and he says if you want to be the Great Wizard that’s fine by him.”
So I waited. Maybe Pratchett wouldn’t actually commit to this fully, but then I got to the first scene with Cohen in it, and he’s dividing up the Empire for the Silver Horde. Oh… okay? That seems a little sketchy, but there was so much left in the book. Let me give it a chance!
And Twoflower’s confrontation with Lord Hong was incredible. In that instance, Pratchett gave Twoflower even more depth and allowed him closure over the death of his wife. IT’S SUCH A GREAT SEQUENCE. It all happens right around the scene where Rincewind is coincidentally yanked out of Hunghung by the wizards in the University, AND THERE IS EVEN A LAST-MINUTE MYSTERY. All of this great, and I swear, I mean it. This is Pratchett firing on all cylinders, being funny and charming and insightful and interesting.
Except the other shoe never drops. The Horde run the Empire. The Horde, who do not consult a single person about how to run their country. Who decide to make new laws and rules and force their own cultural standards on all these people. (Such as the line about the tea ceremony being replaced by the new one, which is about the most direct example of imperialism in the book.) Who threaten the eunuchs and other citizens. They are literally doing the thing Pratchett commented on earlier. There’s no revolution anymore this time; it’s just a bunch of dudes coded as white stealing a country from a bunch of “Asian” people and doing whatever the hell they want with it. Of course, it’s better than the system that the previous emperor had in place, and it’s better than the warring lords who used people as pawns, but I honestly feel like Pratchett completely undermined his point. How is this a good solution to the problems in the Agatean Empire? Just because their new emperor is kind of wacky and brash doesn’t mean that life in this country will suddenly become so much better.
In the end, the peasants and the farmers and those most hurt by the Empire are left exactly where they are, ignored and forgotten. Oh, well they do get a pig, which I guess solves everything?
I did love the surprise twist that some sort of magical triangulation meant that the Barking Dog was sent to Hunghung, a kangaroo was sent to Ankh-Morpork, and Rincewind was sent to XXXX, the Discworld’s magical relative to AUSTRALIA. Y’all, this book ends on a CLIFFHANGER. WITH A BOOMERANG. It’s a very exciting final scene, and it frustrates me that this book could not have been as fun as scenes like that one, or Twoflower’s confrontation with Lord Hong, or Rincewind leading the Red Army into battle. But Interesting Times is horribly flawed. The setting is not a chance to explore Agatean culture so much as it is to make fun of it, to position it firmly as the Other, and to give a chance for mostly white characters to grow and challenge themselves within it. For every great pun and joke, there are punchlines that feel like punches to the gut. For each promise of potential and excitement, there’s a disappointing reliance on really, really racist tropes and stereotypes.
Which is why I balked initially as I read that line about why Rincewind wasn’t a racist. I can see the reasoning here, and I realized that Pratchett most likely believed that racism was an aggressive, deliberate act. If you did not do these certain things, then you were not Racist. The problem – of which the evidence is littered throughout Interesting Times – is that racism can absolutely be a passive thing, too. You can quietly pass along stereotypes and myths with a gentle laugh or a slight nod of the head. You can enforce narratives about people in other countries or who come from different cultures than you without calling them slurs or passing repressive legislature. You can do any number of things that aren’t egregious displays of violence that can contribute to a long history of violence. Racism is an act and a system and a mindset. It is not a mere circumstance.
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