Apr 29 2015

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

One of the possibly apocryphal stories told about Terry Pratchett being knighted for services to literature is that he said his service was “presumably not trying to write any.” He knew better, of course, and kept right on writing literature as long as he could.

Pyramids is the seventh Discworld book, and at this point in the span of the series, he’s doing several different things quite in addition to writing books that are funnier, both line-by-line and over longer spans, than practically any other novels being written at the time (1989 for Pyramids). First of all, he’s adding settings within the overall concept of the Discworld. Pyramids is the fourth different set-up so far, with more to come. (As things turned out, Pratchett did not revisit the setting of Pyramids.) Second, he’s broadening the range of his satire. Where he had started out skewering the conventions of fantasy fiction, he’s now turning his dissecting tools onto government, history, religion and commerce. Not all at once; or at least, not always all at once. Third, he is letting the stakes of the story emerge from the characters. In Pyramids, a significant danger to much of the Disc does arise, but it’s almost as if by accident, coming from choices that characters made without any regard to larger implications. That’s a more thorough subversion of fantasy tradition than the obviously contrived danger in The Light Fantastic. Pyramids is also, unlike any of the previous novels, divided into four separately titled sections. (The third, “The Book of the New Son,” plays on Gene Wolfe’s very serious fantasy series, The Book of the New Sun.)

The land along both sides of the river Djeli is one of the Disc’s oldest existing kingdoms, with a ruling house whose known history stretches back some 7000 years. The pharaoh of Djelibeybi is a divine monarch, who causes the sun to rise every morning and set every evening. When he dies, he is laid to rest in a pyramid suitable to commemorate such an important personage. Unfortunately, the country’s waning fortunes, not to say shrinking territory, along with seven thousand years’ worth of accumulated pyramids mean that there is very little suitable land left to cultivate, and Djelibeybi is increasingly impoverished.

Teppic, heir to the throne and the godhood, is sent to the great city of Ankh-Morpork in the hope that he will learn a lucrative trade and help alleviate the kingdom’s poverty. He is also, if possible, to get an education. Both goals are served by apprenticing him to the Assassins’ Guild, whose school is both excellent and easy to get into. The trick is to get out again alive. The book opens as Teppic is preparing for his final exam, an account of which is interspersed with flashbacks that tell his tale up to that point and give some background on Djelibeybi. But no sooner has Teppic improbably passed with flying colors (and knives), than his father Teppicymon XXVII dies. Teppic inherits the throne and the godhood.

His time in Ankh-Morpork has given Teppic ideas about enlivening and modernizing the very traditional kingdom he has inherited. Ideas such as plumbing. His foil is the venerable high priest and adviser, Dios. In a pivotal arrangement, Dios convinces Teppic to build for his late father the largest pyramid in all of Djelibeybi. That drives the plot, because on the Disc pyramids have a magical property of slowing time, a property that increases, possibly exponentially, with size. The construction of the largest pyramid ever built plays havoc with time inside and then outside the kingdom. Teppic has to find ways to remedy the situation without actually knowing what is happening; further, he would like to reform the kingdom; and if he really had his druthers he wouldn’t have to be pharaoh at all. How that works out is the matter of Pyramids.

One of the best diversions along the way is the time that Teppic spends in a neighboring kingdom, one modeled on ancient Greece, complete with bibulous and querulous philosophers:

Teppic wandered along the table to where Pthagonal was sitting in unrelieved misery, and currently peering suspiciously over the crust of a pie.
Teppic looked over his shoulder.
“I think I saw something moving in there,” he said.
“Ah, said the geometrician, taking the cork out of an amphora with his teeth. …
[Pthagonal] pulled a pair of dividers from the folds of his robe and measured the pie thoughtfully. “Is it a constant, do you think? It’s a depressing concept.”
“Sorry?” said Teppic.
“The diameter divides into the circumference, you know. It ought to be three times. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But does it? No. Three point one four one and lots of other figures. There’s no end to the buggers. Do you know how pissed off that makes me?”
“I expect it makes you extremely pissed off,” said Teppic politely.
“Right. It tells me that the Creator used the wrong kind of circles. It’s not even a proper number! I mean, three point five, you could respect. Or three point three. That’d look right.” He stared morosely at the pie. (p. 269)

And then sometimes Pratchett just casually drops a major observation on unsuspecting readers:

And I’m shut in my body, thought [the ghost of Teppicymon XXVII]. Everything we believe is true? And what we believe isn’t what we think we believe.
I mean, we think we believe that the gods are wise and just and powerful, but what we really believe is that they are like our father after a long day. (p. 260)

Or:

The thing, [Teppic] told himself, is not to look up or down, but straight ahead, into the marble [of the pyramid he is climbing], parcelling the impossible height into manageable sections. Just like time, That’s how we survive infinity – we kill it by breaking it up into small bits.

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