Twenty-two novels into Discworld, Terry Pratchett delivered a surprise I didn’t think he could manage: a funny and engaging Rincewind novel. A wizard who can’t actually do any magic and always runs away was somewhat amusing as the protagonist in a one-off send-up of fantasy novels called The Colour of Magic. Then it turned out that Pratchett could do a lot more with the seemingly absurd setting he had conjured up in that book, and he kept going, discovering more and writing some great novels along the way. But he couldn’t do much more with his first protagonist, who was essentially a cipher, a character to whom things happened but who never did much himself or developed in any way.
So why, against all expectations, does The Last Continent work so well? First, the Luggage isn’t around to save Rincewind from every possible danger, at the cost of narrative suspense. Things really could go drastically wrong for Rincewind, and that makes for a better story. Pratchett isn’t exactly George R.R. Martin, but by this point he does have a large stable of characters who can star in a book, and one fewer wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
Second, Rincewind actually does some things along the way. He starts out digging for grubs and water, so that by the time a talking kangaroo arrives the reader can well imagine that it’s a hallucination just as the hapless (and thirsty) wizard believes. Later on, he encounters various denizens of the outback, as well as what passes for civilization in those parts, and his actions amount to more than just running away. This is a big step up for Rincewind.
Third, the other wizards come along to the last continent. Someone from the Unseen University has opened a window from his office to a beach with great surf, which just happens to be on a small island off the coast of the otherwise inaccessible continent. Several wizards — Archchancellor Ridcully, the Dean, the Bursar, Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian, the Senior Wrangler, and the Lecturer in Recent Runes — clamber through. They are still investigating the beach when the head housekeeper comes through as well and helpfully removes the stick that had kept the window propped open. Now, of course, they are stranded with no way back to the University, except by delving into the continent’s mysteries.
These include a god of evolution, the fact that it never rains, and the odd behavior of time and causality on a continent that is still being created. That last could also easily have done the book in by making the authorial hand too obvious, but Pratchett carries it lightly.
“I can’t help thinking, though, that we may have … tinkered with the past, Archchancellor,” said the Senior Wrangler.
“I don’t see how,” said Ridcully. “After all, the past happened before we got here.”
“Yes, but now we’re here, we’ve changed it.”
“Then we changed it before.”
And that, they felt, pretty well summed it up. It is very easy to get ridiculously confused about the tenses of time travel, but most things can be resolved by a sufficiently large ego. (p. 244)
If the kangaroo and the dryness weren’t sufficient indicators, the red sand and silhouette of Uluru on the cover give away that the last continent is the Discworld’s version of Australia. There’s a Mad Max sequence, a character named Crocodile, a dispute about what actually constitutes a knife, and an homage to Priscilla. There are nods to slightly more serious bits of Australian ways, such as lawbreakers, mateship, and tall poppies, but none of it is particularly deep.
Much fun is also had with the wizards’ quasi-Victorian prudery, not least when they figure out that the god of evolution has been hand-crafting each creature on the island individually.
“Amazin’ piece of work,” said Ridcully, emerging from the elephant. “Very good wheels. You paint these bits before assembly, do you?”
“It’s not a kit, sir,” said Ponder, taking a kidney out of his hands and wedging it back in. “It’s a real elephant under construction!”
“Being made, sir,” said Ponder, since Ridcully didn’t seem to have gotten the message. “Which is not usual.”
“Ah. How are they normally made, then?”
“By other elephants, sir.”
“Oh, yes …”
“Really? Are they?” said the god. “How? Those trunks are pretty numble, even if I say so myself, but not really very good for delicate work.”
“Oh not made like that, sir, obviously. By … you know … sex …” said Ponder, feeling a blush start.
Then Ponder thought: Mono Island. [The wizards had not found any duplicates of any plant or creature on the island.] Oh dear…
“Er … males and females …” he ventured.
“What are they, then?” said the god. The wizards paused.
“Do go on, Mister Stibbons,” said the Archchancellor. “We’re all ears. Especially the elephant.” (p. 231)
Eventually the storylines collide, with hints of a solution to the contintent’s problems if Rincewind can strike the right balance of running away and not getting killed, while the wizards manage not to interfere too terribly with causality. The Last Continent is pure romp and farce, but it’s a funny Rincewind book, which is more than I expected. No worries. She’ll be right.