Nov 29 2017

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

In a long-running series there is often a problem with escalation. Characters that started in a low station move up in the world. They face new challenges as they rise; the stakes are implicitly higher for the fictional world, as their actions can now affect more people. At some point, though, the character rises as high as the author is willing to allow, and character development has to come about in another fashion. Pratchett has already faced this set of questions with Granny Weatherwax. She has grown in power from Equal Rites to Carpe Jugulum, and challenges to her are now no longer likely to come from the outside. The Sam Vimes of Guards! Guards! — drunkard captain of the disreputable Night Watch — has become the Duke of Ankh, Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Night Watch, an organization that has become a model of effective policing, so effective that coppers from Ankh-Morpork are in demand across the Disc and are commonly known as Sammies.

As Night Watch opens, Vimes is caught up in management of the growing Watch, in negotiations with the city’s leadership about budgets and powers, and in general wishing for simpler days when he was out walking the streets and either chasing criminals or being chased by them. Vimes has never been one for politics, and has always relished what he sees as straightforward police work, so this development is not necessarily new. On the other hand, it’s also easy to see an author looking back fondly on simpler situations and more straightforward action. In a setting teeming with magic, it’s not difficult for the character’s yearnings to be fulfilled, if not quite in the way he expects.

A sorcerous conflagration blasts Vimes thirty years backwards in time. A ruthless killer goes back with him. Both survive an initial attempt at arrest and murder, and make their separate ways into the city. Vimes joins the Watch, taking the identity of a new Watchman who was killed in the tussle that accompanied Vimes’ time travel. Carcer, the killer, joins the Unmentionables, the secret political police that operated in Ankh-Morpork at that time, seizing the apparent power of law to support his own vendettas.

The two have arrived at a crucial point in Ankh-Morpork’s history: just days before an uprising that toppled an unusually corrupt and violent Patrician and led, by just a few byways, to the relative peace and prosperity seen in most of the Discworld books. Carcer finds that the corrupt regime suits him very well, and sets to preventing the revolution, using his knowledge of events to try to keep the future he knows from happening. (Pratchett waves away any time-travel paradoxes by having the temporal monks from Thief of Time talk a bit about quantum and multiple possibilities. He’s interested in the story, not the causality.) Vimes remembers the bad old days all too well, and leans in to making the revolution happen, hoping that by doing so he does not change the future so much that it will deviate from the life he has come to love.

Vimes comes to see what readers will have known all along, that the past was never so simple and the present really isn’t so bad. It’s fun to see the earlier versions of later Discworld characters: Reg Shoe as a lawyer, and not as a zombie who happens to be a lawyer; Vetinari as a young Assassin in the Guild; Nobby as a raw recruit, Fred Colon in his early days as a sergeant. There’s even a young Sam Vimes, newly inducted into the Watch. Old Vimes is understandably keen to show his younger self good policing, and keener still to keep him alive once Carcer figures out who he is. The the monks have told him that history is likely to return to its expected path, but make no guarantees for his personal participation in it.

Along the way, Pratchett delivers tart observations on revolutions — “Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions.” — and some longer thoughts on the basis of power and policing. Vimes ultimately has no answer to Carcer’s savagery under the cover of law, no answer beyond his bedrock sense of decency and the value of people of all kinds. It’s an uncomfortable moment, even though Vimes has shown that decency over the course of numerous novels, and Pratchett is confident enough not to try to retrofit an answer or a larger moral scheme.

There’s more, on where revolutions come from, on what good governance means, on how people with privilege depend on those with far less, on how dignity and social competition are part of life even amongst the city’s poorest residents. Maybe I will say more about how Pratchett addresses these topics next time, because Night Watch feels like one of the Discworld books I will be returning to once I am finished with the series as a whole. It’s a past worth re-visiting.

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