"Talking books? That sounds a good idea," said Moist.
"Quite possibly," said Spools with a sniff. "But these weren't meant to, and certainly not to complain about the quality of their glue and the hamfistedness of the typesetter. And of course now the university can't pulp them."
"Think of the screaming!"
What more is there to say about (Sir) Terry Pratchett? He's a comic fantasy institution, of course, and deservedly so; Robert Rankin can pile on the madcap surreality and Tom Holt can be acute with his fantastical satires of mundanity, but no-one else gives nearly as good novel as Pratchett does. Pratchett may give his characters scrupulously silly names - conman-turned-postmaster Moist von Lipwig is once again at the centre of Making Money (2007), along with his paramour, chainsmoking deadpan goth Adora Belle Dearheart - but there is never any doubt that they are fully-rounded characters, rather than punchlines, and that they are going to star in rich, emotionally satisfying stories that trade in ideas as much as they do in jokes.
Amazingly, Making Money is the thirty-sixth Discworld novel (the young adult Discworld novels - which I've yet to read - having apparently been incorporated into the main series since the last time I blogged about Pratchett here). There is, as I noted in my last Discworld post, a certain familiarity and thus fatigue creeping in: another facet of our present-day world (in this case, banking and credit systems) is explained, explored and gently mocked through the prism of the creaking, stinking, invented city of Ankh-Morpork; the city's inhabitants, many of them recurring characters met in earlier books, turn up to greet this latest manifestation of modernity with the incomprehension of sheer bloody-minded literalness; another nefarious scheme to exploit or subvert or sabotage said innovation; the day is saved, and it all turns out to have been engineered by semi-benevolent dictator Lord Vetinari all along.
Having made a roaring success of the Post Office, rather against his better judgement Moist von Lipwig finds himself heartily sick of the resultant calmer, more settled, much less imminently deadly life he has built for himself:
At twenty-nine minutes past eleven the alarm on his desk clock went 'bing'. Moist got up, put his chair under the desk, walked to the door, counted to three, opened it, said "Hello, Tiddles" as the Post Office's antique cat padded in, counted to nineteen as the cat did its circuit of the room, said "Good-bye, Tiddles" as it plodded back into the corridor, shut the door, and went back to his desk.
You just opened the door for an elderly cat who's lost hold of the concept of walking around things, he told himself, as he rewound the alarm. You do it every day. Do you think that's the action of a sane man? Okay, it's sad to see him standing for hours with his head up against a chair until someone moves it, but now you get up every day to move the chair for him. This is what honest work does to a person.
Yes, but dishonest work nearly got me hanged! he protested.
So? Hanging only lasts a couple of minutes. The Pension Fund Committee lasts a lifetime!
With his trademark preternatual ability to slot people in where exactly they need to go - and exactly where they will most effectively achieve what he wants them to, when he wants them to do it - Vetinari has just the job for him:
"Ahead of you, Mr. Lipwig, is a life of respectable quiet contentment, of civic dignity, and, of course, in the fullness of time, a pension. Not to mention, of course, the proud gold-ish chain."
Moist winced at this. "And if I don't do what you say?"
"Hmm? Oh, you misunderstand me, Mr. Lipwig. That is what will happen to you if you decline my offer. If you accept it, you will survive on your wits against powerful and dangerous enemies, with every day presenting fresh challenges. Someone may even try to kill you."
"You annoy people. A hat goes with the job, incidentally."
"And this job makes real money?"
"Nothing but money, Mr. Lipwig. It is, in fact, that of master of the Royal Mint."
In the time-honoured way of Ankh-Morpork institutions in need of an overhaul, the Mint is a decrepit shell that limps along with a desultory work ethic, two bob and a pickled egg in the way of resources, and a staff of eccentrics: a transsexual golem who goes by the name of Gladys and insists on wearing frilly aprons and making sandwiches, until Adora Belle gives her some feminist reading material; Mr Bent, a cashier with an aversion to sunlight, a suspiciously large wardrobe, and a truly OCD maths habit ("You could trust numbers, except perhaps for pi, but he was working on that in his spare time and it was bound to give in sooner or later"); and a small dog, who serves as the Mint's Chariman:
Watching a dog try to chew a large piece of toffee is a pastime fit for the gods. Mr. Fusspot's mixed ancestry had given him a dexterity of jaw that was truly awesome. He somersaulted happily around the floor, making faces like a rubber gargoyle in a washing machine.
Oh, and this wouldn't be a Pratchett book without the inevitable mysterious, gurgling machine in the basement - the aptly-named Glooper, watched over by an Igor - which uses hydraulics (it's a series of tubes!) to model the balance of payments and has Will Rumble Omniously For Most Of The Book And Then Explode Before The Climax written all over it.
Whatever the familiarity, though, it all builds into an entirely splendid farce that sees Adora Belle flirting with a dead wizard over ancient golem languages, an antagonist trying desperately to become Vetinari, a bunch of wizards demonstrating their eleven-dimension Cabinet of Curiosities (the wackier properties of which give literal meaning to the phrase "be there or be square"...), Moist breaking into his own bank vault, and the befuddled City Watch confronted by a seven-foot clay woman in a dress insisting that they wipe their feet before they can investigate.
Vetinari is on fine form, all silky, veiled, sarcastic dangerousness as usual:
"What's that round thing I always see poking out of the roof?" said Moist. "It makes it look like a piggy bank with a big coin stuck in the slot!"
"Oddly enough, it did used to be known as the Bad Penny," said Vetinari. "It is a large treadmill that provides power for the coin stamping and so forth. Powered by prisoners once upon a time, when 'community service' wasn't just a word. Or even two. It was considered cruel and unusual punishment, however, which does rather suggest a lack of imagination."
We also get a glimpse of what Vetinari gets up to in his spare time; adorably, he gets his secretary to time him at filling in sudoku puzzles (seventeen seconds). On the wizarding front, I can't imagine a junior academic in the land who wouldn't smirk a little at this:
Moist looked round at a young wizard, at least young by the standards of wizards, who had round spectacles, a clipboard, and the shiny sort of expression that says: I probably know more than you can possibly imagine but I am still reasonably happy to talk even to people like yourself.
"You're Ponder Stibbons, right?" said Moist. "The only one who does any work in the university?"
Other wizards turned their heads at this, and Ponder went red. "That's quite untrue! I just pull my weight, like any other member of the faculty," he said, but a slight tone to his voice suggested that perhaps the other faculty members had far too much weight and not enough pull.
Above and beyond all this, though, what is impressive is the way the plot and the themes of the novel gradually come to illuminate each other. Pratchett's joy in the use and manipulation of language, in the orchestration of wordplay to produce jokes, is as clear as ever, but in this instalment language - both spoken and written, and an especially as a source and expression of authority - is central. Moist is, of course, a conman by trade; he is frequently referred to as someone who plays with and shapes words, fostering others' belief through the tales that he tells and the way he tells them, repeatedly rescuing himself from scrapes with the gift of the gab (and just as often getting into them the same way). The Mint's reputation - and thus its fledgling career as a bank - rests on the rumours that are told about it, both by word of mouth and in the city's newspapers (in one sequence, the punters queuing in Moist's new bank are all reading a story in the Times about... the queue in Moist's bank). Moist's key scheme revolves around the introduction of paper money, which derives its authority - its wealth - in large part from what is printed on the scraps of paper.
And golems, of course, are brought to life, and commanded to act, by writing; the importance of words to the Discworld golems is signalled by the fact that every word they speak is headed with a capital letter. Herein lies Pratchett's single best - and almost throwaway - comic conceit in Making Money. What happens when golems start reading?
"I suppose a sandwich is totally out of—"
"I Really Must Get On With My Duties, Mr Lipwig," said the golem reproachfully.
"You know, Gladys, I can't help thinking that there's something different about you," said Moist.
"Yes! I Am Doing It For Myself," said Gladys, her eyes glowing.
"Doing what, exactly?"
"I Have Not Ascertained This Yet, But I Am Only Ten Pages Into The Book."
"Ah. You've been reading a new book? But not one by Lady Deirdre Waggon, I'll wager."
"No, Because She Is Out Of Touch With Modern Thought. I Laugh With Scorn."
"Yes, I imagine she would be," said Moist thoughtfully. "And I expect Miss Dearheart gave you said book?"
"Yes. It Is Entitled Why Men Get Under Your Feet By Releventia Flout," said Gladys earnestly.
And we start out with the best of intentions, thought Moist: find 'em out, dig 'em up, make 'em free. But we don't know what we're doing, or what we're doing it to.
"Gladys, the thing about books... well, the thing... I mean, just because it's written down, you don't have to... that is to say, it doesn't mean it's... what I'm getting at is that every book is--"
He stopped. They believe in words. Words give them life. I can't tell her that we just throw them around like jugglers, we change their meaning to suit ourselves...
He patted Gladys on the shoulder. "Well, read them all and make up your own mind, eh?"
"That Was Very Nearly Inappropriate Touching, Mr Lipwig."