AIBC: Going Postal: Theme and World

00004-Going Postal

Pratchett’s stories are tremendously fun comic romps, but there are serious themes beneath them. Sometimes he descends into theme-mongering, but in Going Postal, he deals with a light but still savage hand with the capitalist mindset that greed is good and only the strong survive. This is irony at it’s finest since protagonist Moist’s entire life is based on greed and duplicity and yet he’s the one who defeats the perfectly named Reacher Gilt and keeps communication in Ankh Morpork, if not free, then definitely flowing with efficiency and speed that is not hobbled by inefficiency and greed. (He goes on to have Moist save the banking system before it crashes in Making Money, predating the 2008 stock market crash by a year.)

You’d think that that kind of cutting satire wouldn’t be funny, but Pratchett has fantasy on his side; one of the strongest aspects of his thematic work is that it takes place on Discworld, which is right up there with Narnia and Middle Earth as a place that doesn’t exist but really should. Or maybe it does: it’s very easy to see the parallels to New York and London in Ankh Morpork, the chaos of international relations in that city-state’s dealing with other countries that bear suspicious likenesses to places like Australia. Pratchett’s world-building grows out of his satire, he creates countries to make his points, but it’s still brilliant world building, even if you wouldn’t want to visit any of the places he’s built.

If you want a slightly more formal book club start, try these questions:

1. Theme is a universal statement about the human condition. It has no moral dimension, so it can be “Crime doesn’t pay” or it can be “Crime does pay.” There’s a good argument to be made that theme should be embodied in the protagonist, not spelled out on the page but made clear by his or her actions in the story. Our protagonist Moist also has no moral dimension. Does that help or hinder his ability to embody theme by his actions?

2. How is the theme of Going Postal strengthened or weakened by its doppelganger protagonist and antagonist?

3. The line between theme enhancing a story and theme-mongering sinking a story is a very narrow one. It helps that Pratchett tends to use a light hand and to cast his themes in very clear contrasts of Good Guys and Bad Guys. Even so, sometimes he oversteps and the theme crowds out the story. Was there any point here where you felt, “Okay, okay, I GET IT,” or were you with him all the way? Why?

Going Postal

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31 thoughts on “AIBC: Going Postal: Theme and World

  1. I can only quote the following: “Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys.” -Nate Ford

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  2. What is moral dimension vs. moral center?
    I always felt that Moist did have a moral center, however miniscule. When he starts to realize that his past actions have impacted real people his attitude changes. His criminality was always just a way to make a living, justified by his “Everyone’s out for themselves” mentality.
    Reacher wants power; he enjoys hurting people and he loves money. He’s got a classic psychopath mentality in that people are just things to him.

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    1. Good question.
      I think everybody has a moral dimension, a projection of morality as part of personality, a part of the way they define themselves.

      The moral center, I think, is the part within that says, “This far and no farther.”

      But I think they’re so close that they’re pretty much the same thing.

      Moist’s approach was that he only stole from banks and rich people and stupid people, and therefore wasn’t hurting the innocent. But of course, he was, the repercussions of his crimes were huge, he just couldn’t see that far. When Adorabelle showed him, he was appalled. He didn’t HURT people, but he had.

      I think it also comes into play in the way he handles the post office. He sees life as a game, but it’s a game with rules. The post office is another game, but again it has huge repercussions, and this time he sees them. And hears them when the mail whispers to him. And for once, he’s in a place where his cons work for the good: he invents stamps and changes not just the post office for the better, but the economy and people’s lives (stamp collecting!). He’s finally in a place where his talents are actually beneficial: it takes a conman to bring a post office back from the dead and sell it to people.

      There’s a place in there, must go look for it, where he looks at Reacher Gilt and realizes that Gilt has attained conman greatness, and he feels humbled in his presence because he’ll never be that great, but it’s because he can never be that evil. His moral center keeps him from achieving that.

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      1. That’s the part I was thinking of, where Moist thinks “I know you. I know how you think, I know what you’ll do” because he sees some of himself in Reacher. But even as he admires Reacher’s advanced con-man skills he sees the ruthlessness that he himself lacks. He doesn’t realize yet that he’s changed- before he probably would have tried to work for Reacher. But now he thinks “no. You’re not going to hurt these people” and he’s willing to be the one who stops him. That’s a big turning point in his character, I think.

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        1. I think it’s a big turning point in his worldview. He never stepped back to see the big picture before.
          I also think he’s never been part of a community before, and the post office gives him that. When he opens the place up, people come to him. Stanley depends on him. The other postmen admire him. Adorabelle is there. He’s not dashing through, these people who are driving him crazy are his people, damn it.
          And it’s a serious high that they all think he’s wonderful.

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  3. Another difference between Moist and Reacher is scale. Until he’s running the post office, Moist has only run small time cons. He stays somewhere a short time, inveigles his way into someone’s confidence, cheats them, and gets out. Reacher’s con with the grand trunk is on a vastly different scale–he becomes a part of Ankh Morpork society, invests money, hires lawyers, etc. I think that’s why Moist brings Reacher down–Reacher never takes him seriously (I know, I know, he sends the banshee after him but I think that’s just disliking being crossed not believing Moist is really a threat).

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    1. I agree. The banshee is just taking out the trash.
      I also agree about the scale. I think that’s why Moist is so taken with Reacher, he’s the Alexander the Great of conmen.
      Of course, Moist also pulls a massive con all the way through: He brings back the post office just on sheer chutzpah.

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  4. This was my first Pratchett, and the world-building rather knee-capped the story for me. The author kept adding new (to me) properties/possibilities of that world – the sorting machine that was a time machine, for instance. Therefore I could never tell how much jeopardy the characters were in; it was always possible that some conceit I hadn’t yet come across would save the day.

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    1. He has an interesting approach to magic, articulately clearly in this book and others, that it’s very powerful but there’s always a price, which is why it’s best left to the pros (in this case the wizards) who are smart enough not to use it. The work of Bloody Stupid Johnson shows up pretty regularly, but I think it’s well-established that aside from that, there are rules.

      I think the big Hello? in this one is theme-based: Words have power and can distort reality. That’s very true in real life, but Pratchett takes it a step farther so that the whispering letters create memories of floors where there are none, the history of the post office below. That’s in sync with the Library at Unseen University which is known as the L-space because of the effect of all the words in there; if you go into the stacks in the L-space, you take a ball of string and unwind it as you go so you can find your way back. (Anybody who’s ever gotten lost in the stacks of a very big, very old library can relate).

      I love that theme for obvious reasons–I’m an English major and a writer–but I love it as a fictional idea here because of course that what’s Moist and Reacher use as weapons. In the end, nobody shoots anybody, nobody beats anybody up. Moist grandstands with speeches in a gold suit and people are mesmerized by his words. Reacher fights back in the new, and people are lulled by his words. Moist sends the Last Message across the trunks and people are outraged by his words and Reacher falls. Pratchett isn’t just saying, “Look how smart and interesting this idea is,” he uses it to tell his story, it’s embedded in the narrative, which means it’s never theme-mongering.

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      1. I can see he’s great at world-building, as you say; but as an incomer I couldn’t grasp the boundaries of the world. I guess that’s almost inevitable if you drop into a series like this; otherwise he’d have to do an infuriating amount of repetition from book to book.

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        1. I can see that, absolutely.

          I can’t remember whether I started with Small Gods or Feet of Clay. Feet of Clay was a good entry point even though it’s the third or fourth Watch book because it’s a murder mystery. The cops are odd as all hell–there’s a zombie and werewolf–but they’re doing a basic mystery.

          Small Gods, on the other hand, was so off the wall I remember closing the book and thinking, “What did I just read?” I loved it, but I had no idea how all of that happened; as you said, I couldn’t see the boundaries of the world.

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          1. I think Guards! Guards! is a good book to start with, you get the Watch, and you can read backwards, Mort, Pyramids, Moving Pictures, as well to get the world.

            Why yes, I’m a Pratchett fan.

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  5. This was my first Prachett as well, and the world building didn’t bother me. I liked it far better than any of the other Prachetts I have read, and I think there were two reasons for this – Moist is such a distinctive character that I was interested in him right off, though liking came later. Some other stories I had a harder time figuring out who the people were, perhaps because I am not reading the books in order, so I am missing things I should have known.

    The revitalization of the post office plot was the part that really got me going though – and the whole culture of the trunks, and the renegade clackers (is that what we call them?) I think it is by far the strongest plot of any of the books I have read so far. There is such a sense of “something happening” and people changing, growing, getting excited, etc.

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    1. The plotting is beautifully done.
      I do think it helps that although Ankh Morpork is established in the earlier books, this is Moist’s first dance.

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      1. This is also the first book with actual chapters, and illustrations of the stamps.

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  6. Jenny said: “I think the big Hello? in this one is theme-based: Words have power and can distort reality.”

    And the theme is reflected in the text in big ways and small ways. For example, this quote made me laugh out loud – I believe it was in reaction to a news release that Reacher sent out:

    “You had to admire the way innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter for him, although “synergistically” had probably been a whore from the start.”

    So many of those pearls through out the book. Maybe you should start a threat for favorite lines. I have a bunch 🙂

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    1. Pratchett is famous for those lines that just reverberate. Feel free to put yours in the comments here.

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  7. Okay then!

    Here’s a character description that made me sit up because it captured this guy’s essence without loading it down with unimportant physical descriptions or quirks. I swear, I’ve known this guy:

    ” … a big, outdoors sort of man who’s got no patience at all with fibbers, but will applaud any man who can tell an outrageous whopper with a gleam in his eye. He gave the impression of restraining himself, with difficulty, from killing you.”

    And I thought this was surprisingly poignant. I think it was Moist’s description of how people leave themselves open to a con:

    “Hope. It could be you. But it wouldn’t be.”

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  8. One of the things that I love about Discworld is how achingly familiar it is and yet how completely alien. Not to mention terrifying.

    I love seeing them invent and discover things – stamps and tourism and travel guides and music with rocks in it.

    Pratchett says in his book on Disc mythology (and Roundworld mythology) is basically that if it’s fiction here, it’s fact there. Of course you want a zombie lawyer, he’s been around for a while. Tea totalling vampires make sense because that’s how you know the good guys. Wizards do silly things like turn their librarian into an orangutan while witches trim old men’s toenails [Nac Mac Feegles (who are Pictsies) use the trimmings as swords] and yet both do magic, just different kinds. Magic on the Disc isn’t going to save you, it’s going to get you into more trouble and desert you when you need it most. You’ve got to save yourself, even if you need magic to do it.

    And then there’s the agreement between Carrot and Vetinari.

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      1. He’s in the Watch books.
        He first comes to Ankh Morpork in Guards! Guards! which is wonderful, and then it just gets better.
        Men at Arms
        Feet of Clay
        Jingo
        The Fifth Elephant
        Night Watch
        Thud
        Snuff

        But really he turns up in a lot of the others like The Truth (which is where we first meet Sacharissa the reporter) because he’s a cop.

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      2. Also, there’s a short story in which Carrot is the protagonist. You can read it online here: http://www.lspace.org/books/toc/toc-english.html

        I just re-read it, and realized I hadn’t gotten half the references in it until just now. And it makes me think of the first Ben Aaronovitch “Rivers of London” novel that I’m pretty sure has some strong Pratchett influences. (Anyone else a big Aaronovitch fan?) I believe there’s even a shout-out to Pratchett in one of the Aaronovitch books, where the protagonist quotes Pratchett, not expecting his sidekick to get it, and she says she has read some of the Pratchett books. Anyway, while Aaronovitch is not Pratchett and his books aren’t even Pratchett-like, fans of Pratchett might like the Rivers of London books. (And the audio versions with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith are brilliant!)

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        1. Loved the first one, liked the second one, intrigued by the third one, and kind of disappointed in the fourth. Which does not mean I will not be reading the fifth as soon as it comes out.
          He lost me a little bit on the antagonist in the first one–I had a “Wait, huh?” moment–but I thought it was great. And the big reveal at the end of the third was a stunner.

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  9. Pratchett’s emphasis on words and story are a through line for all of Discworld. That humans are made of stories, that we need stories to survive, to thrive, to guide us in dark times and remind us how to celebrate the bright times. Most of the Witches books center on the stories people tell themselves and others about the world, and how those can be used for good or ill.

    At the end of Hogfather he draws this very clear distinction between the return of the sun at the winter solstice and a giant ball of flaming gas roaring to itself in space as a planet spins around it. (I think he got flustered sometimes and forgot seasons and solstices and months and so forth would have to be SO different on a disc, and then he and others back-filled a lot of [mostly unnecessary] details on the mechanics of the thing.)

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    1. That reminds me of part of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the children meet an old man who was once a star, as in celestial body. The children say that in their universe, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas, and the man says that even in our world, a start is not just a ball of flaming gas.

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  10. One of my favorite quotes from Hogfather:
    HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

    Pratchett, Terry. Hogfather (Discworld Book 20) (p. 408). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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