‘Unseen Academicals’ – Terry Pratchett

I’m a fan of Pratchett’s work (though not to the extent of buying Sam Vimes artwork or Mustrum Ridcully figurines or any of the ‘Folklore of the Discworld’ books and suchlike), and so to state that I enjoyed this one very much is, perhaps, a given.

The books has two main themes – football, and its hold upon the masses; and (more seriously) bigotry and fear. Bigotry, and the importance of fighting it, has been an important theme of Pratchett’s books for quite a while now. Tolerance and understanding are emphasised – understanding of the good and the bad together, not just a vague mantra of “let’s all get on together, please”. Minor themes are that the safe thing to do is not always the best thing; the importance of good food; and the rivalry between the Unseen University and Brazenecks College.

To start, Pratchett begins at the Unseen University, where Ponder Stibbons discovers that, if the wizards do not play a game of football very shortly, they will lose a large amount of money which, he estimates, pays for 97% of the wizards’ food bill. The way he puts this forces the wizards to agree, and form a team (though foot-the-ball, as it is played now, bears little resemblance the game which we know, being violent and apparently closer to rugby). Through the machinations of Lord Vetinari, the city’s Patrician, football as Ankh-Morpockians know it is made to change (Pratchett has a lot of fun with this, particularly in the later part of the book, where the rules are being made up for this new version of football, and even succeeds in explaining the offside rule with simplicity and dash).

Also involved in this are Mister Nutt, a goblin who works as a candle dribbler at the university, but who will become more than that; his boss, Trevor Likely, who has fame as the son of Dave Likely, a footballing hero who scored two goals in one match – a feat unsurpassed by anyone before or since – as well as a phenomenal footballing skill himself; the dim but beautiful Juliet; and her friend Glenda, who is in charge of the night kitchen at the university. Not to mention the usual wizards, members of the City Watch, Vetinari and others.

Pratchett weaves the plot strands with care and skill, and is, as usual, very funny while doing so. The bickering between the wizards, and descriptions of their arcane world is well done, and the growth and change of Nutt, Trevor and Glenda in particular are touching. I think this is one of the things that makes Pratchett’s books so good – yes, they make you laugh, but there’s more than jokes and slapstick. It’s the care with which he makes the reader like Nutt, and appalled by the unthinking hate which assails him on discovering his real identity, for example.

It’s actually reminding me of the debate I’ve read about recently (but in which I didn’t actually take part) about how, in fiction of any kind, does the author portray the bad guys? If he or she gives them no motivation for how they behave, and holds out no possibility for change or redemption? Obviously it’s bad writing, but does it also say anything about the author and his or her attitudes to the world and the people in it? In ‘Unseen Academicals’, Pratchett is saying that bad guys do exist, but they’re often not the people you think, and that everyone should be given chances to change for the better; as well as maintaining that mindless prejudice, based on hearsay and rumour, rather than strictly on the facts, is as evil as any dictator trying to rule the world with fear and terror.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it unreservedly: even if you don’t like football.

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