Nation by Terry Pratchett (2009) (read in 2019)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the story of Mau. It is also the story of Daphne née Ermintrude. There are also the priest Ataba, the strong woman Chale, the brothers Pilu and Milo on the island. The island is known as the Nation. Actually, it is the people who are the Nation. The island is where the Nation lives.
As Mau is on his way back from another island on which he underwent his manhood ritual, a giant wave sweeps him up and carries him back to the Nation. It is a truly titanic wave and it sweeps away everyone he’s ever known—they were all sleeping on the beach, awaiting his return.
Mau is young, but resourceful. He enters a fugue state to take care of all of the bodies left on the island. He wakes to a mango on a plate next to him.
The plate had been delivered to him by Daphne, the lone surviving member of the crew and passengers of the Sweet Judy, a ship that the wave deposited deep in the only forest on the Nation. Daphne and Mau meet and join forces to try to survive on the island.
More wave-survivors straggle ashore over the next days and weeks. They struggle with their future, mostly fighting about what it means for the Gods to have allowed the wave to sweep away everything.
They scavenge the Judy for supplies—Mau is concerned that they are relying to strongly on “trouserman” inventions. He wonders why his people never invented anything so spectacular. They discover secrets on the island; Mau’s curiosity and skepticism leads to more conclusions than anyone’s made about his culture in a long time. Daphne does the same—she is a scientist, taught by her father—but from the Women’s Place.
The world on the outside is pressing in: England is without a King and a long, long line of successors have dropped like flies, leaving Daphne’s father as King, and Daphne as Princess. She doesn’t find out until late in the game. They must first attend to the matter of the Raiders—a cannibal tribe—who’ve joined up with the surviving remnants of the part of Judy’s crew that mutinied before the wave.
The world here is an alternate version of the Pacific in 1860, called the Pelagic Ocean, with a smattering of amusingly named islands. The society and history feels very familiar, different enough for distance, but close enough to make satirical and insightful observations about our own reality.
That is the skeleton of story on which Pratchett’s writing hangs. It is highly interesting, but it’s not the best part of the book. The best parts are the ruminations about science, multiple worlds, Gods, death and history. As with the Discworld books, Pratchett is just as interested in the subtext as in the story. He puts the interesting bits in the folds of the shrouds hanging on the story.
As in the Discworld books, there are a slew of good characters, each with delightful internal monologues. There are bad ones as well, funny and insightful in their own way (e.g. Cox). It seems that Pratchett books are Pratchett books, no matter where they’re set. A lovely read. Highly recommended.
“In the forest, something heard. And in the hidden firelight, sharp metal gleamed. Light died in the west. Night and tears took the Nation. The star of Water drifted among the clouds like a murderer softly leaving the scene of the crime.”
“Mau knew how make a spear, from picking a shaft to chipping a good sharp point. And when he’d finished, it was truly his, every part of it. The metal spear would be a lot better, but it would just be a . . . a thing. If it broke, he wouldn’t know how to make another one.”
“So we’re not much better than the red crabs, Mau thought, as they dragged a heavy box down to the beach. The figs fall out of the trees, and that’s all they know. Can’t we be better than them?”
“But obviously she wasn’t going to take off her bodice or her pantaloons or her stockings. This was no time to go totally mad. You had to Maintain Standards.”
“We never thought of pliers because we didn’t need them. Before you make something that is truly new, you first have to have a new thought. That’s the important thing. We didn’t need new things, so we didn’t think new thoughts.”
“Why can’t I do this? Mau thought. Where are my tears when I need them? Maybe the wave took them. Maybe Locaha drank them, or I left them in the dark water. But I can’t feel them. Perhaps you need a soul to cry.”
“He dealt with troubling thoughts by simply not thinking them; it was as if someone had put a dog’s brain in a boy’s body, and right now, Mau would have given anything to be him.”
“He’d looked at all the haggard faces, all of them willing him to say yes. Say yes, Mau, and betray your father and your uncles and your nation, just so that people would have a reason.”
“Things happen or do not happen, thought Mau, and he felt the deep water open up under him. The sunlight shone blue through the waves above, but below Mau it was green, shading to black. And there was Ataba, hanging in the light, not moving. Blood uncoiled in the water around him like smoke from a slow fire.”
“When a shark is coming at you, you are already dead, old Nawi had said, and since you were already dead, then anything was worth trying.”
“Without quite being able to put words to it, Mau felt that being mysterious and a little dangerous was not a bad thing right now.”
“That’s what the gods are! An answer that will do! Because there’s food to be caught and babies to be born and life to be lived and so there is no time for big, complicated, and worrying answers! Please give us a simple answer, so that we don’t have to think, because if we think, we might find answers that don’t fit the way we want the world to be.”
“But Pilu had unfolded the story of the shark like Mr. Griffith had preached. He had unfolded a picture in the air and then made it move. Was it true? Had it really happened like that? But how could it not be true, now? They had been there. They had seen it. They had shared it.”
“Daphne had read in one of her books about the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean islands that “with a few regrettable examples, the larger and more fearsome the spider is, the less likely it is to be venomous.” She didn’t believe it. She could see Regrettable Examples everywhere, and she was sure that some of them were drooling.”
““I don’t think it’s true, though,” said Mau. Daphne nodded, and then thought a bit more. “Perhaps things can be true in special ways?” she suggested. “No. People say that when they want to believe lies,””
“She stood up, with one of the Sweet Judy’s lamps in each hand.
““One red one and one green one,” she said. “The spare port and starboard lights. Sorry about that, but we haven’t got very many cabin lamps left, and we’re short of oil.”
““What about that white lamp next to you?” asked Mau. “Yes, that’s the one I’m going to bring,” said the ghost girl, “and to save time, shall we pretend we’ve had the argument and I won?””
““I would be obliged if you would stop being concerned,” Ataba snapped. “I know what is happening. It starts with knives and cooking pots, and suddenly we belong to the trousermen, yes, and you send priests and our souls do not belong to us.”
““I’m not doing anything like that!”
““And when your father comes in his big boat? What will happen to us then?”
““I . . . don’t know,” said Daphne, which was better than telling the truth. We do tend to stick flags in places, she had to admit it herself. We do it almost absentmindedly, as though it’s a sort of chore.”
“The difference between the trousermen and the Raiders is that sooner or later the cannibals go away!”
““That’s a terrible thing to say!” said Daphne hotly. “We don’t eat people!”
““There are different ways to eat people, girl, and you are clever, oh yes, clever enough to know it. And sometimes the people don’t realize it’s happened until they hear the belch!””
“Daphne ran to stop Ataba from seeing her face. Her father, well, he was a decent man but, well, this century was a game of empires, apparently, and no little island was allowed to belong to itself. What would Mau do if someone stuck a flag on his beach?”
““I don’t know! Don’t you think I haven’t asked them?” Tears started to roll down Ataba’s cheeks. “You think I am a man alone? I haven’t seen my daughter or her children since the wave. Do you hear what I say? It is not all about you! I envy your rage, demon boy. It fills you up! It feeds you, gives you strength. But the rest of us listen for the certainty, and there is nothing. Yet in our heads we know there must be . . . something, some reason, some pattern, some order, so we call upon the silent gods, because they are better than the darkness.“”
““Yeah, we got four loaded pistols, missie,” said Polegrave, waving one at her, “and they’ll stop anything, you hear?”
““They won’t stop the fifth man, Mr. Polegrave.””
““Why did you kill an old man who was shaking a stick at you? You shoot at people without a thought and you call them savages!”
“The captain had told her that if Cox’s men won, she should fire the pistol into the barrel “to save her honor,” though she was uncertain how much a saved honor would be worth when it was falling out of the sky in tiny pieces, along with the rest of the cabin.”
““No! It’s been turned into a story. The moons are real! So are the rings! Your ancestors saw them, and I wish I knew how. Then they made up these songs and mothers sing them to their children! That’s how the knowledge gets passed down, except that you didn’t know it was knowledge! See how the gods shine? There are little plates of glass all over them. Your ancestors made glass. I’ve got an idea about that, too. Mau,”
“Daphne had been taken to the ballet several times by her grandmother, who wanted to make sure she grew up to be a proper lady and not marry a godless scientist. She’d been bored silly, and the dancers were nothing like as graceful as she had expected. But Mau walked as if every part of his body knew where it was and where it was going to and exactly how fast it had to go to get there.”
“First Mate Cox came toward them, smiling like someone greeting a long-lost friend who owed him money.”
“Everything that can happen must happen, and everything that can happen must have a world to happen in. That is why Imo builds so many worlds that there are not enough numbers to count them. That is why His fire glows so red. Good-bye, Mau. I look forward with interest to our next meeting.”
““He told me that there were more worlds than there are numbers. There is no such thing as ‘does not happen.’ But there is always ‘happened somewhere else’—” He tried to explain, while she tried to understand.”
““I think people will say it belongs to the world.” “And they will be thinking like thieves. We have no right to it at all. But if we don’t act like stupid bullies, I’m sure they will be gracious.””
““All the red places belong to the English trousermen?” Mau asked.
““Yup,” said Pilu.
““That’s a lot of places!”
““They’re not too bad,” said Pilu. “Mostly they want you to wear trousers and worship their god. He’s called God.”
““Just . . . God?”
““Right. He’s got a son who is a carpenter, an’ if you worship him, you climb the shining path when you die. The songs is nice and sometimes you get a biscuit.””
““Other people will come. Some will have guns,” said Mau thoughtfully.
““True,” said Pilu.
““There is a lot of the yellow gold in the cave. Trousermen like it because it shines. They are like children.””
“For the sake of the game [Cahle] was banned from bowling after Daphne’s father explained that women should not really be allowed to play cricket because they fundamentally didn’t understand it. But it seemed to Daphne that Cahle understood it very well, and therefore tried to get it over with as quickly as possible so that they could get on with something more interesting, since in her opinion the world was overwhelmingly full of things that were more interesting than cricket.”
““Ah, and here is Her Ladyship now,” said Mr. Black, quite unnecessarily in Daphne’s view. He added: “She [Daphne’s Grandmother] was wonderful company on the voyage out here. The nautical miles just flew past.” The little smile on his face was a masterpiece.”
““Ah, you’ve got it right at last, Mother,” said the king.
““I’m me, not us. I am I, not we. One pair of buttocks on the throne, one head in the crown. You, on the other hand, are a sharp-tongued harridan with the manners of a fox and don’t interrupt me when I’m talking!
“How dare you insult our hosts! And before you utter a word, contemplate this: You treasure your elevation above what you call the lower classes, whom I’ve always found to be pretty decent people once they’ve had a chance to have a bath.
“Well, I am king, you see—king—and the very notion of nobility that you cling to like grim death means that you will not answer me back. You will, however, act with grace and gratitude during the remainder of our stay in this place.
“Who knows, it may speak to you as it has spoken to me. And if you are even now putting together a scathing remark, let me point out for your lengthy consideration the wonderful and highly advisable option of silence. That is a command!””
““I notice you didn’t laugh, Mr. Black!”
““No, Your Majesty. We are forbidden to laugh at the things kings say, sire, because otherwise we would be at it all day.””
“There is no better medicine than finding out that you are wrong!”
““Do you believe in Imo, sir?” asked the boy.
““Ah, the usual question. We come to it at last. You know Mau said that Imo made us clever enough to work out that He does not exist?””
“One of the things he said was:
“‘I cursed Imo because he gave the birds and animals a way to sense great waves, and didn’t give it to smart beings like us. But I realize that He did. He made us smart. It was up to us to be good at it!’
“I think about that every time the seismograph beeps. But I’m not really answering you, am I?” The chair creaked. “Everything I know makes me believe Imo is in the order that is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe.”
““In Imo?” asked the girl.
“This got a smile. “Perhaps. I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.””
“The greatest scientists in the world have taught here for generations, he thought as he made himself a cup of tea, and still our children ask us: Are there ghosts? What a piece of work is Man. . .”