THE BEST THING I CAN SAY ABOUT THE LAST CONTINENT is that it’s nice. It’s not uncomfortable like its predecessor, Interesting Times. It isn’t disappointing. It has a fun timey wimey twist. It is a competent book, a fine book. If there were a Valhalla for Pratchett tomes, this one would have settled down in a comfy chair in the anteroom and gotten so distracted by one of the magazines that it never heard its name called.
The lovely thing is that this is OK. This book doesn’t aim for searing commentary (Australians—nice people), terrifying darkness (just say No worries), or emotional depth (What a funny little island on which we’re doomed to die, eh?). It doesn’t attempt these things, it doesn’t achieve these things, and it’s a lot of fun.
In fact, The Last Continent takes some pride in being good at its job, where its job is being just pretty OK. It’s a bit of a self-professed B-movie in the Discworldcanon. Everything set on the island is at least comedy silver and, hm, philosophical tinfoil? It keeps its shape, it works, you can wrap up your food in it…it’s not deep stuff, but there’s something kind of beautiful about that. How many authors wouldn’t kill for a whole series of books about the God of Evolution? I should feel aghast at the way Pratchett shapes his ideas like beautiful pottery, paints ’em, fires ’em, and then pitches them over one shoulder with a splintering crash. But I’m not. The man is a talentbeast, and can’t seem to get any one idea offscreen fast enough to introduce the next great one. I have to admire that.
So The Last Continent is a nice, harmless book. But what makes it just quite nice and good (and other terms of faint praise) and not great?
For me, at least one reason has to do personal taste, and with darkness. I like dark stories more than light stories, to the serial befuddlement of family and friends. I was a rapt viewer of Battlestar Galactica, for instance—a show so terminally hopeless that the tiniest of hopeful moments shone like beacons. The death toll mounts, a ship is lost, the end of the world happened yesterday, and then the president smiles, all aquiver because a child is born. Wow!
The story builds up such narrative force going in one direction that even the subtlest shift in another direction registers on my internal Richter scale of English major satisfaction. So, for me, the most compelling stories are those in which light makes its egress through overwhelming dark. The light is earned.
(Then again, I like rainy days and feel vaguely disgruntled on sunny ones, so maybe it’s just a thing with me?)
At any rate, I always find myself trying to piece together the moral topography of fictional universes. Figuring out the interplay between light and dark and the shades between is a little like opening up a machine and looking at its motherboard and discovering how the whole thing works, what it can do, what is possible and impossible. It’s one reason I’m drawn to Tolkien, who writes in The Lord of the Rings that “Always after a despite and a respite, the shadow takes another shape and grows again.” I’m sure that Tolkien’s war experience and religious affiliation informed that statement, but I like it because it takes a pragmatic view on what light can achieve. “Happily ever after” is great in theory, but the whole of human history has argued perforce against it.
When I first started reading Pratchett, I was so swept up by the humor that I stumbled when I encountered one line in Reaper Man: “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” There was the motherboard laid out, a clear telegraphing of Discworld’s moral topography. But the books were so funny! They always ended so well! How could the universe be that dark at its core?
As our conversations on this blog have indicated, the world having an ineluctably high suckage quotient is fundamental to the stories Pratchett tells. The best Pratchett characters are always striving against the dark, or at least wading through the chaff.
But how does a book like The Last Continent map onto that moral topography? It isn’t as dark as other entries, and certainly lacks in the more despicable evils that other characters in other story arcs face. If anything, it’s so light that the humor becomes the dominant note of the piece, like a lot of rigging heaped on a very small rowboat on a very still pond. But maybe that’s the nature of a Rincewind story this late in his arc: Rincewind always flees and evades darkness.
How does Rincewind survive in this book? By making No worries his mantra, and it isn’t just him this time.
Mrs. Whitlow? Pratchett notes her ability to block out things that she doesn’t want to deal with because “She’d decided a long time ago that the world was a lot nicer that way.”
The Lecturer in Recent Runes? He chooses ignorance over knowledge because “It saves so much trouble in the long run.”
The wizards generally? As Pratchett and Ponder tell us, they squabble about a given threat until it has “got bored and gone away.”
For the majority of characters in this book, ignoring problems is the key to survival and sanity. Most of our key characters are in some way stolidly unwilling to treat with reality, or easily distracted from it by mundane details. Darkness might always push inward at the edges, but an almost unthinking resistance to darkness takes center stage. A darkness allergy, if you will.
So I think I find this book to be a little too uniformly humorous and too allergic to darkness to be a really great book; the bright bits don’t shine as brightly as they would against a gloomier backdrop. Again, that’s OK. That’s what the book seems to want to be, and I value it as such.
But eventually, that narrative model encounters some issues. If Rincewind genuinely grew as a character and stopped running away, he’d no longer be Rincewind. There’s no great option for him to change direction now. His character emerged into his first story in The Colour of Magic moving at a terminal velocity, and now the ground is coming up fast. At the same time, I think you can see just how much Pratchett loves writing for the other wizards, based on their increasing presence in these books. There’s an inevitably tension there: Rincewind travels farther afield, but the rest of the wizards just want to stay home. The resulting book pulls in two directions, and, sooner or later, one of them probably wins out.
And so it was that I closed this book with the sinking feeling that this was the last time we’d see the Great Wizzard in a title role. To the best of my knowledge, this is his last big story. And contrary to all my frustrations and annoyances with him throughout this arc, I’m a little sad.
There’s a peculiar innocence-by-way-of-weariness, a parsimony of worldview, in this mild man who runs and runs and doesn’t look back. His lot in life is a kind of resigned unhappiness coupled with a certainty that the world ought to be better made than it is, and now that story has ended. As much as I look forward to digging into the darkness at the heart of some of these other stories, to see Granny spar with Death, or Vimes spar with Death…or Tiffany spar with Death…or Death spar with…Death…um…in other words, as much as I think that light soars when the darkness is strongest, I will…miss…Rincewind. There. I said it.
So goodbye for now, Rincewind. When we meet again, I think I’ll enjoy your story just that little bit more.
Don’t look back.
And keep running.