I resisted reading Unseen Academicals for a long time.
For one, I’d heard bad things about the book. A sign of Pratchett succumbing to Alzheimer’s, people said.
Also—it’s about sports. I don’t hate sports—my favorite sport to watch is hockey, with its alarmingly interesting combination of violence and artfulness. And I’m pretty athletic in a don’t-go-near-me-I’m-being-athletic kind of way. But I’ve never glommed on to watching or playing team sports, and the human tendency to congregate in stadiums, drink watery beer, and watch people chase projectiles around has always been a big ??? to me. The fact that Unseen Academicals is 75% sports didn’t thrill me.
And when you’ve cycled fifteen miles  to the library in the heat of summer, uphill both ways barefoot in the snow, and you’re sweaty and disheveled and staring at the Discworld books and one has a flaming elephant on the cover and one has a football, well, flaming elephants are going to win. So I never read it.
And man, I am sorry I didn’t read it before. It’s great.
Unseen Academicals is, honestly, my favorite Discworld book in this arc, and possibly somewhere around fifteenth out of the forty-odd books in my mental ranking. I suspect many of you might, by sheer probability, not share this view. So let me explain how I view this book, and why I loved it.
On Losing One’s Mind
First of all, we need to address a major criticism I’ve seen about this book, and about Pratchett’s post-diagnosis writing generally. It’s accurate to say that these books tend to be wordier, less slapsticky, and more didactic—even sermonic. Arguably, these stories are also more violent.
So, yes, Pratchett’s writing changed. But I don’t want to so quickly attribute that change to mental degradation, to a man losing a grip on his art—rather than, say, the way one’s thinking changes when confronted with illness.
Contrary to what is often said, the Pratchett writing Unseen Academicals wasn’t losing his memory. Posterior Cortical Atrophy first affects not the memory centers of the brain but the occipital lobe. Quoth Pratchett:
“PCA manifests itself through sight problems, and difficulty with topological tasks, such as buttoning up a shirt. I have the opposite of a superpower; sometimes I cannot see what is there. I see the teacup with my eyes, but my brain refuses to send me the teacup message. It’s very Zen. First, there is no teacup and then, because I know there is a teacup, the teacup will appear the next time I look. I have little work-arounds to deal with this sort of thing – people with PCA live in a world of work-arounds.”
Imagine the burden of living in a world in which tea cups and the buttons on your shirt disappear in front of you. I can think of few crueler ironies than being a writer and watching the keys on your keyboard disappear, but that’s what happened to Pratchett. That Pratchett kept writing is remarkable; that he wrote five more Discworld books, Dodger, and four Long Earth books with Stephen Baxter is an incredible feat. The emphatic morality of his text, the lengthy dialogue, the soberness of tone—I’d like to think of these changes in Unseen Academicals and other later books as the texture of spectacular human perseverance in a world that has no answers for your disease.
I am in speculative territory, and I might be wrong. But it seems to me almost too easy to look at a book like Unseen Academicals and dismiss it as different because its author might be sliding into mental oblivion. It makes more sense, given Pratchett’s unique form of Alzheimer’s, to think of the changes to Discworld as how one’s writing transforms when anger, pain, and ineluctable helplessness become the substance in which one swims.
Shifting the Register of the Disc
Thinking along these lines opens up interesting possibilities as a reader. What if we think of these differences not as a symptom but as a shift of register brought about by a shift of worldview? Take, for instance, the following passage from Unseen Academicals, in which Ridcully,
the Dean Henry, and Vetinari discuss the orc problem while at a banquet.
‘We are going to have to do something. The expedition found a nest of the damn things!’
‘Yes. Children, which they killed,’ said Vetinari.
‘Pups that they exterminated!’
‘Indeed? And what do you suggest?’
‘We are talking about a very evil force here!’
‘Archchancellor, I see evil when I look in my shaving mirror. It is, philosophically, present everywhere in the universe in order, apparently, to highlight the existence of good. I think there is more to this theory, but I tend to burst out laughing at this point. I take it that you are behind the idea of an expeditionary force to Far Uberwald?’
‘Of course!’ said the former Dean.
‘It has been tried once before. It was tried twice before that. Why is there a certain cast of the military mind which leads sensible people to do again, with gusto, what didn’t work before?’
‘Force is all they understand. You must know that.’
‘Force is all that’s been tried, Archchancellor Henry. Besides, if they are animals, as some people claim, then they understand nothing, but if, as I am convinced, they are sapient creatures, then some understanding is surely required by us.’
The Patrician took a sip of his beer. ‘I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built in to the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.’
The two wizards exchanged a glance. Vetinari was staring into the depths of his beer mug and they were glad that they did not know what he saw in there.
‘Is it me or is it rather dark in here?’ said Henry.
This passage illustrates some of the changes. The discussion of race and humanity is explicit rather than teasing and fleet-footed, Vetinari’s dialogue not pithy and brief but monologuesque. Yet the Dean continues the long Pratchett tradition of giving hero characters blindspots that make them, well, inevitably human. And despite the length, Vetinari remains precise, incisive, and very Vetinari. I don’t see this passage as an assault on the integrity of the characters by a failing mind—but simply a writer reading his characters through different eyes. We saw them one way, now here’s a different way to see them. Viewing it this way makes me think harder about who these characters are, as though holding up two documents printed on transparencies and examining the overlaps.
It’s as though I’m coming back to the Disc and finding it changed by years and progress. It’s the same, it’s different, it’s harder and grimmer—it offers its own rewards.
OK, I get Sports Now
There’s much else I could say about this book. I find something poignant and relatable about Mr. Nutt’s earnest nervousness about whether he has achieved worth. I find Glenda’s discoveries about how her strengths harm others surprising and rather sharply written. The send-up of academia is spot-on. There’s more than a little gender-bending and a tacit statement that being gay is fine. Race is considered at length.
And, perhaps most surprising to me, this book made me understand why congregating at sporting events could be fun—more than any sporting event ever has. I even ended up drawing this revelation for my intro post to this book.
Honestly, that’s a respectable list of accomplishments for a book written by a writer living in a tortured world of distressing invisibilities.
As a whole, I can view Unseen Academicals as either a book to itself or as an artifact of a writer in distress and not find it wanting either way. In both cases, I think the story it tells is similar: something about the choice between thriving and drifting, and the small togethernesses and forgivenesses that are necessary currency among those who choose to go on living.
1. I know that’s always part of the uphill-both-ways story, but really, it was fifteen miles.
2. I Shall Wear Midnight, for instance, has perhaps one of the most disturbing and distressing scenes in all of Pratchett’s canon, involving pregnancy and domestic violence—and it’s ostensibly a young adult novel. And then there’s Snuff, which is mostly about poop.