SINCE STARTING THIS PROJECT, Anne and I have spoken frequently and enthusiastically about Pratchett’s depiction of women in Discworld. True, we looked somewhat askance at some of his early female characters, such as Bethan and Conina, who despite intriguing, even subversive set-ups often failed to fully deliver on that initial promise.
However, I think we both agree that these early issues were at least in part tied to the genre trappings of the stories Pratchett sought to subvert. As Pratchett developed, he came to write women as powerful, complex, sharp-witted, and flawed. For instance, Anne and I both took to Glenda, whose strong will was both an asset and liability in Unseen Academicals. (In fact—and this is a post for another time—I think you can read Pratchett exceedingly favorably from a feminist perspective. See here and here for takes on that point.)
However, Glenda only gets one book. As any reader of Pratchett knows, some of his richest characterization comes with the space that multiple books afford. These repeat characters, like Death, Granny, Rincewind, or Vimes, are also the most celebrated public icons of this world carried on the back of four (probably tired) elephants on the back of one enormous cosmos-swimming turtle.
And yet I can think of two truly iconic Disc characters who bend this rule, and each has but three books to their name. There’s Moist Von Lipwig, con-man extraordinaire. And there’s Susan Sto Helit. Susan, who emerges at high speed and in full technicolor into Pratchett’s universe, dodging most of the typical women-in-fantasy pitfalls, and becoming one of the Disc’s most loved icons. In only three books.
So let’s talk about Susan, and why she’s such a distinctive character in Pratchett’s ‘verse.
Enter Soul Music…
But first, let’s talk about the book that gives us Susan. Which is Soul Music. And Soul Music is bad. This is down to personal preference, but I don’t think that Pratchett fully brings his typically deep subject knowledge to bear on this book, opting for easy humor instead. The characters are listless, and the jokes become tired quickly (I’m looking at you, Elvis/Elvish and music-with-rocks-in). Soul Music is just not that funny (except Ridcully. More Ridcully please).
For these reasons, I’m not going to talk about the parts of Soul Music that have to do with music. In fact, when one sets aside the painful humor and dull characters in the music storyline, there’s actually a poignant, thoughtful, dare I say soulful tale happening alongside and within that story, and it isn’t Imp’s story. No, the best parts of Soul Music belong to Susan.
Death and What Comes Next
Susan is distinguished from almost any other character in Pratchett’s canon by her set up. It’s a conceit of Pratchett’s universe that his series regulars typically don’t die (or otherwise end). As readers, we don’t particularly want to see the day when Vetinari steps aside as Patrician, Vimes grows too old to be a copper, or Granny succumbs to old age. Somehow, such an event would signal the end of things as we know them more than any technological or cultural change.
Consequently, Pratchett’s characters give his world a reliability that makes it an inviting, even comforting place to which we can return. They seems to exist beyond their own stories. So if Angua von Überwald meets Tiffany Aching, well, isn’t that exactly as it should be? In other words, one source of the series’ power is that we get to imagine that, although a character’s story has ended, the character goes on living, growing, and moving through the world.
So the fact that Mort and Ysabell’s entire role in Soul Music is to come hurtling onto the page and plunge promptly off it to their deaths is…surprising. And I would argue that the fact of their demise is rather significant.
For instance, if we were to look only at Mort and Reaper Man, we might surmise that the Death arc would be about living, dying, and Death’s encounters with humanity. While these themes certainly continue in later books, Mort and Ysabell’s ending makes the Death arc about something more. The tale that begins when a gangly boy meets a surly girl becomes a story about parents whose flawed attempts to protect their daughter cause her a great deal of confusion and anguish. When they die, all that remains are leftovers—a woman and her grandfather as they make their way through a universe in which they are outsiders, alone from everyone except each other, mutually bound by familial loss. There’s something upsetting and honest about that story.
Their tale is Discworld’s only real generation-spanning story. Consequently, Susan carries a weight of history from Mort that no one else on the Disc has. It’s not only her wit, her put-upon weariness with people, or her no-nonsense approach to life that make her interesting; it’s how she uses these tendencies to navigate the complicated world she has inherited.
Still, a good ste-up does not fully account for what makes Susan unique. After all, the problem with characters like Bethan, Herrena, and Conina wasn’t the set-up but the follow-through. So let’s consider what Pratchett builds from this set-up.
A Logical Swing on an Impossible Tree
Although Susan sometimes acts with a righteously empathetic anger very like her father’s, at times she seems to exist somewhat outside of humanity. There is a certain symmetry in Death’s inability to figure out swings and trees and Susan’s inability to figure out human behavior. As her mother once said of her grandfather, Susan sometimes thinks, rather than feels, human.
For instance, when seeing the wreckage of her parents’ coach, Susan makes the suggestion that she “‘could go back and save them'” because “I’ve got to say it. Or I’m not human.” At times, Susan seems to see the world as humans see it and the world as Death sees it, unfiltered by delusion, boredom, or emotion, in all its hideous, cold, frightening reality. Maybe because she is not entirely human, Susan tries to forget the world as he grandfather sees it, tries to be human by acting in human ways. (Incidentally, this is the only way I can fully make sense of Susan’s last scene, when she runs to meet Imp. I she rushing to hold onto humanity? Or maybe it’s just not an entirely satisfactory ending…)
We could suggest that Susan’s position between two worlds makes her a true alien as is only possible in SFF, a being for whom time and space are optional, and who is always at risk of losing her humanity. Indeed, it would be easy to read both Susan and Death as somehow falling short of humanity, or as narrative devices meant only to cast light on what it means to be human. I would suggest an additional reading.
Susan—with her moments of arrogant intellect, subtle cruelty, and clinical awareness of how to act human—is all the more human for seeming to occasionally violate principles of empathy, emotion, and kindness. I feel for Susan in no small part because I recognize in her the parts of being human that we like to pretend we’ve overcome. Like all of us, Susan is capable of alarming dispassion.
In their distance from other people, in their loneliness in the universe, in their recognition of how incomprehensible the mortal world can be, both Susan and Death are not outside humanity but rather a more intense, at times less pleasant, always more honest image of humanity. Their story—one of generations, loss, isolation, and dispassion—is in fact one of the most powerful and empathetic stories of Discworld.
Still not sold on Soul Music, though.