OK, so I don’t really like Soul Music. I had read it before and had not really liked it then, and I read it again for The Project and didn’t really like it once more. And that’s fine—out of 41 books, there are bound to be a few here and there that I don’t like. That’s statistics, that is.
Soul Music stands out to me, though. I wouldn’t call it “the worst Discworld book.” It’s not a bad book. I don’t even know if I would call it my least favorite Discworld book (Moving Pictures is pretty up there). But in preparing for the Death Arc, I thought, “Ah man, I’m going to have to read Soul Music again.”
One of the rewards of critique, though, is that we can still learn something from examining what we don’t like—perhaps more than we can from examining what we enjoy.
Writing humor is hard. Super hard. So much of comedy is timing, and you have to be in tune with the rhythm of a sentence, the way it’s going to sound in someone’s head, to write so that the joke lands. Humor is a craft, and it takes skill to pull it off, and I think that Terry Pratchett is a highly skilled humorist.
That is perhaps what makes it so frustrating for me to read Soul Music, where so much of the humor is referential. It’s not that I think referential humor isn’t funny. That is something I think, but taste is subjective and life is a rich tapestry and all that noise. What is frustrating is that referential humor does not showcase Pratchett’s skills as a humorist.
At its most basic, referential humor works by reminding the audience of something else. Maybe the thing itself being referenced was humorous, so some of that humor transfers over. Maybe not, though. Mainly it’s the presentation of a cultural touchstone in a different context.
These references are comforting because they depend on things we are familiar with, and they are flattering because they create solidarity with the creator doing the referencing. It creates a group of privileged insiders, who get the reference, and outsiders, who do not. “You know the same things I know,” the creator says, and we smile to ourselves because we get it. Not everyone does, you know.
I can quote The Simpsons all night with my friend, but that doesn’t mean either of us is funny. It just means that we like the same thing, and that we can transfer short-term memories into long-term storage.
Discworld is full of references. That is, in part, the premise: “World and mirror of worlds.” Part of the fun is recognizing these references. But the act of referencing itself isn’t really a skill. The world is full of things to reference. The skill comes in being able to use a familiar reference to communicate something different.
And that is what elevates the Discworld from being a simple setting for anachronisms. Unseen Academicals references sports, and sports culture, and sports trivia and sports players and sports sports sports sports sports. But by the end of the book, I had a new and different understanding of sports by seeing sports in this new context.
But in Soul Music, the references are only that—references. I’ve watched The Blues Brothers, so I understand the line, “We’re on a mission from Glod.” Because this is a book about music, and that movie was also about music. I get it.
That’s where the reference ends. Literally—Imp and Cliff even remark on how odd it was to say that, what a non sequitur it is. It was apparently important enough to name a character Glod to be able to get that line in the book, but there is zero pay off.
In other Discworld books, references build on each other to explore both the main subject of the book and its larger accompanying themes. There is so much Soul Music could have said about being a musician, about fame, about counter cultures, about the power of art. But we are stuck at the level of “Elvish” sounds like “Elvis.”
Soul Music is not a bad book, and referential humor is not a bad thing. Quoting The Simpsons doesn’t make my friend and I clever (sorry, Mark), but it brings us closer together. It is a mark of shared tastes and knowledge and experience. All art, all communication, grows from our species’ need to connect with each other, to communicate our shared experience in this messed up universe of ours. And sometimes that’s enough.
But Terry Pratchett can, and does, so much more with his work. He proves to us that we can have references and deeply human truths at the same time, and that they can both be funny as hell. Just…not in this book.