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Book review: “Snuff” by Terry Pratchett

On Discworld, goblins live on — are beat up on, are exploited on, are starved on, die on — the edges.

They stink. They steal chickens. They eat their young. And their religion is based on the reverent storage of earwax, fingernail clippings, toenail clippings, and snot.

They are almost universally considered vermin and almost universally not considered human-like in the way that, on Discworld, trolls, dwarves, vampires and various other species are considered human-like. Or, at least, in the eyes of the law, are considered equal to humans.

Goblins can be enslaved with impunity. And killed with impunity.

If this sounds familiar in human history — and modern-day headlines — that’s Terry Pratchett’s point.

(According to the International Labour Organization and other agencies, there are more slaves in the world today than ever before — anywhere from 12 million to 27 million.)

In the newly published “Snuff,” the 39th novel in his Discworld series, Pratchett eloquently rages against racism and slavery.

Which is to say that he ridicules those who mindlessly protect and exploit slavery; he skewers those who put on airs and look down their noses at those they identify as their inferiors; he explodes the myths and woolly thinking behind such arrogance; he undercuts its foundations by highlighting the humanity — yes, humanity really is the best word — of those being exploited and down-trodden.

And, as he has done over the past three decades in confronting various real-world topics in his fictional universe, Pratchett does all this with great humor. He prompts laughter at the blindness of the enslavers, at the obtuseness of society and its leaders.

But make no mistake: He’s raging against the injustice.

His desire to take on social issues in a more direct way has seemed evident in his books since it became publically known four years ago that Pratchett is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

He no longer wants to make gentle fun at stupid humanity. His satire has become much more pointed, and it’s only the densest of readers who won’t squirm a bit when Pratchett’s barbs hit close to home.

In his young adult Discworld novel, “I Shall Wear Midnight,” published a year ago, Pratchett writes in the opening pages of a 13-year-old pregnant girl who is beaten so badly by her father than she loses the baby. He writes of how the soldiers of the thoughtless new Baron come with shovels to destroy the home mound of a race of quirky but violent tiny men. And he writes of Tiffany Aching, a 16-year-old witch who is being stalked by the Cunning Man, an eyeless, body-less presence of evil.

And that — may I remind you? — is in a young adult novel.

In “Snuff,” the mindless cruelty of a society that embraces racism and slavery is put to use by the greedy, who are bad enough in Pratchett’s opinion. But, even more, it is exploited by a dead-eyed killer named Stratford who, like the Cunning Man, is a quintessence of wickedness in the world.

Yet, even as Pratchett is swinging his literary axe at racism, slavery and evil itself, he also uses “Snuff” as a kind of ode of childhood and to the relationship of a father and son.

Sam Vimes — who, despite his low birth, holds the titles of Commander of the Ankh-Morpork watch (police force), Duke of Ankh and Blackboard Monitor — spends the novel investigating a goblin murder and ferreting out the much deeper corruption of those behind the killing.

That is, when he isn’t wandering around the countryside of his wife’s family estate as his six-year-old son Sam Jr. studies the wonderful complexities and nuances of poo.

The book, at its heart, contrasts the innocence and openness of Sam with the blindness, greediness and ill-will (or at least lazy thinking) of adults as a group.

Sam and Sam Jr. visit the house of a writer in the neighborhood. A few moments after arriving, Sam notices that a young female goblin is also there.

He looked round into the worried face and prognathous jaw of the goblin called Tears of the Mushrooms.

Instinctively he looked at Young Sam, and suddenly the biggest raisin in his cake of apprehension was: what will Young Sam do? How many books has he read? [Vimes and his wife] haven’t told him nasty tales about goblins, have they, or read him too many of those innocent, colorful fairytale books which contained nightmares ready to leap out and some needless fear that would cause trouble one day?

And what Young Sam did was march across the floor, stop dead in front of the girl and say, “I know a lot about poo. It’s very interesting.”…

Then Young Sam said, “I wish I had big hands like you. What’s your name?”

In that clipped way Vimes was learning to recognize, the goblin girl said, “I am the Tears of the Mushroom.”

Instantly Young Sam threw his arms around as much of her as he could encompass and shouted, “Mushrooms shouldn’t cry!”

Later, Sam learns to his amazement and intense enjoyment that, with her large hands, Tears of the Mushrooms is able to play sweet, soulful music on the writer’s harp.

Even Young Sam was transfixed, standing there with his little mouth open, while the music rushed in and, for a moment upon the world, lifted all hearts and forgave all sins — not having its work cut out in the case of Young Sam, a part of Vimes managed to reflect, but doing a sterling and heavyweight job on this father. And when the music stopped Young Sam said, “More!” and that went for his parents, too….

Wordlessly, Young Sam walked over to her and cuddled her leg. The goblin girl looked panicky and Vimes said, “Don’t worry, he just wants to show that he loves you.”

For Pratchett, the world is filled with stupidity — the stupidity of the thoughtless and the stupidity of the acquisitive. And, for Pratchett, evil stalks the world requiring courage and heroism.

But love conquers all. Especially the love of a child.

Patrick T. Reardon

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