too many words by laura lemay

going postal, a book review

Next up on my reading list (and the enormous stack of books next to my bed) was Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but then I made the mistake of actually going into a bookstore (Danger! Danger! Aoooga!). And right there on the tables up from was Terry Pratchett’s new book, Going Postal. Well. So much for that plan. So much for any plan whatsoever, in fact, for all of that day and most of the night. A new Terry Pratchett book waits for nothing.

I’ve been an enormous Terry Pratchett fan for years and years now, pretty much since the first Discworld book back in…1986? I still have it around here someplace (looking around horribly disorganized office). I’ve been buying the books ever since. Its been all downhill and lost weekends since then.

Going Postal is the 29th book in the Discworld series, and normally based on usual SF/fantasy series trend, you would think they would suck pretty hard by now. The author maybe had an interesting idea in the first two or three and then its the same book over and over again, right? Well here’s the funny thing about Discworld. The first ten or so in the series were really great: strange and funny and bizarre. Light, but a lot of fun. Then the middle ten were sort of weak. They were still funny but kind of repetitive. And then a weird thing happened. The last bunch of books got good again. Really, really good. The characters became deeper and more real, with real relationships and often difficult problems. The books started to take on social and political commentary. They got darker and more meaningful. They are still funny, with bad puns and outrageous characters, and still quick and easy reads…but the lightness is hiding a much more complex underpinning. Really Good Stuff.

Going Postal is one of the best examples of Terry Prachett’s recent good work, and if you haven’t read the Discworld books before its a good place to start because it doesn’t rely on previous knowledge of the (sometimes huge and involved) cast of characters. In it, an avowed and unabashed con man named Moist Von Lipwig is snatched at the last minute from the gallows and given a job resurrecting the Ankh-Morpork postal service. But who cares about the post office when the “clacks” — the Discworld’s rube goldberg semaphore/telegraph/internet system — works just fine and far faster than the mail (most of the time)? Lord Vetinari, the despotic ruler of Ankh-Morpork, wants to see the post office running again to rein in the monopolistic control of the Grand Trunk company, who may have acquired the clacks under susicious circumstances. Being postmaster is a big challenge, to say the least: the post office is stuffed to the ceiling in undelivered mail and there’s something about a demonic sorting machine in the basement… And it seems that someone would like to see the post office stay moribund, as a number of previous postmasters have recently died under very mysterious circumstances.

Probably the best part of this book, for me, is the description of the engineers working on the clacks towers, of the coding of the messages, and the various hacks and ingenious workarounds the clacks engineers do to keep the towers running and the messages passing through. Terry has utterly managed to capture true geekery spot on here, in a way that people writing about geekery almost never manage to do. Its deeply fun. Go read it.

Poscript: OK, while I was writing this Cory went off and posted a much shorter and better review of the book{.broken_link} on boingboing. Darnit. I’m beginning to dislike them over there. They type faster than me and I’ll bet they don’t have to update their MT templates.