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3 January, 2004

Review: 'The Fifth Elephant' (Terry Pratchett, 1999)

I've just finished reading this for the second, maybe third time.  It's my favourite Discworld novel, superior because the characters are more three-dimensional, more realistic, less cartoonish.

As I've mentioned before, my taste in fantasy/sci-fi is for ordinary people acting naturally in extraordinary situations, rather than stylised 'high fantasy', 'sword and sorcery' or 'space opera' , with which I can't identify, and properly suspend disbelief. In 'The Fifth Elephant', Pratchett's characters and setting achieve a greater realism than before. The Discworld has matured; having established and refined the conventions, Pratchett can proceed to develop the characters as credible people. In the first few books of the City Guard thread, Sam Vimes is a combination of Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood, and primarily a means to advance the plot. In 'The Fifth Elephant', Sam Vimes is Sam Vimes, an established character rather than an amalgam of stereotypes/pop-cultural references, and a lifelike person with realistic, consistent thoughts, motivations and reactions - a 'proper' literary creation.

That's not particularly a criticism of the earlier books, as they're highly amusing and well-written (and researched - I don't think reviewers sufficiently acknowledge that), but the focus on plot and pastiche of numerous genres (opera, English folk music, fairy tales, Hollywood, etc.) has tended to leave the characters a little understated, perhaps even underdeveloped. I'm generalising, and there are exceptions, but on the whole one is told what a person did and said, and motivations are sketched in, but there isn't always more than a superficial sense of what the person felt, or why they reacted as they did. To use Vimes as an example again, in earlier appearences he responds as 'anyone' of his stereotype would in a given situation, but having added depth to the character, Pratchett is able to make Vimes behave more as a genuine individual, sometimes against type, as the reader has a better idea of how Sam would react, rather than a generic 'anyone'.

Some of the early Discworld novels were adapted into comic strip format, and a couple were made into animated films. It's an obvious development, and presumably successful, but I think emphasing the two-dimensional, comic elements is a mistake, belittling the richness of Pratchett's creation. I'd have preferred to see live-action films, with believable trolls, dwarfs, undead, orangutan, and Death integrated by 'photo-real' computer graphics; more like Peter Jackson's 'Lord Of The Rings' than the earlier animated version. The humour can come from the plot and dialogue, rather than the overall look.

Another distinguishing feature of 'The Fifth Elephant' is that it touches on weighty subjects - racism, cultural imperialism, sexism (superficially) - provoking thought without preaching. Even those who might scorn the fantasy elements of dwarfs, trolls and Ankh-Morpork could appreciate them as metaphors for real ethnic minorities and nation states.

NP: Porcupine Tree, Paris, 11/3/03

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