Pratchett writes fantasy novels, mostly. For the most part, these books are set on the Discworld, a disc shaped planet carried on the back of 4 elephants carried on the back of a giant turtle. Once he hit his literary stride, Pratchett began using this clearly fictional environment to discuss far more real and pertinent questions of this world. These books are deeply philosophical, and also darkly amusing.
This book in particular deals with a familiar story involving a man in a red suit who travels around the world and delivers presents to the good girls and boys - the Hogfather. Pratchett slowly reveals that the Hogfather is a hold over from much older sacrificial rituals, in which a pig, or a man, might be sacrificed at the end of the year to bring the sun back. Anyway, this year, the Hogfather is missing - and Death takes his place. (Pratchett uses Death often; he's one of the most popular characters in the books. Death, oddly, is often the most alive character when he shows up.) There's a plot, you see, to kill the Hogfather. Death and his granddaughter (?!?) Susan foil the plot.
That's the story, but that's not what the book is about. Really, the book is about what makes us human. Pratchett believes that stories do. Pratchett clearly believes that the Hogfather, or Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, play an important role in explaining who we are as human beings. He places the explanation in Death's mouth (Death talks LIKE THIS in Pratchett novels):
"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable."
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little ---"
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUR LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
"So we can believe the big ones?"
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
"They're not the same at all!"
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET --- Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME ... SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point ---"
MY POINT EXACTLY
The little lies which help us believe the big lies. I'm inclined to agree.
Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol
I hate Charles Dickens. I really really do. In times past, I haven't been able even to read this, his most popular work. However, I gritted my teeth and plowed through it this year. Look, we all know the story. We've seen the Muppets do it, we've seen Mickey and Co. do it, we've seen Patrick Stewart do it (or, at least, heard him do it - and I must admit, I heard Stewart as Scrooge throughout this reading, which helped a lot). Perhaps my dislike of Dickens is a case of familiarity breeding discontent. But, it didn't kill me.
My petty gripes:
1) Dickens clearly states that the ghosts will visit Scrooge over 3 nights. They do not; they visit him in one night, and Dickens retcons madly in order to explain this - I think he just didn't want to describe Scrooge during the days in between ghost visits. 2) Scrooge has mended his ways by the end of the FIRST spirit, and the SECOND spirit seems to cement that mending - the third spirit seems overkill. I mean, for symmetry, the spirit needs to be there, but Scrooge seems resigned by that point - "yes, yes, you are the spirit of Christmas yet to Come, I'm going to learn something here, aren't I? Well, let's get to it...". 3) The transformation is too much. Scrooge is a caricature at the beginning, and a different caricature at the end, but I don't believe either of them. It's clear why he's fun to play - you get to play both the black hat AND the white hat in the same character.
Things I liked, despite myself:
1) Ok, ok - Dickens has a way with language, and I enjoyed many of his multi-claused sentences. I will probably try some more Dickens in the coming year (suggestions? I've started Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Pickwick Papers, and hated all of them...) to see if my dislike is only a passing fancy. (My wife suggests that this was an abbreviated edition - and listening to the Patrick Stewart reading, I find that it is, slightly.)
2) The book was fascinating as a window into Victorian era Christmas practices - no Father Christmas (although the Ghost of Christmas Present is pretty close), no Christmas trees (although Prince Albert, Victoria's husband, introduced the tree to England, so one might expect the practice to have trickled down), and the Cratchits are so poor they are forced to eat a goose instead of a turkey. (Bwha?) Bob Cratchit, on his way home on Christmas Eve stops to go sledding. All of the silly party games that get played by Scrooge's nephew. Fascinating stuff.
3) The temperance message at the end - Scrooge never touched spirits again after that - really?
Frederic Forsyth - The Shepherd
There is an old English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas (Dickens did it, you know, and not just A Christmas Carol, and so did Robertson Davies, although he was Canadian, of course.) and this is a fine example of that. Forsyth tells a story of a young man flying a single seater jet fighter home from Germany on Christmas Eve, 1957. Somewhere above the North Sea, the electronics in the plane fail, and a fog rolls in. Flying in irregular triangles, he hopes to attract the attention of a radar operator, who will send up a shepherd, a plane with a working radio to guide him home. Just as he is sure that no shepherd is coming, an antique Mosquito fighter shows up and guides him down. That's the story. It's very short, less than 100 pages, and the copy that I have is lushly illustrated with lots of pen and ink drawings - it's gorgeous. The whole book shouldn't take longer than half an hour to read - and Alan Maitland used to read it every Christmas Eve on As it Happens for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - here's a podcast. The descriptions are lovely, the story is simple, and it gives me chills every time I read it, simply perfect.
S.M. Stirling - The Protector's War
Ummm, this one is totally not a Christmas book. Sorry. I started it at the end of last week, and I finished it this week while waiting for the Dickens to be free. This is the second of the Emberverse books, and it may well be my favorite. Stirling does a lot of interesting world building - one group of characters travel from Europe to the US, and that allows the readers to get a glimpse of what things are like outside of Oregon. It's clear why there is a community of fanficcers for this series - Stirling provides a lovely sandbox to play in, and then concentrates most of his attention on a single corner of the box (and rightly so). I love that Stirling has offered some sort of official sanction to the fic as well, since he has a page of links on his official website. He recognizes that he's only using a corner of the sandbox. Personally, I'd like to see something set on Newfoundland - if any group survived the cataclysm, it was the Newfies.
Anyway - I like the way that Stirling weaves three separate tales together here. I like the personalities that interact, I like the description of the difference between folks who lived through The Change and those born after it - it's easy to accept the status quo if you've never experienced anything like it before. I like that the characters are really only dealing with other humans - in the second series, the stakes are bigger because the players are less mundane. (I like that too, but this first trilogy is far more down to earth.) I like that Stirling seems to have restrained his desire to play with accents here - very well done.
So, that's it for this week. Tomorrow is Christmas, and I hope you all have a good one, those of you who celebrate. I'm expecting some books, and I'll tell you about them on Monday...