Review: The Truth by Terry Pratchett
Created on January 22, 2023 at 4:50 pm
The Truth is the 25th Discworld novel. Some reading order guides group it loosely into an “industrial revolution” sequence following Moving Pictures, but while there are thematic similarities I’ll talk about in a moment, there’s no real plot continuity. You could arguably start reading Discworld here, although you’d be spoiled for some character developments in the early Watch novels.
William de Worde is paid to write a newsletter. That’s not precisely what he calls it, and it’s not clear whether his patrons know that he publishes it that way. He’s paid to report on news of Ankh-Morpork that may be of interest of various rich or influential people who are not in Ankh-Morpork, and he discovered the best way to optimize this was to write a template of the newsletter, bring it to an engraver to make a plate of it, and run off copies for each of his customers, with some minor hand-written customization. It’s a comfortable living for the estranged younger son of a wealthy noble. As the story opens, William is dutifully recording the rumor that dwarfs have discovered how to turn lead into gold.
The rumor is true, although not in the way that one might initially assume.
The world is made up of four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. This is a fact well known even to Corporal Nobbs. It’s also wrong. There’s a fifth element, and generally it’s called Surprise.
For example, the dwarfs found out how to turn lead into gold by doing it the hard way. The difference between that and the easy way is that the hard way works.
The dwarfs used the lead to make a movable type printing press, which is about to turn William de Worde’s small-scale, hand-crafted newsletter into a newspaper.
The movable type printing press is not unknown technology. It’s banned technology, because the powers that be in Ankh-Morpork know enough to be deeply suspicious of it. The religious establishment doesn’t like it because words are too important and powerful to automate. The nobles and the Watch don’t like it because cheap words cause problems. And the engraver’s guild doesn’t like it for obvious reasons. However, Lord Vetinari knows that one cannot apply brakes to a volcano, and commerce with the dwarfs is very important to the city. The dwarfs can continue. At least for now.
As in Moving Pictures, most of The Truth is an idiosyncratic speedrun of the social effects of a new technology, this time newspapers. William has no grand plan; he’s just an observant man who likes to write, cares a lot about the truth, and accidentally stumbles into editing a newspaper. (This, plus being an estranged son of a rich family, feels very on-point for journalism.) His naive belief is that people want to read true things, since that’s what his original patrons wanted. Truth, however, may not be in the top five things people want from a newspaper.
This setup requires some narrative force to push it along, which is provided by a plot to depose Vetinari by framing him for murder. The most interesting part of that story is Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, the people hired to do the framing and then dispose of the evidence. They’re a classic villain type: the brains and the brawn, dangerous, terrifying, and willing to do horrible things to people. But one thing Pratchett excels at is taking a standard character type, turning it a bit sideways, and stuffing in things that one wouldn’t think would belong. In this case, that’s Mr. Tulip’s deep appreciation for, and genius grasp of, fine art. It should not work to have the looming, awful person with anger issues be able to identify the exact heritage of every sculpture and fine piece of goldsmithing, and yet somehow it does.
Also as in Moving Pictures (and, in a different way, Soul Music), Pratchett tends to anthropomorphize technology, giving it a life and motivations of its own. In this case, that’s William’s growing perception of the press as an insatiable maw into which one has to feed words. I’m usually dubious of shifting agency from humans to things when doing social analysis (and there’s a lot of social analysis here), but I have to concede that Pratchett captures something deeply true about the experience of feedback loops with an audience. A lot of what Pratchett puts into this book about the problematic relationship between a popular press and the truth is obvious and familiar, but he also makes some subtle points about the way the medium shapes what people expect from it and how people produce content for it that are worthy of Marshall McLuhan.
The interactions between William and the Watch were less satisfying. In our world, the US press is, with only rare exceptions, a thoughtless PR organ for police propaganda and the exonerative tense. Pratchett tackles that here… sort of. William vaguely grasps that his job as a reporter may be contrary to the job of the Watch to maintain order, and Vimes’s ambivalent feelings towards “solving crimes” push the story in that direction. But this is also Vimes, who is clearly established as one of the good sort and therefore is a bad vehicle for talking about how the police corrupt the press. Pratchett has Vimes and Vetinari tacitly encourage William, which works within the story but takes the pressure off the conflict and leaves William well short of understanding the underlying politics. There’s a lot more that could be said about the tension between the press and the authorities, but I think the Discworld setup isn’t suitable for it.
This is the sort of book that benefits from twenty-four volumes of backstory and practice. Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork cast ticks along like a well-oiled machine, which frees up space that would otherwise have to be spent on establishing secondary characters. The result is a lot of plot and social analysis shoved into a standard-length Discworld novel, and a story that’s hard to put down. The balance between humor and plot is just about perfect, the references and allusions aren’t overwhelming, and the supporting characters, both new and old, are excellent. We even get a good Death sequence. This is solid, consistent stuff: Discworld as a mature, well-developed setting with plenty of stories left to tell.
Followed by Thief of Time in publication order, and later by Monstrous Regiment in the vaguely-connected industrial revolution sequence.
Rating: 8 out of 10