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Alternate History and Terry Pratchett. Part 5: Jingo

By Tom Anderson

Of course there was a newspaper called Jingo. Curiously, American rather than British.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thus far in my look at Terry Pratchett’s use of Alternate History (AH) tropes in non-AH books, just within the gargantuan Discworld series, we have looked at Mort, Small Gods, and Lords and Ladies. In this article, I’ll be looking at the twenty-first Discworld novel, Jingo.

In order to explain the plot of Jingo, I first need to briefly talk about the City Watch ‘theme’ within the Discworld books, similar to the witches theme, the Death theme, or some vaguer ones. Jingo is the fourth book in this series-within-a-series, the first three being Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, and Feet of Clay. The first of these is considered by many to be the point at which the Discworld series really hits its stride and is frequently recommended as a good place to start. According to the dedication, Pratchett originally envisaged the book as being a tribute to the guard mooks in Hollywood films or pulp thrillers whose job is just to get easily outclassed and beaten by the hero. In practice, however, the Watch series rapidly became fantasy police dramas with a side of noir, and damn good ones, too.

Pratchett initially intended the protagonist of Guards! Guards! to be Carrot Ironfoundersson, a huge, powerful, simple and honest human raised by dwarfs who has to make his way in the big city by joining the depleted Watch. In practice, he found this did not work with the narrative structure of the book, so instead he created the character of Captain Sam Vimes, Carrot’s superior, rather carelessly thrown together out of noir and police drama clichés – yet Vimes went on to become one of the most popular Discworld characters. Like Granny Weatherwax, he also became a bit too popular with his creator and sometimes took on Mary Sue elements, though these aren’t too prominent in Jingo. The Patrician, on the other hand... but we enjoy the ride, and Pratchett sensibly dialled it back in subsequent books.

At the beginning of Guards! Guards!, the old Night Watch has been reduced from its former glory to just three, Vimes and the classic Shakespearean ‘those two guards’ comic characters of Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs. This is because the Patrician (who really comes into his own as a character in this book) has legalised theft and allowed the Thieves’ Guild to regulate it and allow citizens to buy theft insurance, thus negating the purpose of the Watch. However, over the course of the Watch books, Carrot’s charisma (he is soon revealed to be the heir to Ankh-Morpork’s empty throne, but he doesn’t want the job) and Vimes’ cynicism lead the Watch to rebuild their position, being responsible for saving the city from a dragon and even more dangerous things. In Men At Arms, my personal favourite Discworld book, the Watch is expanded with “minority representation” from a dwarf, a troll, and – well, that would be a spoiler. By the end of the book, the Watch has started to return to its former glory, as then seen in Feet of Clay (which borrows a lot of its plot from R Austin Freeman, remind me to write an article about forgotten influences). That book also sees the recruitment of a forensic alchemist, a dwarf named Cheery Littlebottom who is female and resents how dwarvish society forces them to live outwardly like men. (This mostly started out as a parody of second-wave feminism, oppressed women fighting for the right to wear dresses and make-up, etc, but eventually got bound up in sexual minorities). Overall, Pratchett creates a diverse and fun cast of characters and gives them interesting plots to untangle.

Jingo is a bit of a watershed Discworld book for me as it’s the first “new” one to come out after I started reading the series, and the first one I bought in paperback. It was also the upcoming book when Pratchett did a documentary interview to accompany the animated adaptations of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music, and after the interviewer mock-chased him around asking what the next book would be about, he left them with a parting shot of: “It’s about the ridiculousness of war!” And it is.

The plot of Jingo is so absurd that it had to be drawn from real life. (The same thing happened in the Mediterranean in the early nineteenth century). An island rises from below the sea and is immediately subjected to rival claims by fishermen from Ankh-Morpork to the north and the Klatchian Empire to the south.

Ferdinandea Island (aka Graham Island, Graham Bank, Graham Shoal, Ile Julia, and probably others) is a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily that has, on more than one occasion, risen above the surface of the sea, only to be washed away shortly after. This has taken place on four occasions since 300BC. It's not so much an island as a yo-yo.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I should say that, while I enjoy Jingo, the use of the Klatchians never sat well with me when the plot involves things like war and racism. Pratchett usually use fantasy analgues for this, like the deep-down dwarf mining law (which traditionally doesn’t apply on the surface) acting as a metaphor for sharia in insular Islamic communities. Because the Klatchians are already Calormene-type comedy Arabs, it feels a bit off to use them in this kind of serious point, perhaps unhelpfully evoking recent conflicts like the 1991 Gulf War. But that’s a minor point.

Vimes, now a pillar of the community (much to his annoyance) is involved in the visit of a Klatchian prince to try to resolve the crisis, but an assassination attempt is made (referencing JFK, of course). War begins to loom, not helped by the titular jingoist aristocrats in Ankh-Morpork, whose confidence is not matched by military prowess or resources. Then the Klatchian embassy is set alight. Vimes sends Angua to infiltrate the Klatchians’ ship, but she is discovered and the ship leaves with her aboard. Vimes now has to make a decision; whether to stay in Ankh-Morpork and try to hold down the city’s war fever or to pursue Angua and her mysterious captor ’71-hour’ Ahmed.

Going down....

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

To explain the next part, I first need to digress about technology on the Discworld. Introduced, as a joke, back in the first book The Colour of Magic, many people on the Disc have Agatean-invented clocks and watches which are operated by tiny demons pedalling them inside. There are also iconographs (cameras) which are similarly operated by tiny demons with paintbrushes (a subtle pun on the Kodak Brownie). By the time of Men at Arms, Ankh-Morporkian artificers have been able to produce actual mechanical watch mechanisms, so the use of the demons has moved on to more advanced devices. In Feet of Clay, Vimes’ wife Lady Sybil gets him a demon-powered device that’s a spoof of the electronic pocket organisers popular in the 1990s, which refers to him as “Insert Name Here” as he never set it up properly. A minor running joke in that book, it reappears in Jingo in which it’s called the Dis-organiser. (As a teenager, I thought this was an uncharacteristically poor joke from Pratchett, not realising it’s actually a clever pun on Dis, the city of demons in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Never doubt Pratchett and puns).

The city of Dis, encompassing the sixth to ninth planes of Hell. It is, I am assured, not a nice place.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways, the Dis-organiser jokes would work just as well for smartphones today; in others they are now very dated. For example, a footnote suggests that one of the universal rules of happiness is to always be wary of any helpful item that weighs less than its operating manual. Oh, we all laughed at that in the 90s, little dreaming that the day would come when companies couldn’t be bothered to supply their customers with manuals at all, instead telling them to download pdfs from random websites. But I digress. It turns out that, after Vimes accidentally asks it to, the Dis-organiser can actually give him appointments that he doesn’t know about himself, trying to explain the quantum principle to him: “Any particular appointment simply collapses the waveform... I merely select the most likely one from the projected matrix.” Indeed, it gives him an appointment to meet Littlebottom about Sergeant Colon being missing before Vimes even knows he is.

Up to now, that’s just a straightforward amusing Pratchett joke, similar to his “reannual grapes” from The Colour of Magic which are planted this year and are harvested last year, and give you a “hangunder” before you drink the resulting wine. But having set up this idea with the Dis-organiser, he then uses it in a very different and far more serious way.

“As he hurried forward he had, just for a second, the strange sensation that he was two people. And this was because, for the merest fraction of a second, he was two people. They were both called Samuel Vimes. To history, choices are merely directions. The Trousers of Time opened up, and Vimes began to hurtle down one leg of them. And, somewhere else, the Vimes who made a different choice began to drop into a different future. They both darted back to grab their Dis-organisers. By the most outrageous of freak chances, quite uniquely, in this split second of decision, they each got the wrong one. And sometimes the avalanche depends on one snowflake. Sometimes a pebble is allowed to find out what might have happened – if only it had bounced the other way.”

Unlike Lords and Ladies, where the idea of the AH-relevant many-worlds quantum hypothesis, of parallel worlds stepping from a different decision, is quietly present from the start, in Jingo it is invoked completely out of nowhere, 148 pages in. It never becomes as fundamental to the plot as in that book, either. Instead, it quietly begins to grow in the background.

Having commandeered a Morporkian ship and halfway to Klatch, Vimes is confused and alarmed to find that the Dis-organiser gives him a new appointment. “Eight pee em... Narrowly Escape Assassination by Klatchian Spy.” Vimes looks around the deck wildly and asks where, only for the Dis-organiser to inform him: “Corner of Brewer Street and Broadway” back in the city.

After a back-and-forth, the demon tells him: “Aha, I knew you didn’t read the manual! Chapter xvii 2(c) makes it very clear that sticking to one reality is vitally important, otherwise the Uncertainty Principle...” But of course Vimes doesn’t understand.

Later, after Vimes has made contact with the D’reg tribe in Klatch and tracked down 71-hour Ahmed – who turns out to be not what he seems – the confused demon tells him again (in the middle of a desert): “Klatchian fleet sighted... error code 746, divergent temporal instability...” Vimes, angrily shaking the box, tells him he’s getting someone else’s appointments, only for the demon to claim that they are correct for Commander Sir Samuel Vimes – just not the right one of him.

We then march towards the book’s conclusion, in which Vimes’ actions, along with those of the Patrician behind the scene, foil the plot to instigate the war and stop the armies in Klatch. Just as they are doing so, the Dis-organiser begins, in a voice far more chilling than its usual cheery one, giving appointments in the background: “Seven eh em... Organise Defenders at River Gate... Seven twenty-five... Hand-to-Hand Fighting in Peace Pie Street... Seven forty-eight eight eight... Rally survivors in Sator Square... Things To Do Today: Build Build Build Barricades...” Note the creepy ‘electronic’ repetition. “Eight oh two eh em, Death of Corporal Littlebottombottom... Eight oh three eh em... Death of Sergeant Detritus... Eight oh threethreethree eh em and seven seconds seconds... Death of Constable Visit... Eight oh three eh em and nineninenine seconds... Death of death of death of...”

Throughout all this, Vimes is facing a choice of whether to kill the villain and damn the consequences, but all he can focus on is the demon’s words: “Death of Constable Dorfl... Eight oh three eh em and fourteenteenteen seconds... Death of Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson...” And its final words: “Things To Do Today Today Today: Die...”

Vimes finally understands what is going on, and shivers at the thought that he nearly didn’t come. He nearly stayed in Ankh-Morpork. And he gets to hear what would have happened in that other timeline, while not far from all his friends and subordinates who would have died.

Of course, as one fan pointed out, there is an even more sinister consequence – that the other Vimes, in the other timeline, got our Vimes’ Dis-organiser. So he will have heard how everything could have worked out while all his friends die around him.

Jingo is a powerful and unexpected use of the AH idea within a narrative. With this, I’ve covered the four Discworld books which use AH tropes more than the others. Next time, we’ll be going back a bit to look at Pratchett’s pre-Discworld sci-fi work, Strata.

Comment on this article here.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

Look To The West (5 book series)

N'Oublions Jamais (Anthology)


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