Tuesday, February 20, 2018

You’re Dead. (Mort)

“You may be a barroom gambler
And cheat your way through life,
But you can’t cheat that little black train
Or beat this final ride.”
-Woody Guthrie, 2014
Just this once, EVERYBODY DIES!
Of all the Terry Pratchett novels, it is perhaps fitting that this is the one that gets tangled up in his project like a poor, unsuspecting piece of bread daintily swimming in a duck pond. Though it is not my favorite novel set within the Discworld1, it is nonetheless the better suited given the thematic interests of this blog. As with many of the early Discworld novels, the novel’s core is taking a rather silly fantasy convention2 extremely seriously.

Given this, several possibilities could arise. What if, for example, Death took a holiday?3 Who works at Death’s house?4 And, of course, does Death have any relatives?5 But the question at the heart of the book is “Given that Death is a physical being and thus something someone does, what would happen if the Grim Reaper took on an apprentice?” Not a lot of good, as it turns out, though it would be wrong to say this had a completely negative effect. For starters the apprentice decides to make the rather dumbfounded decision to not let the princess die when she’s supposed to6. This, in turn, led History to get a bit vexed over the whole affair7 and forcing its vision upon the world, whether the Disc likes it or not8.

This of course leads us to the question: how do you get out of dying? Not in the sense of a near death experience like almost tripping into the path of a moving train or watching Jack and Jill. Nor do I mean having a dream where you die, only to wake up. No, what I’m talking about is the experience of dying and inexplicably not being dead a few weeks later. The book posits this is done by having some allies on working within the system of sending souls to the next life, but that tends to be difficult for systems like the one the Discworld runs on9. One could try to make friends with the person typically running the whole shebang, but that tends to be difficult as they’re10 a bit of a shut in who, like many self employed people, only goes out for work and family11.

But there are other ways out of dying. Let’s look at the driving vision history wishes to impose upon the world. In the original scheme of events, Princess Kelirehenna was supposed to have been assassinated by her uncle, the Duke of Sto Helit, via the subtle methodology of a crossbow accidentally being aimed in her direction and fired. It was written that this action would in fact be the greater good12. While the history of Queen Kelirehenna I would be one typical of a monarch, the reign of King Duke of Sto Helit13 would unify the lands into a glorious future.

Some of you may be thinking that if such a future is in the cards History wishes to deal the Disc, then we must accept them and let Kelirehenna die for the greater good14. But if one has any knowledge of history and History, you would of course know that unifications of such a magnitude at the speed of a single generation hinging upon which member of a royal family is sitting on the throne is typically resolved by a series of bloody massive bloody wars, and those that are “prosperous” tend to be the ones with the same skin color, language, and slightly less money in possession than the ruling class while everyone else dies horribly painful deaths.

Suffice it to say, the Great Man Vision History wishes to impose on the world is rather shit for most people. The alternative the book provides is… another fucking monarch. Discussing Pratchett’s infatuation with the monarchy in general and “the right kind of leader” specifically is for another project15, but what’s equally interesting is how those Death tasks to fill the role of the Great Man who will unify the lands and bring prosperity for a hundred centuries aren’t in the mold of Great Mans.

Consider: firstly you have a commoner so unimportant that nary a person bothers to say his name, calling him “lad” or “boy” or something along those lines. Next you have Igneous Cutwell, perhaps the closest thing the group has to a Great Man in that he works in profession of Wizardry16. However, Cutwell is simply a first level wizard and not a very good one at that17. And of course there’s Ysabell and Kelirehenna, both of whom are quite explicitly not Great Mans. Sure, they both come from a royal bloodline and they have both been touched by forces outside what most would call the natural world18, but the fact remains that they are both clearly not Great Mans because they aren’t men19.

If one were to be generous, one could argue that these people who have no idea how to be the Great Man of History, will in turn try to unify the world through means other than the ones done by the Great Mans before them. Perhaps they’ll take a more diplomatic approach and try to unify the peoples20 of other cultures via trade and communication. Perhaps weddings will occur and their children will reign peacefully. Or perhaps they’ll just say screw it and invade all the other countries for the greater good21.

But the thing is, we don’t know what will happen next. Sure, we could make educated guesses as to what will happen next, but those aren’t necessarily what will happen in the end. If one is a student of history, as opposed to History, one begins to notice that the various branches of is and will be tend to happen due to the most inexplicable of circumstances22. There is no vision of History that can account for the adlibbing nature of life, for all things are happening at once. The story of the Princess who didn’t happens at the same time as the tale of Death the Fry Cook and that of a litter of kittens who drowned in a barrel. Life is full of inexplicable, contradictory events, not all of which are covered in History.

And life is better for it. For if life could be simplified to a mere formula of “And then the rotten king slaughtered the foreign barbarians, bringing about an age of enlightenment and peace to the lands for many centuries to come”, then it would be very dull indeed. The Life Blood of Life23 is these contradictions to the grand scheme of things. These out of context moments that invade what should be a straightforward narrative of the rise of Kings and Great Mans, but instead turn the story into something completely different.

Agents of History will try to repress alternative views of history that go against History, refocusing the facts to fit their views. But history has a way of being more convoluted, contradictory, and interesting than that. So maybe that’s how you get out of dying: you have to be more interesting alive than dead. And history is known for finding even the most mundane of things extremely interesting. After all, you’re still here, aren’t you? Our very existence shapes the history of all things, despite what History has to say. It can be as large as burning a house down or as small as opening the door for someone with too much in their hands. By existing, we shape the narrative of life. The most unimportant of things have an impact, even an ok book like Mort.

(Next Time: The Interconnectedness of All Things)

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[Photo: Hide and Q Directed by Cliff Bole Script by C.J. Hollad and Gene Roddenberry]

1) Reaper Man
2) Hold on, the Grim Reaper1 actually exists?
1.     “Grim” is a slight misnomer. Far more accurately would be to refer to him as “The Melancholic Reaper” or “The Reaper Who Feels Ennui” or “Bill Door.” Regardless, these are all shorter names compared to his official title: “The Stealer of Souls, Defeater of Empires, Swallower of Oceans, Thief of Years, The Ultimate Reality, Harvester of Mankind” and so on.
3) While the novel does briefly get into the implications of this question, it is handled more in-depth in Reaper Man
4) A rather rubbish1 wizard called Albert.
1.     This refers more to his character rather than the quality of his magic.
5) No, but he has an adoptive daughter by the name of Ysabell.
6) Though the rational is quite understandable: she was kind of hot.1
1.     It should be noted that the lad isn’t as rubbish as this implies. Immediately after noticing this aspect of his attempt to save the Princess’s life, he decided to not treat Princess Kelirehenna like some prize to be won but rather as a person.
7) Contrary to what one might assume given History is a sentient force within the universe, humanity does indeed have free will. It’s just that History would’ve preferred it if they didn’t, much like how many a director don’t care for any and all adlibbing. Like said directors, History tends to respond by beating everyone else into submission, only to be circumvented at the last moment by the editor.
8) Though in truth, the Disc was mostly indifferent to the affair.
9) The system works thusly: a single anthropomorphic personification takes on the shape of Death and sends the souls of the dead off to the next life. The exception to this is for rats, wherein the anthropomorphic personification takes on the shape of Death of Rats.
10) Pronouns for Death have always been difficult. Sometimes Death takes on the usual form of a skeleton in a black robe, other times they’re a Goth girl with an umbrella, and, on occasion, they’re some weirdo in a pair of skis working for the God of Evil despite being more of a neutral force within the universe. For the purposes of this blog, we shall refer to Death with the gender-neutral pronoun of They/Them/Their.
11) Even then, you might be out of luck as Death spends the majority of the story easing their way into being human via attaining the dream job of many an English Major: Fry Cook.
12) The Greater Good.
13) They really didn’t give him a name, did they?
14) The Greater Good.
15) Such a project would most likely written by a better writer than I, like Jed Blue.
16) Indeed, wizardry is notable for birthing many a Great Man such as Alberto Malich and Rincewind the Not-Dying.
17) This is more of a problem of “I’m perfectly fine where I am, no need to go any further” than “I think we can all agree we’d all be better off if I wasn’t a wizard.”
18) The latter via having her death being prevented, thus causing History to work extremely hard to rewrite things to fit its vision, whereas the former is the adoptive daughter of Death.
19) History tends to be very specific in terms of what it wants and has been known to rant about the evils of SJWs when that doesn’t happen.
20) As an aside, there’s a bit in the book that’s terribly racist wherein a clearly Asian culture has their Grand Visser die and the leads are extremely impatient with all of their “O holy emperor” and “Most gracious ally” and so forth. It’s just a black spot on what’s an overall quite good book and makes one suspect that my optimistic reading won’t happen due to an imperialist’s impatience.
21) The Greater Good.1
1.     Shut it!
22) One need only look at the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which began as a series of failed assassinations including one humorous bit wherein the assassin who was the closest to killing Ferdinand tried to escape via jumping off of a bridge. Sadly, he didn’t account for the shallowness of the water and broke his leg. As the police were circling in on him, the assassin tried to take a cyanide tablet, but it was expired so he just puked a lot. The only reason Ferdinand was assassinated in the first place was because one of the assassins who did escape tried to cheer himself up for the utter failure of the day with a sandwich at a shop nearby where Ferdinand’s car would break down. Life is strange, as they say.
23) This is not to be confused with the Life Blood of Rassilon, which kills those who drink it. As Rassilon himself put it when questioned about it “Why of course you call it “Life Blood.” If you go around calling it “Poison” or “Death Blood,” no one would be fool enough to drink it. Now have this healthy beverage, I call it…” and the rest is lost to history, but no doubt would’ve been called the Healthy Beverage of Rassilon.

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