Recently I was recommended the late Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, the 36th Diskworld novel. The story centers on the character of Moist Von Lipwig, the protagonist of Going Postal. Lipwig is a confidence trickster, thief, and ne’er-do-well whom we last left as the Postmaster General of the city of Ankh-Morpork. He’s settled down, and much to his consternation, has found himself uncomfortably ensconced as a pillar of the community.
But success is meant to be punished, and so when the city’s tyrant, the imposing Lord Vetinari, offers him a post has master of the Royal Mint and manager of the Royal Bank, Moist quickly finds himself drawn into confused web of power, privilege, and hats. But so much of economic life is a game of smoke and mirrors; who better to save the financial system than someone who intuits it for the farce it is? Who do you get if not a film-flam man? Ventinari puts it thus:
“You took our joke of a post office, Mr. Lipwig, and made it a solemn undertaking. But the banks of Ankh-Morpork sir, are very serious indeed. They are serious donkeys, Mr. Lipwig. There have been too many failures. They’re stuck in the mud, they live in the past, they are hypnotized by class and wealth, they think gold is important.” Lipwig’s all-too-sensible reply is, of course, “Er…isn’t it?”
And so begins Moist’s odyssey into the the archaic mysticism of the money system. Making Money is a book about economic ideas. The heart and soul of capital exchange is belief, and as a critique of the system, Pratchett engages its absurdity with a humility and humor that defines him for many of his biggest fans. Thorstein Veblen would have been proud.
But Pratchett does something else. He is one of those rare genre-writers who manages, with remarkable consistency, to utilize fantasy as a means of critique. Diskworld is too much like the world we know, and her inhabitants traverse eerily familiar ground. Pratchett feels a lot like escapism, but there is a deadly seriousness behind his witticisms. It is somewhat unfortunate that the story basically gives up during the final stretch, making an almost embarrassing about-face in the final pages. But most readers will forgive this: Making Money is the 36th Diskworld novel and some corner cutting might be inevitable.
As a genre, fantasy inevitably deals in mythology, and almost always in a backward-looking fashion. Readers of Tolkien would be forgiven for believing that he worshiped the past. After all, The Lord of the Rings doesn’t really offer an analysis of contemporary circumstances, but instead provides a retreat into its private myth cycle. And for much of itself, reads like a lament: it tells us that the world was better before, and as the story closes, the whole of Middle Earth feels somehow exhausted. Novels can’t help but reflect the circumstances of their writers, of course. Tolkien’s world was such a place. Britain’s economy was in the doldrums, and many of her best days were (and may still be) trapped in a wildly mythologized past. Through the latticework of language, novels offer readers a view into some heretofore unconsidered part of the human experience—the author’s. Fantasy might reimagine reality overtly, but it does not hold a monopoly on world-building; indeed, every novel is a self-contained vision of reality. Genre, like most things, is really a question of degrees.
But Pratchett escapes from the many of these settled tropes. He writes in the spirit of the satirist and assumes, rightly, that how his world came to be is the real joke. This irreverent attitude towards Ankh-Morpork’s traditions is exactly the key that gives Diskworld the possibility of a future. It also sets it apart from more “serious” works. Absurdity gives a space for action; the efforts of Ankh-Morpork’s heroes succeed because they are able to tug out loose threads—satire is about disruption, and this a world desperate to rise above its more barbaric past.
The pleasure of Pratchett’s work is that it somehow succeeds, even if a few people get hung for forging stamps along the way. One must maintain appearances, after all.