It’s said in the news business that if you only tell the truth, your audience will give you poor reviews, but I won’t be giving a negative review for Terry Pratchett’s The Truth. Actually, I don’t know if anyone says that, but like all of the major news agencies, why would I let a little thing like truth get in the way of a good line? After all, a lie can run around the world before the truth had finished putting on its boots.
There are certain authors who are giants in their genres because they are amazing talents, and there are certain authors who are giants in their genres because they are amazingly prolific. There are also a rare few who are both very talented, and extremely prolific. David Gemmel comes to mind, or Piers Anthony. Or Terry Pratchett. Rather than trying to read every book an author like Terry Pratchett ever wrote, I’ve found it better to keep him in reserve, to pull out and pick a new book from whenever I’m looking for a mental refresh in satirical fantasy form. There are few authors who can elicit actual laughter from me like Terry Pratchett can.
But this isn’t a review of Terry Pratchett’s writing, which would be a different kind of post. In this particular instance, I picked up The Truth when I was looking for such a mental refresh. One of the interesting things Pratchett does in his world-building is manage to make a magical amalgamation of ridiculousness that leads to “technologies” well ahead of their apparent in-world times, like a printing press and a modern newspaper in a city that has wizards and crime guilds and is generally twelfth century in nature. It doesn’t sound like it should work, which is true of a lot of Pratchett, but somehow, like most of Pratchett, it does.
The word that always comes to mind to describe a Pratchett novel is “whimsical,” although that doesn’t quite capture that deliberate ridiculousness of so much of the plotting and setting. That is not a critique: it is exactly what Pratchett seems to intend, and it works very well, far better than it sounds like it should. You have to read Pratchett to really understand why it works. Fortunately, Discworld novels are quick reads, so even those of you who tell me that you can’t possibly find any time to read should be able to sneak this one in. That being said, you may not want to put it down once you start.
Pratchett made an interesting pacing decision in this book, which is worth discussing: there are no chapters. There are occasional section breaks, usually indicating a change in viewpoint (the story is mostly told in what I’ll call loose third person limited), but no chapter breaks. This might seem like a minor thing, but it has outsized effects on the book’s pacing. The action in The Truth is not particularly break-neck – it’s actually a fairly plodding, mystery plot setup, for the most part – but because of the lack of chapters, it’s hard to know when to take a break and put the book down. As readers, I think we automatically look for those chapter breaks as a point to take a rest, even if sometimes we miss them completely (say, when reading Way of Kings, and you realize that the first chapter probably wasn’t really two hundred pages long – you just missed the chapter breaks because you were so engaged in the story). By not having chapter breaks, Pratchett immediately turns this novel, almost irrespective of its plotting, into a compulsive page-turner.
While I can’t pretend to guess why he may have made this decision – for all I know, it was just a fluke of the version I happened to have – if I were forced to make a supposition it would be that this is to reflect how newspaper stories try to draw you in and keep you in, an early version of the social media trap that people tell me about, where they click on an article and end up in a spiral of suggested links, sort of like me reading an interesting scientific paper with a good list of references. While the main plot is a mystery, The Truth leans heavily into Pratchett’s signature brand of thinly veiled commentary on real world topics, in this case the news industry.
It was probably back in early high school that I first started reading the news assiduously, and it’s a habit that I’ve continued to the present day. Every morning, I’ll sit down and read the newspaper while I eat my breakfast, and I look forward to quiet Saturday mornings when I can really relax and take my time with this activity. It’s interesting to me to be aware of what’s going on in the world, and while very few individual articles have afforded me great insight, the cumulative effect has allowed me to see trends and understand problems and events in a way that I could not have without what constitutes in effect a long-term holistic study of the present. It is also interesting to think how much the news industry is able to define what it news.
There’s been all kinds of talk in recent years about “fake news,” which is odd, because people have been making poorly researched, poorly supported, or outright false claims in various organs of news conveyance for as long as there have been forms of news reporting. There are carvings in cliff-sides from 3500 years ago that many archeologists suspect are a sort of genealogical fake news intended to make a usurper to the throne appear more legitimate, like ancient billboards taken out by the dominant political party to quash any doubts in the minds of the people. Yet at least as pernicious as any inaccuracies, willful or otherwise, that might riddle news reporting, I think is the ability of news organizations to define narratives and decide what is “worthy of news.”
Have you ever tried to learn more about something currently going on in the world that was outside what was being reported by media outlets? It’s surprisingly difficult to find useful analyses of that type, to the point that your only real alternative is to turn to primary sources and conduct your own analysis. While almost always the most rigorous option, there is an opportunity cost in the time involved, and it presupposes that you have access to primary sources. One wonders how many significant events we never learn about because they fail to “make the news” for one reason or another, and how many “sudden” or “shocking” headlines would be much less so if there had been reporting on all of the things that led to that newsworthy occurrence.
Ahem. Back to the book review. I suppose you could say that this was a thought-provoking book, or at least that it was an excuse for me to subject you to some of my thoughts which I had in a sort of tangential relationship with the book. In good Terry Pratchett fashion, I will end with a joke: whatever your thoughts on The Truth, I do hope you’ll give it a try soon.