Nation, by Terry Pratchett
Mau is a native of an island chain in the balmy southern seas, a boy about to go through the rites of manhood when a tidal waves wipes out his home island. The wave also wrecks a british merchant ship, leaving a young girl as the sole survivor. Together, Mau and Daphne will discover a secret that shocks the world.
Pratchett is a terrific storyteller, and Nation is a terrific novel. The plot, setting and characters are fully and beautifully developed, and structured around an idea grounded in the science-fiction genre.
The novel is a worth-while read and beautifully crafted. It’s also funny. And sombre. When I put it down, I wanted to pick it up again. Pratchett is brilliant at capturing small truths and making them real.
What a disappointment then when I realized the heart of the novel is an old lie – one that is common to sci-fi and almost as old as humanity.
The cover hints at a very compelling theme that I thought Pratchett was going to support: “When much is taken, something is returned.” It’s a great idea. A tidal wave kills everyone Mau knows and loves, erasing a culture and forcing him to re-examine his belief in the protection (and existence) of old gods. But the wave also brings the wreck of a british merchant ship and a single young girl. In effect, the wave brings science. The wave brings self examination. The wave brings truth. At last science replaces a belief in the old gods.
I like this sort of thing because I believe all belief systems ought to be examined and tested. The death of one’s family would be a catalyst for change, and if the old gods are really there, well, they ought to be able to stand under a little examination.
What bothers me about the theme of Nation is its humanistic hypocrisy. Faith is evidently the only thing that needs challenging. Science isn’t challenged at all, because science is Truth.
But is it? I don’t mean, is it in real life. We all know science isn’t Truth in real life. I mean, is it Truth within the framework of the novel? The answer is clearly No. What makes the story compelling is the tension between faith and science, and the best parts of the novel are those when faith actually seems to have something going for it. Mau talks to Death, and Death talks back. He walks in the spirit world. Daphne walks in the spirit world. Dead people speak to both of the characters.
None of which makes sense in the context of the novel’s theme. If it is explained at all, it is in the final chapters of the novel when we are told that “everything happens somewhere.” It turns out that Mau and Daphne live in a parallel dimension. Infinite other dimensions exist around them, so that at some point in one of those dimensions everything will eventually happen.
“Everything happens somewhere” is the rationalization atheists use to explain the vastly improbable design evident in the universe. It’s not a bad idea in terms of its usefulness in science fiction. My problem with it isn’t that I think it’s wrong, though I do. My problem with it is that it isn’t science. It’s faith.
Put simply, Pratchett uses faith to support the idea that science trumps faith. I suspect he is uncomfortable with this idea, because the end of the novel, which I will not spoil, has a mystical flavor to it that simply doesn’t work. It reminds me of the end of Inherit the Wind, when Drummond takes Origin of Species and the Bible, weighs them in both hands, and then places them together in his briefcase. This doesn’t work as an ending because Inherit the Wind isn’t about how Darwinism and Purpose can peacefully co-exist. It’s about how the Bible is stupid and people who believe it are stupid. Nation lacks ITW‘s hostility, but its ending shows a faith-is-good-when-it-doesn’t-require-anything-of-us attitude common to western humanism.
I find it ironic. The best, most interesting parts of the story are those that require Something Beyond. The book wouldn’t work without them. It would be dull. It would be all answers and no questions. It would be facts and not mysteries, incidents and not adventures. Pratchett tells us (actually, Death tells us) that there is only what does happen and what doesn’t happen. Which renders the tidal wave and the death of Mau’s loved ones meaningless. Mau’s life is meaningless. Even the secret he and Daphne uncover is meaningless if this is true. Science is no better than faith; it’s just different.
But of course Pratchett doesn’t really mean this. He means that Science really is better than Faith… and everything really is meaningless. To prove it he will even resort to using both faith and meaning. No, it doesn’t make sense. But it does make a good read.
I do not need to agree with an author’s worldview to enjoy his work, and I thoroughly enjoyed Nation. Unfortunately, the story is inherently flawed because its theme isn’t proven by its events. What it calls Truth simply doesn’t work. It can’t work–even in a parallel dimension.