Terry Pratchett Book Club: Unseen Academicals, Part I

Story


I regret to inform you that I know zero football chants. This will not be my finest hour.

Summary

Smeems, the Candle Knave of Unseen University, is doing his rounds in the middle of the night with Mr. Nutt, who is acting apprentice. They keep the candles lit all about the place, including the Emperor candle, which is never supposed to go out. (It does, frequently, but Smeems doesn’t discuss it.) Nutt is an unaccountably bright young man, who hopes to see more of the university as time goes on. The faculty finishing their Hunting of the Megapode, which Ponder signs into the record as their new Master of The Traditions. (Rincewind dressed up as the Megapode, and has to go for a lie down afterward.) Ponder has received this new position upon the revelation that no one has held the post for over two centuries. He takes it in part to help keep the staff’s mind off the fact that the Dean has just retired, a thing that wizards generally never do—and to teach at another university for money, no less. Ponder finds an important tradition that the university has ignored the past twenty years; they must play a football match or lose a very important bequeathal to the school from former Archchancellor Preserved Bigger. Downstairs, Glenda scolds her gorgeous friend Juliet for not showing up to work on time on account of watching football.

Turns out Nutt is a goblin, which is a group that endures a ton of prejudice thanks to a long-ago war that no one remembers very well. He does his best not to upset anyone as a candle dribbler, and does most of Trev’s work for him. Trevor Likely has also been watching football (on the opposite side to Juliet), and he takes Nutt up to the kitchens to get them some food from Glenda. Meanwhile, Ponder does some calculations and learns that they could get by without Bigger’s trust if they significantly cut down on food expenses. The wizards are horrified, and Ridcully uses that to get them on board with the football game (which they don’t have to win, but he’d like to). Trev tells Nutt he’s going to take him to the next football match and asks him to find out Juliet’s name from Glenda. Meanwhile, Juliet asks Glenda about Trev, while Glenda suggests that she could get a better gentleman if she tried to speak a little more posh. Nutt used to live in Uberwald in “Ladyship’s” castle, where he learned and read all the time and tried every discipline. He’s a bit bored at the university, but he’s safe there at the moment. Ridcully goes to see Vetinari, who already knows of their predicament and has already made plans to formalize football within the city, insisting that the wizards be a part to it.

It also turns out that Vetinari is aware of Nutt’s placement at the university (and is having him looked after there as a favor to Lady Margolotta). Ridcully asks a boy on the street where the next match will be so that he can observe it. Nutt asks Glenda for Juliet’s name, which Glenda gives knowing full well that Trev is the one who asked for it. She gives him Juliet’s last name too—Stollop, which is bound to cause more trouble for reasons Nutt doesn’t understand. Trev gets Nutt dressed in Dimmers football colors and is, in fact, upset to find out that Juliet is a Stollop because his dad was Dave Likely, a famous footballer who got more goals than anyone in a lifetime. They head to the match and Trev tries to teach Nutt to be more like one of the lads. The wizards are heading to their first match and Ridcully has asked they be accompanied by university bledlows, which makes the group nervous. On her half-day off, Glenda usually goes and sells wares to lady trolls for Mr. Stronginthearm, but she runs into Juliet again. The Librarian always goes to the football matches, and is bemused to find Nutt and his fellow wizards attending this time around. The wizards try to figure out where to stand and observe, while Trev introduces Nutt to Andy, whose dad is captain of Dimwell, and the rest of his friends.

Nutt is learning about being in the crowd of a game, and finds he’s very good and shoving his way through it. He spots Glenda, who has come with Juliet. As Trev is trying to talk to Juliet, she presses a Dollies team pin into his hand, which he hides on his person. Nutt catches an incoming ball, and asks what should be done with it—Glenda points toward the goal. Nutt makes the goal from a great distance, easily, and breaks the goal post. Trev knows this is going to get the crowd angry, so he drags them all away as fast as he can. While Trev is trying to find out about Nutt’s childhood and get help writing a love poem, Juliet’s brothers show up, and then Andy too. Trev tries to stop them from fighting, but Nutt makes a blithe comment, and Algernon Stollop hits him with a club, killing him instantly. The group dispatches, and Trev brings Nutt to Constables Haddock and Bluejohn, begging them to take Nutt to the Lady Sybil hospital. Angua questions Trev because if an Igor needs to revive you, Vetinari has decreed it was still murder. Doctor Lawn arrives to let them know that Nutt was apparently sleeping; he sat up in the hospital, asked for a sandwich, and left. On his way out, Trev is stopped by an Igor who tells him that he thinks Nutt is dangerous.

Commentary

As is sometimes the case in Pratchett narratives, the main arc of the plot is hardly a dour thing at all—the wizards aren’t going to starve regardless, and football’s induction into the larger societal fabric is hardly the most important political change the city has undergone in recent memory.

However, here we learn that Moist von Lipwig is far from the only person Vetinari is keen on giving their one shining chance to. Though, I suppose to a certain extent, we have always know this: Vimes was the first experiment the reader is exposed to on that front, and there have been many others. Vetinari’s entire schema is built upon it, and while it does nothing to eradicate poverty, war, or general suffering, it is true that on the Disc, if you are lucky enough to possess strange talents in need of nurturing, and happen to cross his path, Havelock Vetinari will do everything in his power to give you that one chance (and arguably many—Moist definitely gets more than one, no matter what he thinks) you need to reach your fullest potential.

It’s an imperfect system, but it does permit for a kinder than average world in certain respects. And, pointedly, if you squander the chance by using your own unique gifts to harm others, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has no compunction about ending your journey, removing you from the body like a limb with gangrene. For an erstwhile assassin, he’s very particular about how death is employed, but has no difficulty being dispassionate about it.

This is how we wind up plunged into the story of Mr. Nutt, whose species has been basically unknown to us in some three dozen Discworld books so far. (We get out first real hint with Igor feeling the need to warn Trev about him.) There’s a deep Pygmalion-esque vein to this side of the story—even if the My Fair Lady reference goes to Juliet instead—though this is calling to mind my own favorite version, being the musical Bat Boy. Nutt is far closer to Edgar’s tale than he is to Eliza Dolittle.

Trev’s turnaround is one of the main factors that makes this book work, in my opinion. An entire novel that centers around all the terrible “lad” rules and behavior that football comes attached to would have been a slog for me. Having Trev snap to the moment he thinks that his friend has been killed by this sort of nonsense instantly makes me like him better as a character, and helps the story move along to more interesting places.

The structure of the book is still odd, however. It makes out as though we’re finally going to get a book that’s entirely about the university wizards instead of keeping them in their usual comic relief shenanigan sector. This works for a tiny sliver of time before we’re immediately introduced to the “below stairs” group at the university.

The satire is still strong with the collegiate stuffs, of course: Academicals is a word upended to more than one university team, and the Hunting of the Megapode is a send up of the Mallard Ceremony at Oxford. While in their version, someone carries a wooden duck around on a stick for the Fellows to follow, here we’re chasing Rincewind-with-feathers-on about the place. Why didn’t we didn’t get more of that.

Also, someone save Ponder. I realize the overworking is mostly his own fault, but he could use an assistant or something.

Asides and Little Thoughts

  • The gap between this book and Making Money was the longest the world had gone without a Discworld book since the gap between its very first tomes. (This book is a bit longer than usual, at least.) And now I’ve made myself sad.
  • The pickle carts? They have pickle carts? *cries in sadness that no one has wheeled a pickle cart over to me*
  • Lord Vetinari forcing the Ankh-Morpork Explorers’ Society to rename to the Trespassers’ Society because everywhere they “discover” already has people living in it is… look, if you’re gonna be a tyrant, be this kind of tyrant. Inflict your correctness on people.
  • Okay, but Alf and Nobby are related, right?

Pratchettisms

Traditionally, in the lexicon of pathos, such a bear should have only one eye, but as the result of a childhood error in Glenda’s sewing, he had three, and is more enlighten than the average bear.

This thing was all of them, plus some other bits of beasts unknown to science or nightmare or even kebab.

After all, you could afford to buy beer or you could afford to buy paint and you couldn’t drink paint unless you were Mr. Johnson at number fourteen, who apparently drank it all the time.

The glass, now in Ridcully’s hand, trembled not a fraction. He’s held his job for a long time, right back to the days when a wizard who blinked died.

Ridcully walked on sedately, while the years fell back on him like snow.

Apes had it worked out. No ape would philosophize, “The mountain is, and is not.” They would think, “The banana is. I will eat the banana. There is no banana. I want another banana.”


Next week we’ll read up to:

She made fourteen more successful calls before calling it a day, posted the orders through Stronginthearm’s letterbox and, with a light case and uncharacteristically light heart, went back to work.

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