While I was in one of my grad discussion classes a few weeks ago I said that I consider Terry Pratchett to be one of the great philosophers of the last few decades*. I mostly base that on the Discworld series, but his new standalone book Nation provides yet more evidence to support that statement. Like Discworld and many of Pratchett’s other novels, Nation works on multiple levels; it is a young-adult coming of age story, an entertaining exploration of social identity, and a commentary on topics ranging from metaphysics to shark repulsion. But from whatever angle you choose to approach it, the bottom line is that it does indeed work.
Mau is just finishing the process of becoming a man–no, not like that, stop it–when his entire world is ripped away from him. Upon returning to his home he finds that his island Nation has been utterly destroyed by a tsunami. The only survivor he finds isn’t one of his family, friends, or the hundreds of other people from the Nation; it is an English noblewoman named Daphne, stranded when the same tsunami that crushed his village tossed her ship deep into the island’s jungle.
As they try to recover from the initial destruction of the wave, they also have to figure out how to deal with the aftermath. Daphne may have arrived with a shipwreck full of supplies that will keep them alive, but there are other concerns as well. The two of them don’t speak the same language. Daphne has to learn how to fend for herself after growing up in a gilded cage. Mau has to try to reassemble his Nation from the desperate refugees that trickle into the island one canoefull at a time over the following weeks. And all of this is on top of being teenagers trying to understand how to fit into societies that really only exist in their memories.
Even worse, not all of the survivors coming to the island are as benign as the refugees. The Raiders, ancestral enemies of Mau’s Nation, have been sighted. Daphne’s past also contains some shady characters that may be a threat. Even the arrival of Daphne’s father, who she believes will be desperately searching every spit of land in the Pelagic until he finds her, would at the very least upset the fragile order she and Mau have been trying to reestablish on the island. But exploring the history of the island itself may have bigger consequences for the budding Nation than any of these outside influences…
Speaking of outside influences, it was impossible for me to read Nation without constantly thinking about a pair of real-life events that are related to the story. The most obvious is the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that took place while the book was being planned. Though Pratchett goes out of his way to let us know (via a brief author’s note) that the Pelagic is not the Pacific and that Nation takes place on an alternate Earth with a different history, the connection is really too strong to ignore. That being said, it is a connection that does not really add to or take away from the story; the real life tsunami just sat in the back of my mind and added context and a link back to modern reality in a story that takes place in a (somewhat modified) 19th century setting.
The other real-life event that was constantly intruding on my reading of Nation was the news of Pratchett developing an early-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease. (If–through some completely improbable twist of the Internet–Mr. Pratchett comes to read this, please feel free to stop with my apologies as I am yet another fan who is struggling to maintain that “I ain’t dead yet” attitude you’ve tried to encourage.)
Nation‘s tagline, repeated both on the cover and throughout the story, is “when much is taken, something is returned.” Every time I read that line I immediately flashed back to Pratchett’s illness. Don’t get me wrong; as somebody who has been through multiple degenerative and terminal illnesses in my immediate family, I know that it is really only a slowly unfolding tragedy for him, his wife Lyn, and the rest of his family. For the rest of us it is far, far less…yet, still, I will consider Pratchett to have been somebody great who was taken from us when his illness reaches its inevitable end. And maybe, in a temporal reversal, the books he’s already written are what will have been returned; but I will still mourn the Pratchett novels that only appear in Lucien’s library. So I have to say that this thought was strong in my mind as I read about Mau raging against his gods for taking away his world and I empathized with him as much because of it as much as because of any personal losses in my past.
That (long) prelude aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Nation. It is not as strong as the best Discworld books, but it would probably be in my top five and is better than Pratchett’s other recent novels. I am comparing it to Discworld not only because it is impossible to talk about Pratchett without bringing up that series but also because it shares many of the themes and ideas that Discworld explores. Indeed, the only thing that really keeps Nation from being a Discworld novel is a change in setting and an absence of the level of everyday absurdity that reigns on the Disc.
Nation is intended to be a young adult book, and it does read like one. With a few exceptions that are mostly (interesting) decoration, there are no intricate plot twists or deep explorations of character motivation. In this book, though, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Mau and Daphne are both written as empathetic characters who are dealing with tremendous loss with the same mix of uncertainty and a determination to keep living that you find in anybody who is dealing with tragedy. The supporting characters are one dimensional, but in a structural way that focuses the tale, not in a cartoonish way that detracts from the story. The simplifications are constructive, not reductionist.
In A Deepness in the Sky Vernor Vinge’s interstellar explorers, upon landing on a planet with ruins from a species they have never encountered before, don’t try to learn about the species by finding a museum or a library; instead, they try to find the equivalent of an elementary school, under the logic that since that is where the species tried to teach its own young it would be the best place for an outsider to learn their language. In many ways the YA age group provides a similar method of looking at a culture. If elementary school is about learning the basics of language, the teenage years are about learning the basics of society and the values that adults carry forward for the rest of their lives. Nation explores ideas of metaphysics, racism, social norms, family, and history in a very direct way that, yes, makes the book YA appropriate, but also serves as a fascinating study on those subjects for readers who are so enmeshed in culture that it is difficult to really look at where our ideas that make up that culture came from. As one quick example:
“He’s frightened of me, Mau thought. I haven’t hit him or even raised my hand. I’ve just tried to make him think differently, and now he’s scared. Of thinking. It’s magic.”
I’ve probably already written too much, but suffice it to say that Nation has all the elements you would expect in a novel from Terry Pratchett, including the most important: the feeling that you’ve just read a great story written by a master storyteller. I highly recommend Nation for any reader level.
* I expected a big argument to follow, since this was a group that had a pretty good background in the last couple hundred years of western philosophy; instead I got a lot of blank stares until one person broke the silence with “I don’t think anybody gets that reference.” I was sad, for several reasons.