Unseen Academicals

The 37th novel in Pratchett’s “Discworld” series has been nervously awaited. Long-standing fans feared a decline in his writing after last year’s announcement of the author’s diagnoses with Alzheimer’s disease, and I know more than one person that has chosen not to read the book, wanting to remember Pratchett “at his best”.However, I’ve been reading Pratchett for years and own at least one copy of every Discworld book,which of course makes me both cool and impartial. I feel I know his work well enough to be disappointed if there was a significant change in style, and although there are differences, the humour and the insight that makes Pratchett so loved by so many remains. I can really recommend this book, whether you’re a follower of Pratchett or not. The author’s ever-critical eye scans the worlds of the academic institution, sport and fashion and, as ever, calls attention to the ridiculous, the hilarious and the admirable in each sphere, both in the Discworld, and in our world today.

For you non-Discworld fans out there, the series is concerned with aworld that travels through time on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the back of a giant turtle. Elephants and giant reptiles aside, the genius of Pratchett lies in his ability to use science-fiction to really examine people without getting too close to home to cause offence. As the series has continued, the communities have become increasingly metropolitan, the cities full of different species all struggling to get along and make a living, and new (electricity-less) technologies.

Whilst Pratchett’s world is reassuringly other, there are aspects that are decidedly reminiscent of everyday life. Unseen Academicals follows the recent trend of examining the modernisation that is occurring throughout Discworld, which unavoidably reflects on the real world. As with any Pratchett novel, the book is made up of a collection of story lines and characters inhabiting various ways of life, but the main theme that ties the book together is football (but don’t let this put you off!).

If, like me, you have found the seemingly worldwide obsession with football that crosses lines of culture, age and ability to be bewildering, please do not fear. Much like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, this book can shed some light on an incomprehensible topic, or explore a favourite subject: previous enthusiasm is not required. The main story line, which grounds many offshoots, concerns the cheese board of the Unseen University. It has been discovered that in order to keep the income of a grant to the University that finances the majority of the extensive daily menu for its Staff, the University must form a football team. The University and the ‘powers that be’ of the city must learn, regulate and develop the game of football from it’s current incarnation as a rough, illicit street game to a coherent sport.

In another story line is an attraction between an avid Dimwell fan and a budding model whose family have always supported the opposing team, the Dolly Sisters; replace Montague and Capulet with Arsenal and Tottenham and you begin to get the picture. But what made the novel stand out for me, beyond Pratchett’s sharp and resourceful humour, was the examination of repression, whether of the past, or of one’s self, through explorations of social situation, internal embarrassment or duty. Pratchett is as insightful as ever, and while his writing style may have changed slightly in lieu of the necessity to dictate due to his declining health, I still loved this book, and would recommend it to seasoned fans or curious newcomers alike.

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