Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.
I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I role several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing. This week, I rolled 14,780 which turned out to be Terry Pratchett’s short story “The Hades Business.”
One of the things I’m hoping to get out of this series, from a person point of view, is to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I’m also hoping to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.
It’s always a good time to talk about Terry Pratchett! He was, simply, brilliant. Pratchett, who passed away in 2015 from Alzheimer’s, wrote the terrific fantasy series, Discworld. He gets my vote as one of the great satirists of our time. And he used classical fantasy tropes to do it! Did I mention, ‘brilliant’?
I re-read (and listen to) Pratchett books throughout the year. I got in the mood again recently, and did a mini-binge. Discworld is fantasy world, with the entertainingly horrible city of Ankh-Morpork at its center. Parody, homage, satire – they are fantastic books. Pratchett pokes fun at our world (especially, society) though these books. If you Google search, ‘Terry Pratchett quotes.’ you will get some absolutely terrific ones. Most are from his books, but real-life ones can be pretty hilarious, too. The man was just incredibly funny. Add in being very observant, and a good writer, and you have the ingredients of a great author.
It started when I decided to listen to a Pratchett audio book during the work day last week. I’ve read the series a couple times, and I can miss a bit here and there as I work. Jingo is one of the City Watch books. There are several ‘sub-series’ in the Discworld series, involving central characters. My favorite is the one with Sam Vimes and the City Watch. They are essentially very entertaining police procedurals, in a fantasy world. They’re a blast.
As readers of this column are certainly aware, I’m quite the fan of detective and private eye novels. Beyond just the guy that the whole thing is name after. As I mentioned in last week’s post on Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel, I’ve made several posts about the genre.
Related yet distinct is the police procedural (though some stories, like the aforementioned Caves, fit in both genres). As you can guess from the name, these focus on police officers, rather than private operatives. They are all over television, such as Castle, CSI (insert name here), Hill Street Blues, and brand new shows like Battle Creek. From Dragnet and The Streets of San Francisco to Hawaii Five O (which lasted 12 seasons before coming back in its current incarnation).
The literary police procedural, while popular, has a lower profile than its television version and is definitely overshadowed by the private eye story.
Evan Hunter (better known as Ed McBain), who I consider THE master of the mystery short story, wrote more tales of New York’s 87th Precinct than I can count: and I can count to one, two, three, many (that’s a Terry Pratchett joke). Probably my favorite straight police procedurals are Tony Hillerman’s novels about The Navajo Tribal Police. The subject of a future post, they are superb police mysteries, set in the Indian reservation lands of the Four Corners.
One of the many freedoms of Sword and Sorcery, it seems to me, is that it enables the adoption of a world that allows the writer to comment on just about anything on which one would want. One of Robert E. Howard’s purposes in the construction of his own Hyboria was to create a conglomerate of cultures, no matter how anachronistic their juxtapositions, so that his hero Conan might have any kind of adventure that Howard might think up. Whereas for previous tales, Howard perhaps had to construct different heroes for different historical epochs (Bran Mak Morn for the Celtic Picts, Solomon Kane for the sixteenth century, Kull for Atlantis), in the Hyborian Age Conan might be a thief, a soldier, a pirate, and ultimately a king, his adventures all the while providing Howard with powerful commentary on “civilization.”
So, too, writers after Howard have utilized this purpose. Dave Sim, through his creation of Cerebus the Aardvark, begins by commenting on the Sword and Sorcery genre itself (as well as the mainstream comic books of Sim’s time) and then goes on to explore High Society, Church & State, marriage – and this last, in Jaka’s Story, is as far as my reading has taken me, but I understand that Sim is so far reaching in his exploration of topics that in a much later volume he even explores the life and works of Ernest Hemingway through Cerebus taking on the position of Hemingway’s personal secretary!
Terry Pratchett uses the Sword and Sorcery milieu to ingenious satirical effect, cribbing directly (I believe) from Fritz Leiber in order to forecast to his readers, in the very first pages of the very first Discworld novel, just what tone and material his readers may expect. Pratchett’s initial perspective characters, soon abandoned, are Bravd and the Weasel (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, obviously). I quote the following description in order to give an example of Pratchett’s satirical treatment of Sword and Sorcery and to underscore, specifically, Pratchett’s debt to Leiber. For more humor, one might want to pick up this book and enjoy the way that these characters talk to each other – it’s impressively Leiberesque.