The L-Space Web: Analysis

"Necessarily Extended Duration To The Red Army!
Regrettable Decease Without Undue Suffering To The Forces Of Oppression!"

(Pratchett, Terry. "Interesting Times," page 82. HarperCollins, New York: 1994.)

A paper for an Asian Studies Class
at a Maine High School
Written by Cathryn Mason

Satire has long been used as a vehicle for examining history. There are countless works satirizing this event or that public figure. The practice dates back further than can be traced, and is still in existence today. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is an example of modern-day satire. The series, numbering over a score of books, has lampooned a wide variety of subjects, from Ancient Egyptian traditions to the idea of democracy. One of the more recent novels, "Interesting Times," is a satire of the recent political history of China.

The Discworld series is fantasy; Pratchett uses the genre well to his advantage, creating myriad countries which are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the regions of our world on which they are based.[*] (Give that a moment. It'll start to make sense.) The Agatean Empire is the Discworld equivalent of the East - there are elements of Japanese-style culture, but it is mainly a play on China. "Interesting Times" chronicles - among many, many other things - the struggles of the Red Army and the overthrowing of the Agatean Emperor. The parts of the story that are relevant here are relayed mainly from the perspective of a recurring Discworld character, Rincewind. Rincewind, an incompetent "wizzard [sic]" from the other side of the Discworld, finds himself charged with leading the Red Army as a result of their belief that he has been sent to them by fate.

Rincewind's involvement with the Red Army - and thus the Army's introduction into the story - begins when one of their primary members rescues him from a near-arrest by Imperial guards. His rescuer, a woman named Pretty Butterfly, seems to be the most able member of this city's legion of the Army; it's a ragtag, sad little group, composed mainly of children and young adults who have lost their parents to the Empire's harsher laws. They put their faith in providence, their convictions, and Rincewind himself; his repeated attempts to explain to them that he's not what they need cannot penetrate the strength of their belief.

Aside from the immediate obviousness of the name, the Red Army draws several other elements from the Chinese Communist Party; anyone familiar with Chinese history can see that Pratchett did his homework before he sat down to write. One of these elements is extremely subtle, referred to only to or three times within the story's complicated framework, but it is there.

The Red Army's immediate goal is to bring down the Empire for the sake of the people; the laws are harsh and arbitrary, and the Empire rules not only through punishment, but through fear. The Army's belief that the country will be better off under new rule is genuine, but there are a couple of exchanges that indicate that some members have other things on their minds. The first is between Lotus Blossom and Two Fire Herb, and is overheard by Rincewind. At one point, Two Fire Herb says: "The People's Army is more than just individuals, Lotus Blossom!" (Pratchett, page 122.) Rincewind reflects that Two Fire Herb is really "talking about things being more important than people." (Pratchett, page 122.) In the context of the scene, this is something of a throwaway line; however, when considered in light of Two Fire Herb's dedication to the cause and overbearing personality, it speaks volumes about the sort of leader he could become if the Army were to gain control. It also shows a resemblance to Chang Jung's father's[**] dedication to the Party; however, Two Fire Herb, like most Party officials, does not possess Chang's moral fibre. He would more likely become the kind of corrupt official that rose in ranks in the sixties.

There is a stronger indication of this with Pretty Butterfly in a later conversation with Rincewind:

"'I had this sudden feeling,' [Rincewind] went on, 'that there won't be many water buffalo string holders [in other words, peasants] on the People's Committee. In fact . . . a lot of the People's Committee, correct me if I'm wrong, are standing right here?' "'Initially, of course,' said Butterfly. 'The peasants can't even read and write.'"
(Pratchett, page 171.)

This exchange adds to the subtle idea that the Red Army, in the end, might not be much better for the people than the Empire is. Pretty Butterfly is a forbidding character - stern, no-nonsense, intelligent - and shares the Army's fervent belief. She emerges as the most likely leader should the Army gain control. It is not unreasonable to envision her following Mao Zedong's path and becoming similarly corrupted by power and a desire to keep it. To complicate matters, it is revealed that Two Fire Herb fully expects to rule in the Army's name; this could result in a struggle for leadership, possibly (actually, given the Agatean approach to royal succession, quite likely) culminating in assassination. Like the Chinese Communist Party, the Red Army has conflicting goals - make things more equal; bring themselves to power. Such goals cannot coexist for long, and the Army would have to choose one over the other. This point is nailed home by Rincewind while he tries to explain the nearby battle to a peasant: "Some want to see you enslaved and some want you to run the country, or at least to let them run the country while telling you it's you doing it really." ( Pratchett, 239.) This remark, and the above examples, indicate that the Army, like the CCP, would ultimately choose power over equality. This is all speculation: As the story reaches its climax, the plot wrests control away from the satire, and the throne is seized by a character who has nothing to do with the Red Army. For the characters involved, perhaps it's just as well.

Pratchett satirizes countless other aspects of Chinese culture, both modern and ancient; the revolution is only one aspect of "Interesting Times"'s intricate story. Satire provides a skewed mirror to hold up to its subject, twisting and revealing details that might not get noticed, or might escape understanding, otherwise. Like any lighthearted parody/satire, "Interesting Times" is to be taken with a generous helping of salt. Like any good satire, it casts things in a sharper light without detracting from the story it tells.

[*] * With apologies to Douglas Adams.

[**] This is a reference to Chang Jung's Wild Swans, which chronicles three generations of her family and their experiences in revolutionary China. Throughout the book, Chang characterizes her father as a fiercely dedicated high level Party official, whose concern is not with power; rather, it is the Party's ideals. His strict sense of morality prevents him from becoming corrupted and from allowing his family to become corrupted, and ultimately leads to his downfall as moral ceases to be important within the Party. (And, as I learned after writing this paper, he was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia. Make of that what you will.)

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