Mon, Nov
19
2007

The Fall of Moist von Lipwig and the Rise of Ankh-Morpork

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Moist von Lipwig, alias Albert Spangler, sits on death row. Convicted of fraud and grand larceny, the irascible rogue and con-artist has charmed the Ankh-Morpork media and even his own prison wardens, but all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. It remains only to be led to his well-attended execution, put his neck through the noose and wait for the trap door to open. Which Moist does with a sigh and a shrug.

And so Albert Spangler’s story ends and Moist von Lipwig’s story… begins.

Moist wakes up to find himself in the Oblong Office, across the desk from Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician (tyrant) of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork. Moist has been hung, literally, to within an inch of his life, and now Vetinari would like to offer the man a reprieve. With strings attached, of course.

Lord Vetinari is remarkably well informed about Moist’s life. He addresses Moist by his true name — something Moist von Lipwig hasn’t heard since he was a teenager (and with a name like “Moist”, you can understand why). And Lord Vetinari has a lot of confidence in what he thinks Moist can do. Vetinari has saved Moist’s life to offer him the job of Postmaster General of the Ankh Morpork Postal Service. The position comes with a generous salary, an apartment, not to mention a golden hat. It also comes with the task of bringing a moribund postal service back from the dead and deliver the forty years of mail that have accumulated since the post office delivered its last letter. Oh, and survive, since four previous postmasters met mysterious and fatal ends; there are forces at work that would kill to ensure the Ankh-Morpork postal service stays dead.

So begins Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, a Discworld adventure lampooning the postal service, the Internet, computer geeks and robber barons. But Going Postal and its sequel, Making Money are more about two people, one ruler and one city: specifically Moist von Lipwig and his soon-to-be girlfriend Adora Belle Dearheart, Patrician Lord Vetinari, and the citizens and infrastructure of Ankh-Morpork. We see not only the transformation of one individual from criminal to hero, but the rise of a feudal city into the modern age.

A good companion to these two books is Pratchett’s own Night Watch, which stars Commander Samuel Vimes as head of the Ankh-Morpork police. In this story, while running down a cop-killer, Samuel Vimes has the misfortune of running into a break in the space-time continuum, catapulting him into the past, and the beginning of his own career with the Night Watch. This story read in conjunction with Going Postal shows just how much Ankh-Morpork has changed over thirty years.

Thirty years ago, the largest city in Discworld was tense, under curfew, and run by a mad and complacent dictator named Lord Winder. Today, under Vetinari, the city is open for business. Through Samual Vimes, Vetinari has created an effective police force that can even arrest Vetinari himself. Through William de Worde (see The Truth), Vetinari has allowed the creation of a Free Press (sort of). The guilds have the rest of the population carefully organized. It’s clear that Vetinari wants to drag the city’s lagging institutions kicking and screaming into the Century of the Anchovy. And Moist von Lipwig appears to be precisely the Lancre Army Knife to do the job.

Of course Moist bridles at his restrictions, but Vetinari holds all the cards. Through most of Going Postal, Moist is watched 24/7 by a de facto probation officer in the form of a golem named Pump 19. Moist’s first attempts to escape are rebuffed with hilarious ease. And then, as the task of getting the moribund post office back on its feet, through wind and rain and bizarre postal guild procedures, not to mention sabotage from the robber barons of the competing semaphore clacks consortium, impresses itself onto Moist, he finds to his horror that he is beginning to enjoy the work.

Moist is, at heart, a con man, a rogue, a likable rascal. He is a man who finds joy in thinking on his feet and staying one step ahead of the mobs with the pitchforks. Dealing with saboteurs who’d go as far as to burn the post office building to the ground? Another day at the office. Encountering a sullen woman (Adora Belle Dearheart) who smokes like a chimney and can spear a man with the heel of her shoe? Ask her out. It all sets Moist’s thinking afire.

Pratchett entertains us with Moist’s tenacious investigation of the Post Office’s dark secret — why did all letter delivery stop over forty years ago? — and Moist is an excellent straight man to encounter the bizarre rituals of the remaining postal workers who are just sitting about. But as Moist comes to embrace the job and deliver the first letters, much to the shocked delight of the Ankh-Morpork populace, we also enjoy seeing the ride of a young criminal learning the error of his ways and turning his dubious skills to good use. It’s no accident that throughout much of the story, Moist’s primary opposition is Reacher Gilt, the head of the competing Clacks consortium (sending messages across Discworld by semaphore, “at the speed of light”). Reacher is all that Moist is, times ten, and without the kindly demeanor. And pretty soon Moist realizes that he has to embrace his new job and fulfill Vetinari’s wishes, if only to show that he is not the man that Reacher Gilt is.

He is aided in his quest by Adora Belle Dearheart, an unfortunately named but highly capable and attractive young woman who has herself been an unwitting victim of Moist’s frauds. Her family, however, has more reason to hate Reacher Gilt, for it was her family that set up the Semaphore network (Discworld’s telephone/Internet analogue), only to have it stolen from under them by Gilt. Adora’s brother then died in mysterious circumstances as he tried to set up a competing company. The tension between Adora and Moist sparks their relationship, and it’s something that continues into Making Money.

Given that there is a sequel, you have to know that Moist’s effort to revive the post office succeeds, but at the beginning of Making Money, success is Moist’s own worst enemy. The post office is now functioning effectively, and Moist literally climbing the walls at night in order to give himself a little thrill. Just in time, Vetinari intervenes and offers Moist a new challenge: take over the operation of the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork and its associated mint, and transform Ankh-Morpork’s currency into something that can be folded in one’s pocket and which doesn’t need to glitter.

Like the post office, this is not a job with a long life expectancy. The bank is controlled by members of the Lavish family, an uber-rich clan in Ankh-Morpork that bear a remarkable resemblance to the Medicis, without the appreciation of art. Only the current chairman of the bank, aging matriarch Topsy Lavish, is within the realm of sane. Not only does she immediately recognize Moist as the con man that he is, she agrees with Vetinari that leaving the bank in the hands of her step-children would be a disaster. Moist, she believes, would be an ideal replacement. But Moist declines. He’s about to marry Adora Belle and decides to commit himself to a respectable and safe line of work, even if that means defying Vetinari’s wishes and his own desires. But Topsy has other plans, which she makes clear in her soon-to-be-executed will.

Making Money has its moments, but doesn’t match up to the highs of Going Postal. It plays at the intricacies of modernizing Ankh-Morpork’s economy, but you had more of a sense of that quantum leap in Going Postal when people started using the Post Office’s stamps as a secondary currency. In comparison to the idiosyncrasies of the post office, the banking system is a little boring, and the Lavish family is not the frighteningly effective businessman of Reacher Gilt. This assessment is confirmed when Adora Belle ends up stealing the narrative with the accidental discovery of 4,000 golems that then offer themselves to the economy of Ankh-Morpork, coincidentally stopping a run on Moist’s bank in progress. The storyline is not as coherent, though it is still a delight to see Moist at work and interacting with Adora (who seems particularly struck by the fact that Moist only engages in risky behaviour when she is not around — those two should end up having a pretty interesting sex life, I think).

Both Going Postal and Making Money also make good companion pieces to The Truth, which follows William de Worde and the foundation of a free press in Ankh-Morpork. In these three books, as well as the stories of Samuel Vimes, you see Ankh-Morpork pulling itself out of its feudal past to become the multicultural, pre-eminent city of Discworld, all guided by Vetinari’s expert hand.

This is one of Pratchett’s strengths writ large: his characters grow and change over time and there is no use of the reset button. He clearly loves the individuals he writes for and wishes them well, and they respond by learning from their challenges and becoming better people — heroes, even. So we have the rise of Moist von Lipwig, the rise of Samuel Vimes, the rise of William de Worde, the rise of Ankh Morpork.

It’s all quite heartwarming, though one fears that the danger is that there soon won’t be anything else in Ankh-Morpork for Pratchett to improve. The ending of Making Money suggests a third sequel, with Moist at the helm of the government’s tax collection agency, and one can see a story in that. And hints of Vetinari’s “Grand Plan” with underground streets and sewer systems could provide more for the author to mine (one can only imagine the fun he’d have with the world’s railfans in a story about the Anhk-Morpork Underground). But beyond that, the only thing I really have concern about is what do we do when Vetinari kicks the bucket.

But the Discworld is large, and the next book on the plate, I’m told, is a fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series, which I am looking forward to. Pratchett has managed to keep the interest in his Discworld series alive, despite penning over forty novels. While Making Money might be of uneven quality, his other later works (especially Going Postal) are solid. And it should be interesting to see where the venerable author goes next.


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