The past couple of American presidential elections have emphasized the difference between the people’s will (i.e. majority vote) and the electoral college system. Hilary Clinton winning the 2016 election from the perspective of the populace’s will, she nevertheless lost due to the electoral college system, which leads to the question: does democracy truly exist in the USA? Using 20th century Chinese history as his source material, Terry Pratchett takes a more fundamental look at the idea of the “people’s will” in Interesting Times (1994).
Little to society’s knowledge, the reins of power in the Agatean Empire are about to be taken. The ancient emperor near death, certain slimy elements of the aristocracy’s underbelly are plotting a coup. Meanwhile, a people’s uprising, led by the Red Army, is building momentum in the lowest levels of society, looking to overthrow millennia of monarchy and install a government for the people. Enter Rincewind. Sent by the gods, he is given the task of helping decide the fate of the Agatean Empire. Rincewind runs into Cohen the Barbarian, who along with his band of octogenarian warriors, are looking to have one last ride into glory while preventing tragedy, promoting positive social change—wait, what? Even Rincewind does not know, but it seems destiny will have him be at least at the nexus of change.
For those familiar with Discworld, Interesting Times is a Rincewind/Twoflower/Cohen the Barbarian/wizards novel. Like that mix of characters, and you’ll likely enjoy the novel. I personally enjoy that mix, most particularly Cohen the Barbarian. Where Rincewind is up to his usual tricks and escapes, Cohen is invigorated with the introduction of a small band of followers, the Silver Horde. The manner in which Pratchett kneecaps the ‘glory’ of pulp warriors via these hoary geriatrics is wonderful.
It can be argued that Interesting Times tackles two subjects. Where Lost Continent is a Pratchett-ian look at Australian flora, fauna, culture, and history, Interesting Times does something similar with Chinese/East Asian culture and history. For better and worse, there are a lot of stereotypes bandied about. The reader’s sensitivity to such things will determine which side of that spectrum their opinion of the book’s cultural representation lies.
The second subject, the major theme of Interesting Times, is the overturn of government in the name of causes that are not always motivated by the greater good. Where the French Revolution is largely framed as a “democratic, people’s revolution”, there are few people who would frame China’s Cultural Revolution as such. Serving the needs of leadership, it was largely an affair ensuring the regime of Mao Zedong remained no matter the cost, that is, rather than a movement for the good of the people, as it was advertised. Putting the idea of democracy on a pedestal and setting this recent bit of Chinese history against it, Pratchett challenges the actions of a few done on behalf of the many, and whether or not they are truly altruistic—an interesting facet.
Interesting Times is not the greatest Discworld novel. The humor, while at times classic Pratchett (his taking the piss out of Cultural Revolution slogans is laugh out loud, and Cohen and the Silver Horde certainly have their moments), it is at other times ordinary. Pratchett has spoiled us. The usage of Chinese culture will be humorous to some, and potentially offensive to others. But it’s difficult to argue the device; the Chinese cultural revolution is the perfect sounding board for anti-democratic actions done by a minority in the name of the majority. Now, about that electoral college system in the US…