Boris Johnson’s candidacy for mayor of London could have come straight from a Terry Pratchett novel: a lovable buffoon with no discernible accomplishments becomes a leading contender for just those very qualities (ie buffoonery, Liverpool-bashing – is there anything else?). Bullyingly jovial, faintly sinister and with no apparent plans for the city except to promise the exact opposite kind of tyranny as the current tyrant-incumbent, all that remains is for him to be revealed as a multi-tentacled demon to make a jolly good Discworld novel. Vote for him, it may yet happen.
If you’ve never read Discworld , then perhaps you’re unaware that what started out as a very funny fantasy spoof quickly became the finest satirical series running. It has dealt with – among many other topics – racism, sexism, journalism, death, war, the army, the Inquisition, the ambiguous nature of good and evil, and the uncomfortable power of narrative, all in novels that are smart, hilarious and humane. Come to think of it, if you’ve never read a Discworld novel, what’s the matter with you?
Making Money is the second of the series to feature conman Moist van Lipwig. Introduced in Going Postal, Moist was narrowly saved from hanging by Lord Vetinari, the ruthlessly efficient despot of Ankh-Morpork (“Do I need to wear a badge that says tyrant?”), and put in charge of rejuvenating its moribund postal service. Beneath the delightful silliness and the slendidly awful puns lay a startlingly savage attack on the greed of privatisation. The scurrilous investors in Ankh-Morpork’s communications system were an obvious attack on a denationalised rail service, cutting corners and endangering lives, all the while offering meaningless platitudes about “improved directives” and apologies for the inconvenience of being killed.
In Making Money, Moist moves on to the Royal Mint. Banks in Ankh-Morpork are failing, and who better to give them a shot in the arm than an admitted thief and smooth-talking showman? “The city bleeds, Mr Lipwig,” says Vetinari, “and you are the clot.” The satirical punches are exchanged for a more thoughtful, philosophical approach. What is money? Is it really nothing more than the agreement we all make about it? Is it therefore really nothing more than a form of showmanship?
Things, of course, do not go smoothly. The bank’s chairman is an excitable little dog called Mr Fusspot, left 51% of the shares in the deceased chairwoman’s will. The chief clerk of the bank, Mr Bent, hates Moist on sight as a committer of that worst of sins: silliness. There is suspicion, in fact, that Mr Bent may indeed be a vampire. He is not; he is something much worse. And in the basement, a Mint worker has managed to build The Glooper, an analogy engine that represents the economic life of the city through water-filled glass tubes. But analogies have power in Discworld, and The Glooper may now be controlling the city rather than vice versa.
And what is Moist’s girlfriend, the chain-smoking, flinty-as-flint Adora Belle Dearheart, doing digging up more golems outside of town? Would walking, talking golems made of pure gold mess up the gold standard? And who is the mysterious Cribbins, come to blackmail Moist over his shady past? Just when you think you’ve got everything figured out, Pratchett goes in a completely unexpected direction, opening up new questions about power and empire while incidentally laying fertile groundwork for yet more stories to come.
Because even though Making Money is the 36th Discworld novel, Pratchett isn’t resting on his laurels. Just as Lord Vetinari is beginning the Undertaking to modernise Ankh-Morpork with underground railways, so is Pratchett refreshing his series. In addition to the ongoing City Watch and Death strands, the Witches strand has been redirected into the delightful Tiffany Aching novels for kids, and here with Moist’s second appearance (and hints at the end of what his third might be) Pratchett has created a fresh new character to poke serious fun at City institutions.
As a novel on its own, Making Money is not quite as successful as Going Postal, lacking some of that book’s forward drive. There also seems to be a division of targets between banks and mints which is never fully reconciled, but there are sharp questions here about why we trust banks and good reasons why we shouldn’t, as well as the nature of money itself. Banking, as Mr Bent puts it, rests on “a tacit understanding that we will honour our promise to exchange a dollar for a dollar’s worth of gold provided we are not, in point of fact, asked to”. Which would be funny if the customers of Northern Rock hadn’t just discovered how true it actually is.
What makes this and all the Discworld books special, though, is their humanity. Halfway through Making Money, someone is babbling pseudo-religious nonsense about the “last shall be first”. But what about all those “who aren’t first but who aren’t really last, either?” a decent woman asks. “You know, jogging along, doing their best?” These are the people that Pratchett cares about, the ones jogging along, the ones who get taken advantage of by banks and large corporations and bad government. He won’t shirk at making fun of them, but he also loves them and it’s this big-heartedness that makes these novels so smart, so moral, so good. We are exactly the sort of very silly blighters who would elect a Boris Johnson, but Pratchett would also argue that we’re the same sort who would find a way to let him strangle himself on his own tentacles. So, there’s hope yet. Patrick Ness in The Guardian
ALTHOUGH Terry Pratchett’s comic novels are set in the imaginary (and, of course, flat) Discworld, do not assume that they are divorced from contemporary concerns.
His latest, Making Money, is almost spookily relevant, featuring scenes so reminiscent of events at Northern Rock that it should probably be reviewed on the business pages. Moist von Lipwig, the appealing former conman introduced in Going Postal, faces a new challenge when the chairman of the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork dies, leaving the majority of shares in the bank to her dog, Mr Fusspot, and bequeathing the dog to him. Never one to take the easy way out, Moist decides to modernise the bank and enrich the city by replacing gold with paper money.
“Gold is only valuable because we agree it is, right? It’s just a dream,” he explains. That our entire economic system is based on a consensual fantasy may not be a new idea, but no one but Pratchett would have the nerve – or skill – to make the theory of fiat currency the subject of a comic fantasy. He makes it look so easy, as he embeds the economic argument within a swift-paced story involving golems and gold, necromancers and lap-dancers, a set of killer false teeth, political chicanery and lots of good jokes.
Making Money may be the 31st Discworld novel in a series that began in 1987 , but there’s never a hint of staleness. It is as bright and shiny as a newly minted coin; clever, engaging and laugh-out-loud funny. Lisa Tuttle, in The Times
Fiction has produced many great cities – Dickens’s London, Joyce’s Dublin, Calvino’s Eutropia. But rarely has a city of words recreated the farcical accommodations of urban life as well as Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork. Readers of the Discworld series have seen the city of Ankh Morpork emerge from corruption and chaos into a slightly more managed form of corruption and chaos. Now they are witnessing its transition to modernity. Ankh Morpork is ‘full of ingenious people spinning wealth out of the common clay of the world’, but despite its riches, the city has no banking system. Now there is an Undertaking to be completed, a miraculous system of underground streets. And it needs money. Lots of it. It is surprising that Pratchett has taken so long to get on to the subject of money and a pity that when he does get here, he is beginning to flag.
This is the 36th instalment in the Discworld series, and the second to feature Moist von Lipwig, con artist and civic entrepreneur. In Discworld 33, Going Postal, Lipwig was given the task of revitalising Ankh Morpork’s moribund post office. Making Money follows the same narrative structure, only this time at the Royal Mint, and the repetition palls. Reading this book, one cannot escape the suspicion that he is painting by numbers.
Pratchett has wit here, but has lost his normal cutting edge. The dullness manifests itself most clearly in the hero. Pratchett is not usually keen on heroes: his protagonists muddle through only because their enemies are more ludicrously inept than they are. Moist, in contrast, is good at what he does and young, handsome and charming. This sort of hero is bound to be slightly dull. He is a con artist and meant to be forgettable, but to the dupe, not the reader. When Pratchett is at his best, he matches the greatest satirists in piercing the veil of shared illusion. In a time when money’s absurdities puzzle even those who purport to possess it, we need him to do better. Rowland Manthorpe, in The Observer
Banker Moist von Lipwig explains it all: Monetary policy was never so hilarious as author Terry Pratchett gets the circulation going. It’s minty good.
Everybody likes money. We like getting it and spending it. Except to counterculture antimaterialists, it’s a universal object of adoration.
But monetary policy? Not so much. The process of printing money and the science of distributing it, plus currency standards and accounts and interest rates, can, in ordinary hands, provide a cure for insomnia.
But those are not Terry Pratchett’s hands. Yes, that’s right – Terry Pratchett is back, and has delivered yet another tale from Discworld, bringing the total up to 36 books (proving that Pratchett’s hands are very busy indeed). Making Money also heralds the return of Moist von Lipwig, the hero of Pratchett’s 33d book, Going Postal.
Having revived the struggling post office of Ankh-Morpork, the former condemned thief is now faced with a life of boring normalcy, punctuated by the occasional danger of picking the post office locks. However, after seeing the excellent work Moist has done with the post office, the city’s tyrant ‘requests’ that he turn his talents to the corrupt and inefficient local bank. It’s a job Moist resists, but once the bank’s current chairwoman dies and leaves the majority of her shares to her dog, Mr. Fusspot, and Mr. Fusspot to Moist, there’s little he can do to avoid it.
So he plunges into the world of banking – simultaneously learning about and reinventing the processes of minting, accounting and standardizing – and swiftly moves the city from gold coins to paper dollars. Meanwhile, he must contend with golems, dead professors, possible vampires, the vicious family that directs the bank, and the return of his chain-smoking fiancée, Adora Belle Dearheart.
After 36 books, it’s no surprise that Pratchett is adept at maneuvering characters and plotlines to make what could easily be a royal mess run as smoothly as Moist’s post office. What is amazing, though, is the consistency with which he does it. Throughout dozens of books, Pratchett has rarely had a misstep. He’s always clever, always funny, and always surprisingly timely. His obvious delight in the silliness of human nature makes his stories witty, and his emphasis on fun overall helps to sweeten the bite of his deadly-sharp social commentary. Even when he delves into economic explanations, he never loses track of his storyline and his characters. An elucidation of the paper dollar highlights the ridiculous characters of small-minded businessmen; a discussion of supply and demand includes a rather mad scientist and his Igor (a species that lives to work for mad scientists).
This sense of humor is the driving force in Making Money, infusing each sentence with jokes and puns. When Pratchett’s not having fun with the quirks of the species he creates, he’s cracking jokes about politics and skewering the ridiculous social nuances of the not-quite-ordinary cityfolk. On a single page, he can employ intellectual puns and dabble in potty humor, and his special knack for taking everything extra-literally provides endless amusement. His world is more than just an alternate universe – it’s a delirious roller-coaster ride that never allows the reader to even consider getting off.
Sure, a few things are less than perfect. The great secret of the chief cashier is rather unexciting, the green mushrooms growing on the finger of one of the evil bank directors are frankly disgusting, and the very name “Moist von Lipwig” is an unsavory mouthful. But in a book that is so wonderful overall, these are potatoes so small as to be practically invisible.
Plus, the thing about a 36th book is that most readers will likely have sampled at least one or two of its predecessors. While a newcomer might easily pick up Making Money and enjoy it heartily, the majority of readers will probably come from Pratchett’s legions of existing fans. For them, any praise Pratchett derives from the publication of this book will be completely expected, entirely unsurprising. And, after 36 books, that’s exactly how it should be.
Elizabeth Fox, in Philadelphia Inquirer, Pueblo Chieftain, San Jose Mercury News, and elsewhere
Reprieved confidence trickster Moist von Lipwig, who reorganized the Ankh-Morpork Post Office in 2004’s Going Postal, turns his attention to the Royal Mint in this splendid Discworld adventure. It seems that the aristocratic families who run the mint are running it into the ground, and benevolent despot Lord Vetinari thinks Moist can do better. Despite his fondness for money, Moist doesn’t want the job, but since he has recently become the guardian of the mint’s majority shareholder (an elderly terrier) and snubbing Vetinari’s offer would activate an Assassins Guild contract, he reluctantly accepts. Pratchett throws in a mad scientist with a working economic model, disappearing gold reserves and an army of golems, once more using the Disc as an educational and entertaining mirror of human squabbles and flaws.
Moist von Lipwig, the savior of the Ankh-Morpork post office, has gotten settled into a routine. He’s filling out forms, signing things, will probably get to be head of the Merchants Association next year, and he hasn’t designed a stamp in months. He’s so bored, in fact, that he’s taken to climbing the walls of the post office and breaking into his own office. Lord Vetinari, always brilliant in his ruthlessness, recognizes an opportunity when he sees one, and offers Moist the job of running the royal mint. Moist tries to refuse, pretending that he’s satisfied with the stable life, but he can’t deny the urge for adventure and intrigue for long. The mint is, in the finest Ankh-Morpork tradition, a strange and oddly old-fashioned place, with bizarre traditions so ingrained the long-term employees can’t imagine doing them any other way. Moist is the perfect innovator, with his wildly creative solutions to problems, for changing the way the entire city thinks about money. In the transition from the gold standard and old money, Pratchett brings up all the details that make Ankh-Morpork one of the most satisfying contemporary fantasy cities and continues in his trend of beautifully crafted, wickedly cutting satire on the underpinnings of modern human society. Making Money is smart, funny, and a thoroughly entertaining read. Regina Schroeder, in Booklist.
Background illustration © and by courtesy of Marc Simonetti