Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Does Conrad Black have a Discworld Doppelganger?

and can Jill spell Doppleganger properly? We think not.

A few years ago, when it was hot off the presses (in paperback -- I'm cheap) I bought and read Terry Pratchett's "Going Postal". It is book 30ish in his wonderfully good Discworld Series. Many of the books in this series randomly pick up and drop stories from the lives of a few major characters -- the Witches (primarily Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg), the Watchmen (mostly Sam Vimes, but also his fellow workers), Rincewind, and Death (and more recently his grand-daughter Susan). Once in a while he also write a novel from the perspective of a new character, and introduces us to some new characters. Going Postal was particularly exciting becuase it was going to be a novel with a new main character -- Moist Von Lipwig.
I must say, on first reading the book I was disapointed. Many of the main characters were reworked versions of characters we have seen before -- Stanely was a lot like the "Phantom" in Masquerade, Junior Postmaster Groat was a bit like Sgt. Colon, and the golems were like, well, Golems. Moist was different, but also similar to many of Pratchett's protagonists -- an ordinary, self-made man driven into a powerful position by the force of his personality and ablility to think quickly and properly apply "headology" to any given situation. The plot was fun, but did not have the sparkle that I've come to expect from a typical Pratchett plot. I finished the book disapointed and a bit confused.

Then, this year, Conrad Black appeared back on the scene. For those of you who don't know, Conrad Black is a Canadian "media baron", who basically bought up almost all the newspapers in Canada, homogenized and streamlined them until they became a cash cow, sold the lot of them for a tremendous amount of money, and took the money (rather than giving it to shareholders) and moved to England where he managed to become "Lord Black". He is presently in Chicago being charged with fraud, racketeering, etc, etc.

When I heard about this case in the news I realized that Going Postal was a completely different beast than I had thought it was. It was a study in character. It asked the question, "Where do people like Conrad Black come from, and how in the world do they get away with soaking people for so much money?". So we have the minor fraudster, Moist von Lipwig, and his nemisis, the major fraudster, Lord Reacher Gilt. Reacher Gilt has, incidentally, bought his title and appeared on the scene in Ankh-Morpork out of the blue with large amounts of cast to throw around. He, of course, meets his match in Ankh-Morpork because he runs into one of my favorite characters, Lord Vetinari, Patrician of said city.

Reading the book from this perspective made it a lot more fun and interesting. The question "what motivates a person to spend his life soaking others for money, especially when he is obviously intelligent enough to rise to power and money some other way?" Pratchett's answer: because he can. Because he is facinated by humanity's ability to beleive patently ridiculous things if it appeals to their emotions or their pocketbook, and he is waiting for someone to stop him. The thrill is in the game, not the money or power that may come at the end of it.

In Going Postal there are several levels of the game. There is Moist's game to become trusted by the postal workers and the city, there is Reacher's game to take over the Grand Trunk, there is the game between these two con men, and overarching it all, there is the Patrician's game.

My second read of the book was much more enjoyable, and I would now suggest that you read it and see if you agree.

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