I’ve read Going Postal by Terry Pratchett five or six times. Every time I find something new to laugh at, and that speaks to both the comic density of Pratchett’s work and its effectiveness.
For people who have always felt daunted by the idea of Pratchett’s Discworld, I’d suggest this is an ideal second outing. I think most readers should start with one of the Rincewind novels; I started with Interesting Times, but you can always go back and start with The Colour of Magic to really get a taste for its roots. However, if this is your first Discworld entry, I don’t think you miss much – Pratchett doesn’t waste time trying to relay the entire back stories of characters from other Discworld books who pass in and out of the narrative of Going Postal.
And what a narrative it is. It’s a story that would be at home in any more mundane fantasy work – a criminal is given the choice of death or public service, chooses to live, and eventually begins to find themselves in their work in a way they never had in their criminal career. It’s not an innovative story on the face of it, but the way that Pratchett works those well-worn tropes is where the magic happens.
The threats that face the unfortunately-named Moist von Lipwig (“pronounced Lipvig, you moron.”) are largely mundane. The Post Office he has been entrusted to steward wasn’t attacked by an ancient being or corrupted from within by Gods – it simply grew too large, too unwieldy, and the private sector drove it out of business. “The clacks” are a series of semaphore towers, linked in chains, that allow the quick transmission of information. Here, Pratchett delivers the fantasy version of the telegram or the early computer – without magic.
One of the things I love about Discworld is that it’s ever-changing. Most fantasy worlds are stagnant from a technological point of view – magic has either replaced most mundane tasks or remains completely inaccessible. Peasants are still farming in fields for thousands of years. News travels by horse and cart. Not so, in Discworld. Not only is this a boring trope, it’s unrealistic – people don’t rest content at their current level of technology. People strive to make their everyday life easier. Half the fun of Going Postal is watching how Pratchett brings new ‘inventions’ to life in a fantasy context. Going Postal features the creation of the stamp, for example, inspired by Von Lipwig’s previous life as a forger.
It’s very possible to argue that Going Postal, seen from a distance, is actually the story of the inadequacies of market forces. “The clacks” have no soul. They’re good at relaying short pieces of information, quickly, across long distances, but they’re expensive. Even more so, now that The Grand Trunk Semaphore Company has quickly formed a monopoly on service.
Going Postal doesn’t innovate in the plot department. Von Lipwig consistently outsmarts his opposition – but that’s what we expect from stories about intelligent people surrounded by incompetence. He’s the Sherlock of the Disc. He’s genre-savvy – if not breaking the fourth wall, then certainly winking at it. But Pratchett’s prose and his subversion and uptake of popular fantasy tropes make this a book I’ll always revisit. Pratchett’s work is always extremely readable, laden with dialogue that keeps things moving, but also leaving space for introspection.
“They’d saved the city with gold more easily, at that point, than any hero could have managed with steel. But, in truth, it had not exactly been gold, or even the promise of gold, but more like the fantasy of gold, the fairy dream that the gold is there, at the end of the rainbow, and will continue to be there forever—provided, naturally, that you don’t go and look. This is known as Finance.”
There are small asides like this throughout most of Pratchett’s work, and they serve to inject the narrative with meaning beyond the simple events. They’re also usually very funny. It’s hard to emphasise how funny Going Postal is – of course, your mileage might vary, but simply the wide variety of jokes will ensure that something will probably land. There are puns and wordplay, there’s sarcasm, there’s dramatic irony and humorous similes. As corny as it is to say, I read this book with a smile on my face. I can’t help but feel the same joy Pratchett must have felt in writing it.
Going Postal is set in a fantasy universe – but its subject matter is thoroughly modern. It’s the story of a public servant outsmarting greedy capitalists, it’s a redemption story, it’s a story about the interaction between new and old technologies. Read if you love the idea of fantasy with a twist, or intelligent humour. It’s worth every sentence.
“Nevertheless, he picked up a piece of smashed chair. It had splintered nicely. And the nice thing about a stake through the heart was that it also worked on non-vampires.”