November 16, 2011

One Shot World Tour: Book City - Ankh-Morpork

Atlantis. Brigadoon. El Dorado. Camelot.

These cities either sink beneath the waves, remain hidden under shrouds of mystery, or melt into the ether. Lost cities - fabled, fantastical hideaways that people go to war over and lose, then spend blood, sweat and tears trying to find again.

Mordor. Charn. R'lyeh.

Perhaps the loss of these places is deliberate. Perhaps it's safer that they remain unseen. Heere Ther Bee Dragonnes. Cthulhu. Sauron.

The cities are lost, all right? Maybe it's better to leave well enough alone.

Right, then, that's decided. We'll leave those places to sink into darkness and obscurity -- after all, who doesn't love a tale of a lost city that stays safely lost? We shall relish the mystery and obscurity... and turn our attention to the all-too-present city-states of Ankh and Morpork, which are now governed together as Ankh-Morpork.

No mystery there.

Just a strangely sludgy river, completely ridiculous inhabitants, and its own peculiar, stunning stink.

"Poets have tried to describe Ankh-Morpork. They have failed. Perhaps it is the sheer zestful vitality of the place, or maybe it's just that a city with a million inhabitants and no sewers is rather robust for poets, who prefer daffodils and no wonder. So let's just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound." MORT, by Sir Terry Pratchett

(The city mottos above and below the hippos are "Merus in pectum et in aquam" [Pure in Heart and Water] and, less straightforwardly,"Quanti canicula ille in fenestra" [How Much is That Doggie in the Window], again proving the theorem that anything said in Latin sounds obscure and intelligent.)

Occasionally known as The Big Wahoonie (A fruit the color of earwax with the reek of sick anteater), the combined city-states of Ankh-Morpork are the home of the mildly tyrannical Patrician (who leads the city in a "one man, one vote" type of democracy, only he's the one man with the vote) the City Watch, Death (and his skeletal rat sidekick), and a cast of characters which have carried readers of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels through eight creative and sharply humorous City Guard episodes. Ankh-Morpork is essentially the hub of a wheel in the Discworld universe -- everyone wants to live there, and everything that happens there has some reverberation throughout the Disc.

What is it about Ankh-Morpork that I love? Well, I love its character. It has a vast opera house, on the swanky Ankh side of town, cobblestones you can feel through the (cheap) soles of your shoes in the Shades; it has rains and mists with their own personalities, and stenches which rise up from the river almost bodily. It has -- is -- character. It practically owns its own lines in any of the novels. It has crazy street names like Treacle Mine Road, where you could once dig up real treacle (something which could only excite people who like it, eg., Brits). The city has strange hippos on its bridges, who allegedly will run away if the city is ever threatened by water (which would be a neat trick, since the river is so muddy it's mostly solid). The City has crazy buildings, like The Tower of Art on the campus of Unseen University, which throws off so much ambient thaumatology (aka magic) that it changes the pigeons roosting on its rooftop into somewhat more than nature intended pigeons to be... and explains the talking dog (any of the region around the tower is called Unreal Estate for a reason). Ankh-Morpork has texture and a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it remarkable and distinctive and home to about a million inhabitants - human, dwarf, troll, vampire, gnome, gnoll, werewolf, and "others," including zombies and the monsters that live under the bed and the Tooth Fairy. And Corporal Nobbs. That's the kind of city which simultaneously makes you feel at home, and makes you wonder how the heck you got there.

I would live there - on the Ankh side, but near the University, I think - in a heartbeat.

Ankh-Morpork is allegedly based on the cities of Tallinn (Estonia) and central Prague, but has elements of 18th century London, 19th century Seattle and modern New York City. Since I've been everywhere but Prague thus far (only in our time period... although, with Tallinn, who can be sure), maybe this is why the place feels so comfortable? Ankh-Morpork is a semi-medieval city that... works. Mostly. Except for incursion by the odd dragon, the City Watch does their job, the Patrician ...votes, and the rest of the rabble falls in line. More or less.

A favorite of the early City Guard novels is Men at Arms which begins with a diversity drive for "Be a MAN in the City Watch! The City watch needs MEN!" the posters blare. Well, "men" may not be the right word, because the city watch has found a.) a troll, b.) a dwarf, c.) a girl, and d.) incidentally, a werewolf. On top of all of that diversity, there's a serial murderer on the loose, the beginnings of a romance, semi-real pork, and a talking dog. Plus, the watch is going to be stood down and put on leave at noon the following day, for a wedding. As usual, things are a hair away from being ruined for good. Fortunately, the city of Ankh-Morpork doesn't breed timid men. Or, timid talking dogs, assassins, fools, or City Watch personnel, either.

If you've never read any of the Discworld novels, and this just sounds like a geek-ramble to you... well, it is. Other than providing you with story lines, almost anything I say about these books will contain spoilers - which is no fun. The Discworld novels are an acquired taste, but the thing is, it's an easily acquired taste, if you're in a slightly punchy mood and have studied philosophy (which describes half of the British people I know). It crosses easily into American readership because in spite of everything, the characters in the novels really love their city, and make you love it, too. There's patriotism and pride, as the Watchmen defend their city, and when trouble lurks (which really, is every other five minutes), the head of the city watch snarls, "Not in my town!"

I love all of the Watch novels, and to prepare myself for this city salute (and, for no really good reason otherwise except I reread these things about once a year), I started reading Men at Arms. It's a book which includes visits from Death, an invention of Leonard da Quirm (who is obviously a parody of Leonardo da Vinci), a scary clown from The Fool's Guild called Dr. Whiteface, and a visit with the head of The Assassin's Guild.

(Ironically, the clown is the scarier one in this scenario. Certainly he's scarier than Death, which tells you something about clowns.)

This book is one of the many which has modern technology stuck into a semi-Renaissance city. Because of this, it is well-received by its audience, and is one of the Watch books which most often gets written into a play (the one with the dragon might be a bit harder to stage). This poster is from a summer festival play in Wellington, New Zealand.

(This still sounds like a geek-ramble, doesn't it? Oh, well. The nice thing about this geek-ramble is that I'm not alone. Author Sir Terry Pratchett, together with a television personage have gotten together to make a City Watch TV Show. Soon, the geekery will spread...)

These novels are especially fun because they're marketed in Britain to adults - and teens. They cross-over perfectly for a people who have a lot of common experiences (like being required to take philosophy), but they cross the pond just as well, and if you enjoy the Tiffany Aching novels, these will crossover well for you, too.

You could start your foray into the Discworld by getting to now this famed city. Start your reading with the City Watch books (Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud! and Snuff) which will give you a feel for the city which is so beloved - and bedeviled - by so many. It will also give you a taste of Death (an anthropomorphic personification who talks in unquoted small caps), zombies, black-ribboner vampires ("Not one drop! Don't be a stupid sucker!") time travel, and C.M.O.T. Dibbler's sausage-inna-bun (which you should spit out immediately, you don't know where that's been). If you begin now, you can read through the Watch series and then get on with The Hogfather by Christmas...

Whatever cover you choose, you'll find in these books a fabulous city with hidden streets, bizarre people, and a fascinating cast. Enjoy! And please enjoy more Book City salutes today!


Colleen said...

This is an amazing indepth and incredibly entertaining post and you rock incredibly for writing it.

I never get tired of reading your stuff, T. Never.

Sarah said...

Stellar post! Makes me want to both visit the place and pick up a Discworld novel. I've read quite a few, but none of the City Guard books oddly enough. Must remedy this!

Anonymous said...

Lordy, but I love this post with a full-hearted, geeky sort of love. I have not (yet) read enough Discworld novels to know lots about Ankh-Morpork, but like what I know from Guards! Guards! and I Shall Wear Midnight.

You so rock, T.

tanita✿davis said...

@Colleen: "Amazingly indepth" = "Oh, dear Lord, so geeky and long." Heh.

@Sarah: you won't regret it - seriously.

@Kelly: make some of your minions go to the library and get you MEN AT ARMS. It's perfect on-the-couch-feeling-craptastic reading material; a lot of laughter and thinking goes on.

LinWash said...

Great post!!! I love me some Terry Pratchett! LOVE his City watch books. Vimes is my favorite character!

MotherReader said...

Honestly, I only followed you to Mordor. But you get the slow-hand clap from me for a most excellent piece of geek-ramble. And I know my geek-ramble, which if why I'll be forwarding this post to my husband who will totally get it. I knew I should have gone on for my geek degree after college.

tanita✿davis said...

@Lin: You continue to show your superior taste. Vimes is the best character, ever.

@Pam: Hah! Well, if PapaBook does love this series, you should make him read it to you - Tech Boy reads them aloud to me, and the books are so much fun.