Terry Pratchett, Nation (2008)
Nation is the kind of book that is delicious to read, but has a nasty aftertaste. It’s set in a nineteenth century different in several respects from ours. (For one, most of Australia is apparently underwater; the Pacific Ocean is the Pelagic Ocean; North America is known as the “Reunited States”; there’s no Queen Victoria, but there is a King, and he’s just died in a flu epidemic raging across Europe.) Mau is a young Pelagic Islander man — or rather, he would be a man, if a giant storm hadn’t wiped out everyone else on his island right before his initiation ceremony. But, as the ancestral spirits tell him, as long as he lives, the Nation lives, and so he begins rebuilding a society with an ever-growing number of survivors who land on the island.
The first of these is Daphne, an English girl who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck, and so there’s a lot of incredibly conventional “prim, sheltered young lady learns to live a little” stuff. There’s also the tiresome “sheltered white person meets brown people for the first time and learns that their fellow white people are the real savages!” thing. And then, of course, there’s the really overplayed conjunction of the two, all served up with a heavy helping of Terry Pratchett’s trademark Dreadfully Twee Capitalization.
It’s still a good yarn — I read it in a single sitting, I laughed, I cried, there’s a decently “deep” theodicy subplot — but the smug back-patting we’re all nice white people here factor only increases, culminating in an plot resolution that completely destroyed the story’s believability for me. Spoilers ahoy.
Daphne and Mau find a trove of artifacts that prove Mau’s people had advanced technology and sailed all around the world (See! We’re not being racist! Brown people can be better at science than white people!), which only deepens Daphne’s worry that when her rescuers inevitably arrive, they’ll claim the island for the British Empire (There were totally nice white people who were against colonialism!) and the nascent Nation will be destroyed. However, Just This Once, Rose, Everybody Lives, because…
…they convince Daphne’s father, the new King, to make the island the jurisdiction of not the British Crown, but the Royal Society.
COLONIALISM BAD SCIENCE GOOD!
heaves deep sigh
Pratchett’s enthusiasm for scientific inquiry comes through very well in Nation, and I think it’s commendable. But it’s sickeningly naive to believe that science can’t be a tool of exploitation or state power — especially back then. (They displayed people in fucking zoos! They measured skulls to “prove” that black people were less intelligent! And hasn’t he ever heard of eugenics?) And even if you want to argue that only legitimate science counts, you can’t assert that the narrow range of people who’ve historically had access to the academy hasn’t constrained scientific paradigms.
It’s just this perniciously blinkered blithe ahistorical scientism tossed off as a “happy ending” that totally took me out of the mood.
In conclusion, that’s why I’m not in atheist club any more.