‘Night Watch’ is one of Terry Pratchetts phenomenally successful Discworld series, a satirical fantasy franchise covering upwards of forty books and a whole range of cultural subjects. Pratchetts readership is as varied as his subject matter, and he is the second most poplar writer in Britain. Pratchetts trademark is the lettering of his name on all the book covers, in a crooked, quasi-gothic font, with the first name on top of the second. The name is now associated in the readers minds with everything the franchise represents.
The word ‘Discworld’ now conjures up connotations of playful wit, in-jokes, cultural references and an underlying intelligence, mixed with a distinctly British ideology, and love of the underdog. The cerebral nature of the books makes them almost unfilmable, although five adaptations have been made.
When a person buys a Pratchett novel, they are buying an alternative to the usual run of fantasy: This is why the SF/Fantasy club keeps them under a separate heading. What the franchise represents is a separate genre, falling over itself to re-examine the assumptions society makes; In part, this includes laughing at the assumptions of fantasy and its stereotypes.
The satire comes from the close examination of social ideas, which also allows him to make relevant points; for example, is war just another crime? If so, what if it were possible to arrest the armies? And is money a sort of shared dream? after all, a ten pound note is only paper. The humour is a mixture of Horatian and Juvenalian satire. The former gently calls to attention the less logical aspects of human culture; The latter attacks more serious subjects with the spirit of biting scorn that characterised Juvenals attitude to Roman corruption. Discworld both portrays and
examines popular culture in a way that appeals to the masses.
‘Night Watch’ could be described as a turning point in Pratchetts writing, as it is the first of a number of darker novels he wrote, employing Juvenalian satire. The exceptional nature of the book is signified on the cover, which, in typical Pratchett style, is also a cultural reference and a parody of a Rembrandt painting.
It is done in a dark, semi-photographic style, suggesting a crime novel more than a fantasy. The cover design is a semiological sign of the dark content.
In ‘Night Watch’ Pratchett examines the real nature of law in a modern context. A policeman is pitched back in time, along with a psychopath. Both find themselves in a lawless city, on the brink of a revolution. The conflict between these characters signifies the struggle between law and crime.
Pratchett uses the criminal as a signifier to express the sign which is his idea of crime in our society; he depicts crime as a mindless and undirected force “blind and mystified”, motivated only by personal desire. Conversely, the hero
comes to full consciousness and recognises the responsibility of his role: he must become the embodiment of law in the face of lawlessness: He thinks “When we break down, it all breaks down”. When the law threatens, it threatens in the name of order, rather than violence, putting it above crime morally and intellectually. Since this is modern Britain, our ideology dictates that crime must be depicted a certain way, and defeated, because we value law and order above violence. Context affects subject matter greatly-in ancient Greece for example, the dominant ideology was different. Pratchetts ideology is British, and modern, which makes this a timely, not a timeless book.
Pratchett presents a picture of society in deep trouble. There is rife corruption, dangerous, stupid laws and officially sanctioned terrorism. There are plots on all levels of society to overthrow the government. All of this leads back to bad rulership. Chaos makes law difficult to establish: When offered a position of power, the hero thinks “In this city?…now? [the watch] would just be another gang.”
This is Pratchetts way of defining what society should not be.
However, to pass, as Barthes would put it, from Semiology to ideology, we can say that we have a writer here who believes that law and order are not so very hard to re-establish, in Europe at least; Compared with American fictional policemen, Pratchetts hero has an easy time of it; For example in the American Die Hard franchise, the hero is nearly always beaten to a pulp, and so covered with blood and wounds that you can hardly bear to look at him.
Conversely, the hero of “Night Watch” only needs a long sleep and a shave to recuperate.
All in all, “Night Watch” signifies the current British perception of law and order.