Terry Pratchett Book Club: Nation, Part III

Can we separate out a nation from the concept on nationalism? In this book I’d argue that we can, which is a great thought exercise.


Daphne comes to and finds that Mau is still asleep, but no longer in a coma. She is hearing voices still, gods of the island, but not the Grandfathers—the Grandmothers. They tell her that she must tell Mau to roll away the stone, so she puts a new little girl named Blibi in charge of Mai and tells her to make sure he has soup on waking before setting off. Daphne heads through the jungle to the Man’s Place and yells at the Grandfathers for bullying Mau. She’s attacked by the grandfather birds, but Mau arrives with Blibi to give them beer, and they talk about the experience they just had. She tells him that the Grandmothers have started talking to her, and that they don’t want anyone else to die. Mau brings up the Raiders and Daphne suggests that perhaps they should hide, but then agrees that they should fight them off when they come. Mau tells her that he has figured out what Ataba thinks, that the trouser men left the stones and some tools ages ago. He wants to know why Daphne’s people are smarter, but she doesn’t think they are; she thinks that bad weather gets them working and moving. They gather a group to move the stone away with a crowbar, and head inside with lamps.

Mau, Daphne, and Ataba enter the crypt and find hundreds upon hundreds of Grandfathers in this place, all bone, tied together with papervine. They get deep enough to find one grandfather sitting on a white stone and he and all the men around him looking in a different direction from the other bodies. They follow that direction to see where it leads. Mau finds the door to a sea cave and hacks away at it. They all enter to find statues of the gods and more white god stones. The air is too thin to them to survive long there, but Daphne notices that there’s a body there with something in its mouth, and she thinks that there could be an indication of Greek or Egyptian in the cave. One Grandfather falls over in the dark, and a line of them begin to fall like dominoes, so the group runs and runs as the dust of the Grandfathers makes to escape their tomb. When they finally make it back to daylight, Daphne sees boots—trousermen, Foxlip and Polegrave, some of the mutineers against Captain Roberts. Daphne tries to think how to keep everyone here safe when they’ve got pistols, but Ataba has seen his gods, and holy fervor seizes him. He waves a spear at Foxlip, who kills him.

Daphne knows she has to outthink these men so they don’t kill anyone else. She tells them to take her back to her father for a reward and leave the rest of these people alone because they don’t have enough pistol shots between them to take everyone out. She takes them to the Women’s Place and Mau and the others follow silently behind to help her. Daphne offers the men beer, which they insist she drink first. She learns that Cox is coming soon with the cannibal Raiders. Foxlip drinks his beer without spitting in it and singing the song, and he dies. Daphne breaks Polegrave’s nose and steals his gun, then tells him to run, which he does. Then she thinks on how she’s committed murder, and Foxlip and Ataba are buried at sea. Daphne insists on a trial for the murder she committed, so everyone tries it out for her. She winds up needing to explain the whole story to them—how Cox came aboard Sweet Judy and made himself first mate, how the mutiny began, and how Captain Roberts didn’t wind up killing the man, but did set his group adrift in a small boat with pistols on a small island nearby. The group learn that these men kill dolphins and brown people for sport. They decide they’re demons and already dead, therefore Daphne is absolved of any wrongdoing.

Daphne tells Mau that he must follow her back into the crypt to see what she saw—a globe of the world that has fallen from Imo’s statue hands. She thinks that his people were exploring other parts of the world during the ice age. The white stone was brought there by their ancestors to make carvings and steps and statues of gods. Daphne wants scientific men to come here and explain what this place means, but Mau knows; it means his ancestors wanted people to know they were here. It also means that they are all connected, and Daphne’s explains that Mau’s people were incredibly advanced; their stories are descriptions of planets you should only be able to see with a telescope, and they made glass, and false teeth out of gold. (The Sky Woman takes the set they find.) Pilu tells the story to their band, that they were the first people and now they must fight the Raiders off with what the Sweet Judy has provided, namely cannons. Daphne warns against using them, but Mau promises he has plans. She tells them how to get the people ready for a battle more effectively and they practice. The Gentlemen of Last Resort stop to rescue someone in a floating coffin…


This book is genuinely a great read, but it’s also just incredibly useful for getting your brain working? I dunno, you could take a philosophy class or you could read this, and I think this is a more engaging way of going about the subject. Both Mau and Daphne serve as perfect distillators of these thoughts, entirely wrapped up in questions of what building a society is and means. As Mau says of what he owes Daphne for saving his life (by making him want to live at all):

“One person is nothing. Two people are a nation.”

Again we come back around to this idea that we are nothing without each other. We are not beings made to exist in loneliness. It only takes two people to make meaning. And it’s true in the most mundane ways as well as the Big Idea ones, too. I think of that every time my partner and I cook dinner together—if it’s me alone, I’d probably just… starve? At any rate, I wouldn’t feed myself well. It’s hard to see the point in making good meals for only me. Making that meal for us is a different beast. Us has a purpose, it means something. Me doesn’t hold the same weight. It never has. (Is this why I had so many imaginary friends as a kid?)

There’s also the continual point that even our most mundane thoughts are designed to make us more relevant, which is a helluva existential splinter to the foot. Mau is scared at the possibility of moving skeletons in the crypt, and knows he thinks of it because the idea is more interesting to his mind. They make him feel more important. And then he thinks:

Even our fears make us feel important, because we fear that we might not be.

…I don’t even know what to do with that. Because, again, we’re using this sort of supernatural example, but isn’t that exactly what anxiety is? The first point I always use to comfort the anxious people in my life is that no one is ever thinking about you as much as you assume they are. But that’s the functional bludgeon of anxiety; it’s making you scared via the fear that everyone is paying attention. Why is being a person like this.

Admittedly, I was worried that there wasn’t going to be much thought put into Mau’s frustration with trouserman technology, his feelings of inferiority and anger at their abundance. And I should’ve known better, of course: We’re being given the history of much of the world, which comes with an acknowledgment that plenty of ancient civilizations were far more advanced than we give them credit for, and gained their knowledge through means that we still can’t piece together. Mau’s people sailed the world in ages past, and knew the shape of the heavens. They had many of the same inventions and came to them far earlier than Westerners, but the record has been lost and dwindled down into mythology.

This is true the world over, and is often the reason behind “Ancient Aliens” theories. There’s obviously racism bound up in that, and general superiority and fear as well—after all, if any great civilization could forget much of what they’d created over time, then it’s bound to happen again, right?

Mau understands the implication of all this immediately, and what it means for the origins of other peoples. He tells Daphne:

“And when your learned men come here, we will say to them: The world is a globe — the further you sail, the closer you are to home.”

In this particular alternate history, my assumption is that Pratchett is intending Mau’s people as the Ur civilization that all others have sprung from. If that’s the case, it makes Mau’s survival and leadership of his people a far heavier tale. This is a brand new beginning, a major rebirth, if they can all survive it.

But even without Cox and his ilk, there’s still the very real question of imperialism to contend with. Will Daphne’s presence and connection to these people spare them any more than they would have been spared in our real-world timeline? I guess we’ll find out.

Asides and little thoughts

  • Ataba tells Daphne that imperialism/colonialism is basically the same thing as cannibalism because it’s just another way of eating people and, damn. Just, uh. Yeah.
  • Daphne thinks of Foxlip and Polegrave like those fish that swim around sharks (Cox) so they never get hurt—but she doesn’t know why the shark would allow it. Of course, now we know that it’s a sort of symbiosis thing, where the fish eat parasites off the sharks. I doubt Foxlip and Polegrave are doing anything so useful for Cox. It’s just useful for a bully to have other more malleable bullies around.


The hole in her memory was still there when Cahle had gone, and there was still a fish in it.

She swallowed it. It was only a dream fish, but such things are good for the soul.

She just wanted an explanation that was better than “It’s the will of God,” which was grown-up speak for “because.”

She’d heard that when you took a breath, you breathed in a tiny, tiny amount of everyone who had ever lived, but, she decided, there was no need to do it all at once.

It was horrible to watch her face change. It went from a kind of desperate excitement to dark despair, in gentle slow motion.

Next week we finish the book! icon-paragraph-end

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