I've been a Terry Pratchett fan for a long time, but I think I've only recently figured out why. It's not just the humor, the satire, the outlandish characters, or the awesome power of his imagination. It's the way he layers these together in every novel, and Unseen Academicals is no different. Football (soccer) and love are wound up together amidst pompous wizards, blood-thirsty street thugs, and an orc searching for self-worth.
As he so often does, Pratchett chooses some societal institution — in this case football — and reinvents it within the confines of his created world. Two of my favorite instances of this are Going Postal and The Truth, and as with those novels, his characters lay the groundwork for the introduction of the element into the everyday life of Ankh-Morpork, that central city of Discworld. This gives Pratchett the opportunity to satirize our modern analogue, continue the expansion of his fictional world, and place his characters in situations both stressful and comical.
The principal subplot in this story concerns Mr. Nutt, an orc who has been raised by a vampire to seek out worth. He's been taught to fight against his monstrous tendencies by being intellectual and serving people whenever possible. In this capacity, he comes to work at the wizard college, Unseen University, as a candle dribbler. While lowly, it is also a massively important job. After all, what self-respecting wizard would have clean candles? They must, MUST, have intricate dribbles running down the side at all times.
Mr. Nutt also takes it upon himself to train the newly formed university football team, the Unseen Academicals. During one of the team's first practices, Pratchett weaves together his character development and commentary so comfortably, the complexity is easy to miss.
Ponder did see the ball curving majestically through the air, heading for the other end of the Hall where, behind the organ, rose the stained glass window dedicated to Archchancellor Abasti, which on a daily basis showed one of several thousand scenes of a mystical or spiritual nature….And then, like some new planet swimming into the ken of a watcher of the skies, as they are prone to do, a rusty red shape arose, unfolding as it came, snatched the ball out of the air and landed on the organ keyboard to the sound of gloing! in B flat.
'Well done, that ape!' the Archchancellor boomed. 'A beautiful save, but, regrettably, against the rules! …. Mister Nutt, why did you object when I pointed out that the Librarian, wonderful though his rising save was, was in infringement of the rules?'
Nutt didn't look up, but in a small voice said, 'It was elegant. It was beautiful. The game should be beautiful, like a well-executed war…. Mister Librarian's leap was both beautiful, sir, and good, sir, and therefore must be true and therefore the rule which should prevent him from doing it again would be proved to be neither beautiful not true and would, indeed be a false law.'
'That's right, guv,' said Trev. 'People will shout for that stuff.'
On the one hand, you've got the plot-level situation of the first goal save being made (the Librarian, I should point out is actually a man who was transformed into an orangutan. All his thoughts are communicated through the word "ook."). The Archchancellor is working off the no hands allowed rule, but accepts Nutt's sensible and eloquent explanation. Through the debate, which does wind around a bit, Pratchett is able to use Nutt to comment on a seemingly contradictory aspect of the game which most people have long taken for granted. It also helps develop Nutt's character, which is both submissive and morally right, despite what those around him might think.
In the end, Trevor Likely, a streetwise kid, translates the eloquence into common reasoning. Most soccer fans couldn't (or wouldn't) tell you that a great save is beautiful and true, but they will most definitely shout and groan and scream when one happens.
Through Nutt's story, Pratchett also returns to one of his favorite themes, the outsider's struggle for acceptance. In this case, it comes through Nutt's constant search for what he calls 'worth.' Orcs, according to Discworld tradition, are good for little else aside from ripping people's heads off. It's a stereotype which was well earned in the distant past, but one which Mr. Nutt is working hard to defeat.
This pattern has been repeated time and again in the Discworld novels. Whether it be a troll, a vampire, or a werewolf, Pratchett seems to constantly introduce characters that are traditionally maligned and shepherds them through the process of social integration. It is always more than simple assimilation, however, as the surrounding characters also break down their own assumptions, often despite pressure and hatred from the masses. Throughout his career, Pratchett has championed a faith in the individual over cultural bias, and that, to my mind, makes him one of our most valuable modern authors.
There's plenty more going on in this novel than what I've touched on here. Trev Likely is the son of a famous footballer who watched his dad die on the field and swore to his 'old mum' that he would never play. He's, of course, talented beyond belief and is definitely needed by the UU team. There's also his love interest, the vapid Juliet, who becomes a fashion model sensation when she dresses like a dwarf. Her best friend is Glenda, who finds herself caught amidst all the other characters and must wrestle with her smothering need to protect people, to the point of thinking for them. This conflict drives many of the others, as Glenda wants to help her friends, but also can't help dragging them back into a safe mediocrity.
Unseen Academicals is a classic Pratchett novel. It's a fun, complex story which uses fantasy to do more than entertain or foster escapism. The subplots are woven together with interesting characters that readers can easily care about, even though they are superficially alien. Ultimately, what makes this book, and all Discworld novels, worth reading is the sense of humanity which permeates the characters and society Pratchett's unparalleled mind creates.