Terry Pratchett’s Nation is his first non-Discworld novel in something like twenty years. Set in an alternate Victorian Era Earth, this quasi-fantasy novel takes place primarily on a South Seas island with no true name—it is just The Island, home of The Nation. The novel begins with a tragedy: a giant tidal wave sweeps the Island (shades of the 2004 tsunami disaster), killing everyone except Mau, a young native on the verge of becoming a man; and Ermintrude, who calls herself Daphne, a young Englishwoman who is the lone survivor of a ship wrecked against the Island by the wave. Alone together, Mau and Daphne set about trying to survive together, while struggling to make sense of the tragedy and trying to deal with other refugees of the tidal wave who begin arriving on the Island.
Because this is a Pratchett novel, the work is very familiar. It is not a Discworld novel, but it sure feels like one! There’s the sharp but naive hero in Mau; Daphne is a plucky, intelligent, but socially sheltered heroine; the villains are generally one-dimensional, wholly selfish, and destined to get their comeuppance; and the cast of quirky stock supporting characters are there primarily to help the protagonists when needed, and to act as sounding boards for the novels’ themes. The plot begins with some event that sets the snowball rolling and continuing down the hill until every element is somehow wrapped up into the improbable but inevitable conclusion, and the usual Pratchett plot coincidences remain. Also present is the sharp dialogue and wry humor that Pratchett does so well If the formula works, why change it?
Far more interesting to me, and I think to readers of Nexus, are the themes and ideas Pratchett explores. This is his most nontheistic, skeptical, rationalist book since Small Gods, and indeed—perhaps because it is NOT confined by the Discworld—succeeds at exploring themes of nontheism much better than SG did. Mau begins the novel as an “angry atheist.” The tidal wave kills his entire Nation, everyone he has ever met or known; and in the wake of that senseless tragedy he loses his faith in his anger at the gods. As the novel progresses Mau’s thoughts on the topic become more complex, until he begins to see the truth about belief.
The meatiest conversations in the book usually take place between Mau and Ataba, an old priest who clings to his religion even in the face of disaster. Ataba is the voice of the fervent believer in Nation, even if he might not really believe at all, as in this exchange:
[Mau said,] “I am talking about my father, my mother, my whole family, my whole nation! They all died! I had a sister who was seven years old. Just give me the reason. There must have been a reason? Why did the gods let them die? I found a little baby stuck in a tree. How had it offended the gods?”
“We are small. We cannot understand the nature of the gods,” said Ataba.
“No! You don’t believe that, I can hear it in your voice! I don’t understand the nature of a bird, but I can watch it and listen to it and learn about it. Don’t you do this with the gods? Where are the rules? What did we do wrong? Tell me!”
“I don’t know! Don’t you think I haven’t asked them?” Tears started to roll down Ataba’s cheeks. “You think I am a man alone? I haven’t seen my daughter or her children since the wave. Do you hear what I say? It is not all about you! I envy your rage, demon boy! It fills you up! It feeds you, gives you strength! But the rest of us listen for the certainty, and there is nothing. Yet in our heads we know there must be … something, some reason, some pattern, some order, so we call upon the silent gods, because they are better than the darkness. That is it, boy. I have no answers for you.”
Mau’s angry atheism and Ataba’s desperate theism are complimented in the novel by Daphne’s rational Victorian mindset. Daphne was raised a Christian, but had also been taught by her father to think in scientific terms. She approaches the mysteries of the island from an experimental angle. For example, when the question arises as to whether or not the islanders should continue praying to the God Anchors, large white stones that supposedly connect the nation to its gods, Daphne suggests that some of them continue while others pray to different stones, to measure whether or not their fortunes change. Mau’s atheism and Daphne’s rationalism begin to inform and reinforce each other as the novel progresses.
There’s more to the plot of Nation than discourses on religion and belief, of course. The Island has a secret, slowly revealed as Mau and Daphne dig for the truth. There’s also an important subplot involving Daphne’s father, who, in the wake of a different tragedy half a world away, has risen suddenly in social standing. All of these plotlines inevitably collide at the end, perhaps rather too neatly, but readers will forgive Pratchett for the last chapter, which pushes his overarching themes perhaps a little too forcefully.
All in all, Nation is a worthy read. Pratchett fans will find everything they love about his work, while new readers will find the book, divorced as it is from the Discworld, far more accessible. Highly recommended.