Even if you’ve never read a book by Terry Pratchett, you’ve probably heard of him. Creator of the Discworld, which floats through space supported by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle, and last year diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Pratchett is the UK’s second best-selling author (after J.K. Rowling, naturally). Why though, am I reviewing his latest novel Nation on a science blog?
For one thing, Pratchett is no stranger to science. A few years back he teamed up with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen to write The Science of the Discworld. Both entertaining and informative, the book used the Discworld setting to explore scientific concepts, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. It was successful enough to spawn two sequels.
Nation, however, is straight fiction – and also Pratchett’s first non-Discworld novels in a while. Set 150 years ago, it’s about a boy named Mau who returns from the ritual that will make him a man to find his island home has been devastated by a great wave. His family, his people, his Nation, gone. He encounters Ermintrude, a girl from Britain who’s father is 138th in line to the throne. Shipwrecked on the island by the wave, she prefers to be known as Daphne, because Ermintrude is “exactly the kind of name that would invite a young man to tea and mess it all up.” Gradually, they are joined by other survivors from surrounding islands, who have turned to the great Nation to protect them.
Only, it isn’t really about all that. Nation is a book about science, it’s a book about quantum mechanics, the scientific method, and generally just having a good long hard think about why the world is the way it is.
Mau cannot accept that the gods would allow such devastation – and begins to wonder if the gods are really there. The voices of his ancestors fill his head with commands, but he begins to question them. Meanwhile, Daphne tries to understand the strange ways of the Nation, like a beer that is poisonous unless you spit in it then sing a song, by following the scientific method demonstrated by her heroes at the Royal Institute. Eventually the pair make a discovery that will turn the world upside down…
Pratchett is treading some familiar themes here – Mau resonates particularly with Johnny Maxwell from Only You Can Save Mankind and Brutha from Small Gods. All three protagonists find strength in their weakness, and find that people follow them because they view the world in a different way. Free of Discworld trappings, however, Nation is probably the most accessible book to anyone who hasn’t yet picked up a Pratchett. Most of all, I liked it because my first thought as I turned the final page was “hey, isn’t science amazing? Wow.” I’ll leave you with a quote, a character’s answer to a child’s question about belief in science and religion, and whether God exists:
“Perhaps. I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”