Of all the people in Blackbury, UK, who could have suddenly developed the ability to see ghosts, it would just have to be Johnny Maxwell. He isn’t strong, clever, good-looking, or full of personality. Yet the weird stuff always happens to him. And what makes him weird is that he’s always open to it.
Only You Can Save Mankind is the title of the latest computer game pirated by Johnny’s fat hacker pal Wobbler. It’s only a step or so beyond Space Invaders (remember? anybody?), in which the player has to blow up alien spaceships from one-seater fighters to the huge mothership. Johnny is doing quite well at it until, just before he fires the kill-shot at the alien mothership, a message comes on his screen: WE WANT TO TALK.
Pratchett specializes in examining the nature of our civilization through the lens of a silly, off-bubble fantasy world. Baxter, I take it, likes to play with ideas related to time travel, alternate history, and parallel worlds. Put these two creative minds together, and you get a fascinating world-building experiment that shows what might happen to mankind if (or maybe when) we suddenly figure out how to “step” from one possible Earth to another.
And behold, this book focuses on a school for wizards. By now Unseen University will be well known to followers of this series. It is the alma mater of the nebbishy wizard Rincewind, whose adventures were heavily featured in the earlier books of this series. Its Librarian is an orangutan who can give the word “Ook” a wide spectrum of meanings. Its Archchancellor is a rugged, bullmoose type named Mustrum Ridcully. It has a chair of post-mortem communications, a branch of magic otherwise known as “the dark arts.” It has a super-computer powered by an ant farm. And it has a complex body of traditions that, somehow or other, keep the sun in the sky and U.U.’s walls covered with ivy.
According to Fantastic Fiction, this is the 39th novel of “Discworld”—taking all the novels featuring Tiffany Aching, Granny Weatherwax, Rincewind, Death, the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, and whatnot in one heap. It’s an amazing achievement, especially given that I was hoaxed into believing that Terry Pratchett was done writing them half a dozen books back. After all these books about a flat world balanced on the backs of four huge elephants perched, in their turn, atop a giant tortoise, Pratchett continues to break open new territory, find new depths, and conjure a unique blend of thrills, laughs, fantasy-world-magic, and real-world social commentary out of them.