Title: Going Postal
Author: Terry Pratchett
Release Date: (US) September 28, 2004
ISBN: US Hardcover (0-06-001313-3)
Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are more often hit than miss, but even among his hit books, there are those that go beyond "hit" and into "oh wow this is goddamn special" (e.g., Small Gods). I think Going Postal falls very squarely into the latter class.
Like his previous adult Discworld book, Monstrous Regiment, Going Postal is a one-shot, not spinning off from the major Discworld mini series (Witches, Death, Night Watch, Rincewind).
Moist von Lipwig, a fraud, grifter, and counterfeiter - a Robin Hood that steals from the rich to fund Moist von Lipwig - is saved by Vetinari from dancing the hemp fandango. The patrician, a man of hard bargains, allows him to go free with one caveat: Moist is to be put in charge of an institution fallen into hard times (a slow death presumbly sped up with the introduction of the clacks): Ankh-Morpork's Post Office.
Oh, there's the other caveat, of course, but that shouldn't bother Moist too much: Mr. Pump, his parole officer. Don't let it bother Moist too much that Mr. Pump is a golem, and if Moist should run away, there's no place in the world that Mr. Pump can't go. Oh, and don't mind the fact that while Moist must occasionally stop to sleep and to eat, Mr. Pump doesn't.
There, that wasn't too bad for Moist, was it? He gets a new life, a helping hand, and a new job!
(Of course it won't bother Moist that the past few postmasters died gruesome, bizarre deaths that involved splashing on the floor, so of course Vetinari's not going to mention it. And of course Moist's not going to mention that he thinks the mail is talking to him.)
The book, its title based on the common conception that postal workers are one bean short from the full jar of sanity, is a madcap adventure in reviving the Post Office of Ankh-Morpork and pitting the "little man" against the monopoly: the clacks ("Grand Trunk"), now a company privately owned and maintained by a collection of businessmen/investors. This collective is headed by Reacher Gilt, a man that could put a lying, cheating Enron executive to shame. Ah, but you see, Moist himself is a lying, cheating Enron type executive himself, and it's his business and hard work at stake, there's no sodding way he's going to take it like a honest man...
Terry Pratchett outdoes himself in the writing in this one. While Pratchett is generally known as an author of light-hearted humor, his last few Discworld books have been with a darker view (Night Watch, Monstrous Regiment, The Truth... I'd even say his children's books, about Tiffany Aching, are also pretty dark). His writing, including his humor, in Going Postal is much sharper and meaner; perhaps it's to reflect that no one in this book considers themselves to even be remotely a good person, and the things that they do, including those of the "good guys," are not particularly morally upright. Veterinai labels himself a tyrant; Moist a cheat; Gilt an ambitious crook. Even Moist's love interest (Pratchett always provides his male characters with interesting love interests), Adora Belle Dearheart, is a true femme fatale (her nickname is the "Killer") and her spiky, cynical personality, ability to see right through Moist, and heavy hundred-cigarettes-a-day habit is enough to make Moist, if not charmed, at least head over heels for her. ("And hadn't his grandfather warned him to keep away from women as neurotic as a shaved monkey? Actually, he hadn't, his interest lying mainly with dogs and beer, but he should have.")
But really, in the end, who are the good guys and who are the bad ones? And does it even matter?
Pratchett, as usual, has thrown in the book historical references and injokes for readers who style themselves as overly clever. What is most interesting so far is that while Vetinari allows Ankh-Morpork a very strictly capitalist "laissez-faire" system, it doesn't stop him from feeling that a certain sort of regulation is required. The book is a pretty interesting reflection of early 20th century US history, with the rise of the monopoly (in the Grand Trunk's case, a horizontal monopoly) and its "robber barons," which were eventually reined in and restricted by President Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly enough, even Moist is something of an early 20th century man: a grifter, a expert in the art of social engineering, a man who enjoys the game for the sake of the game, and fastidious about his crimes; they are almost always crimes in which only a truly dishonest man would fall for. Moist has a decided aversion to violence, which is something that many of the more well-known grifters were also known for. (I would recommend reading "The Big Con"; it's a thoroughly informative and entertaining read about these grifters.)
References of Note (spoilers at the bottom)
- The golems seem to run on Asmiov's three laws, with one very important distinction.
- The Post Office's "motto" is one mistakenly reflected by the United States Postal Service (though it's merely a motto on one of the post offices in New York City, across the street from Madison Square Garden).
- The addendum to the above motto is the throwback from one of his earlier books, Men at Arms.
- The clacks network works much like TCP/IP; a lot of the terms used will be familiar to those who have taking a networking course.
- The symbol of the post office, the young golden man, is probably Hermes/Mercury (or his equivalent in Discworld, Fedecks), who was the messenger of the Greek/Roman gods.
- Stanley's monologue on cabbages is an echo of Bubba's litany of shrimp dishes from Forrest Gump.
- The game that Moist keeps talking about - Find the Lady - is a British term that they kept in the US edition of the book. Anyone familiar with the game would instantly know what it is by Pratchett's description, but for those U.S. fans that don't, it's better known as three card monte, and commonly employed by card sharps everyone. It is a very old and traditional grift, and can be somewhat profitable.
- The tactics of Reacher Gilt are an echo of the famous "robber barons" of the early 20th century, particularly that of Rockefeller.
- The "twelve and a half percent" that the parrot keeps squawking about is, of course 1/8, or, as Moist puts it, "pieces of eight." This is a reference to the old Spanish silver dollar, which could be cut up into eighths and used as currency. It's actually a double pun, and a particularly clever one at that. The first, most obvious one, is that "pieces of eight" is a reference to pirates - the Spanish silver dollar is very heavily tied to pirate lore - and in stories, parrots of pirates would cry out "pieces of eight!" (See Treasure Island). So having Reacher's parrot squawking "twelve and a half percent!" is rather appropriate, considering that Reacher is, after all, a "pirate". The second pun is something of a spoiler, and therefore listed below.
References of Note (SPOILER)
- The other reference that's made with the "twelve and a half percent!" squawked by Reacher's parrot is how Reacher stole the Grand Trunk - in a hostile takeover bid. The odd stock quote system utilized today in the stock market (using fractions 1/4, 1/8, etc), is actually derived from the Spanish silver dollar "pieces of eight" as well. Clever, eh?
- The "race" at the end is rather reminiscent of another early 20th century event, the race between the horse and "Tom Thumb," the steam engine. Guess who won?
- The Smoking Gnu (a play on the terms "the smoking gun", but I guess "The Smoking Gonne" doesn't really have the same effect) call themselves crackers, which is technically the "proper" term for people who break into systems/crack decryption (whether it be maliciously or simply for personal educational purposes).
So, what exactly did Reacher Gilt and his cohorts do?
I don't think the book makes it very clear what Gilt did, exactly, to end up with control of the Grand Trunk, but you can infer most of it through the text. What it looks like is that when the Grand Trunk was being formed, the people were in desperate need of money and Reacher approached them with the offer of cash flow in exchange for 40% of Grand Trunk's stake. Mr. Dearheart and his fellow engineers accepted, but them, not being too keen on the ways of accounting and money, were probably also grateful for Gilt's offer to manage the money through certain "accountants." Gilt raised the cash flow by approaching several representatives of various companies, who basically embezzled funds from their own companies for a stake in the Grand Trunk (which was obviously going to be a serious cash cow). Through some creative accounting on Reacher's side, Mr. Dearheart and friends realized that they still needed more money for the Grand Trunk's completion, and, probably not understanding how publically traded companies worked, exchanged another 15% stake for more money. Which gave Reacher and his cronies the controlling stake of the Grand Trunk, at 55%, while at the same time putting the Grand Trunk's founders into some serious debt. This is basically how Reacher ends up with the company for the fraction of its cost.
The part that you see the most in the book, the deterioration of the Grand Trunk, is a tactic that is pretty common in the bigger stock scandals within the last two decades - in particular, Kmart. By cutting costs and downsizing staff, a company board can maintain the illusion of being profitable in the quarter reports (along with some creative accounting) even as the actual company itself falls apart. Reacher has also slowed the deterioration of the Grand Trunk by also employing the tactics of the robber barons - cutting out all rivals (Adora Belle's brother's company, New Trunk). But you can only cut so much before the unprofitability of the company starts showing, and by the time Moist comes into the picture, Reacher has reached the end of the line for the Grand Trunk.
The part that makes Gilt such a crook is that Grand Trunk's deterioration means nothing to him. Like Moist, he starts off with nothing; as a showman, he's convinced other people to invest the money, even as they believe he, too, has a real stake. A grifter, you could say. Reacher has no actual stake in the company, unlike the businessmen with the embezzled funds. To be more precise, Reacher's best interest is to let Grand Trunk deteriorate to nothing, and then buy the entire stake at slashed prices to build right back up again. And through a combination of showsmanship (on Reacher's part) and desperation (on the investors' part), Reacher has basically convinced them to keep their money in the Grand Trunk - they are so so deeply involved in the company that to pull out now would be unthinkable. Just like the Nigerian scam - the investment of a few thousand dollars is so much that the investor will not bear to think the thought that the money is all gone, and continue adding more in the hopes of seeing a return. A good, classic grift - and it's exactly that skill that Moist sees and respects, and eventually uses against Reacher.
If anyone's got references for me to add at the bottom, by all means message me. So far, Vorbis and Zerotime have helped!