Discworld Review: The Last Continent
G’day mate! Stone the flaming crows ya Drongo! I was havin a gander at the newsagents while snacking on a snagger when I saw…
Yeah that’s the limit of my Australian slang. Considering I’m Australian that’s actually kind of pathetic.
Wait hang on…
Ok we’re good.
So The Last Continent.
This is easily my favourite parody of Australia in existence, just because it lampoons so many issues and events that hold a lot of relevance across Australia. And aside from that it’s a damn good story, skilfully woven into a relaxed atmosphere of jokes and wordplay. It’s one of the quintessential Discworld novels, with its long-reaching scope and complex jokes, one of the books I think of first when I think of the Discworld style of satire. Our favourite unfortunate Rincewind is back for another adventure, this time in a hyper-stylized Australia expy called ‘XXXX’ (Or Fourecks in later books), encountering Road-Warriors, Stockmen, Queens of the desert and Beer. Meanwhile the Wizards of Unseen University are looking for a way to cure the Librarian’s malfunctioning Thaumic field, alternating between taking the Librarian to the beach and trying to find out his real name from Rincewind. Evolution, desserts (as well as deserts) and the Big Wet await.
Poor Rincewind, Fourecks is probably the most dangerous place he’s ever visited, and even his already heightened levels of paranoia aren’t enough to protect himself from the dangers he encounters. It takes a talking Kangaroo with mysterious powers to keep him alive, and the same Kangaroo in different forms to make him into the hero of Fourecks. In fact by the end of the book it seems that Rincewind could conceivably settle down to a Heroe’s life in Fourecks, having been a lengendary Stockman, Bushranger, Sheep Shearer and even Rainbringer. But Ahnk Morpork is the only place he feels comfortable in, and it seems that the universe is finally ready to leave him be. In many ways this book feels like a happy ending for Rincewind, he gets to go back home to the university that he loves, eat potatoes, and finally be recognised as the hero that he’s been made to be all this time. Rincewind even has a relative to send Hogswatch presents to, and they actually seem to like each other. For all the danger Rincewind is put through, it’s a happy ending that awaits him in Ahnk Morpork.
Ridcully and his faculty of Wizards, including the somewhat disillusioned Ponder Stibbons, also make a welcome return, spending the better part of the book on an island with strange ideas about the past.
Now I know that I complained at length about the lengthy B-Plot featuring the Wizards in Reaper Man, but there role in this book is much funnier and much less obnoxious. It helps that the book is mostly comical in nature, and it’s interesting to see the interaction between the Wizards now that they aren’t constantly murdering each other. We see most of their adventure through Ponder Stibbon’s eyes, as he struggles to articulate his desire to discover the secrets behind the universe while not murdering the Faculty out of sheer irritation. While the faculty are annoying, pompous and smug, they are harmlessly so, and Ponder is not without his own faults. Now throw in the God of Evolution who has one of the best payoffs ever seen in comedy, Mrs Whitlow and one of the creators of the Disc, and you’ve got a busy subplot.
So, our dramatis personae are in position, lets talk about culture.
Australia is truly one the strangest places on earth.
It’s not just because of the deadly wildlife, nor the deadly plant-life, nor the deadly geography. Though they certainly help to reinforce the weirdness, the actual weird thing about Australia is the strange emptiness of culture.
Now when I say culture, I’m mostly talking about Western culture, the culture informed by standards established by white Englishmen who settled in Australia around two hundred years ago. Those same Englishman nearly destroyed the culture that had pre-dated them, in some of the most despicable and morally reprehensible racial policies ever seen. Indigenous Australian culture is many hundreds of years old, and its near eradication and the very real harm done to Indigenous Australians is a crime whose scars are still fresh. I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to talk about Indigenous culture in relation to Western culture however, and I don’t want to cause insult by a ham-handed simplification of a complicated issue such as Indigenous and European relations.
And funnily enough, I think Terry Pratchett was thinking along similar lines, because there’s about three references to the native inhabitants of Fourecks, the rest of the book focuses primarily on an expy of Anglo-Australian society.
So, as I was saying, when it comes to Australian culture, that which defines and identifies us as Australian, that which we are proud of, that which is the envy of the world…
Well, there’s not much of it.
There’s some things that are identified as proudly Australian, ANZACs (though that one gets shared by New Zealand), Banjo Patterson, Criminals, and so on. But a lot of our culture is (and to an extent always has been) informed by overseas territories, mostly England and America. The idea of ‘Cultural Cringe’, a feeling of inadequacy concerning one’s own culture and nationality that drives one to seek validation in other countries or cultures, was coined by the Australian writer Henry Lawson, and it applied to a lot of Australian cultural institutions for most of the twentieth century (some would argue that it never left).
And so the tenuous elements of National pride that can be summoned in Australia’s defence tend to be rather rabidly pushed forward and shoved down people’s throats. And so it’s impressive that The Last Continent manages to skewer just about all of them. More impressively, it creates a version of Australia that is still informed by overseas countries, still has a limited population, and still clings to the coast; all in a fantasy setting that barely corresponds to our real world.
And the Fourecksians are just as proud of the remnants of culture they’ve cobbled together as actual Australians. The quality of their alcohol is serious business, the proper form of Sheep shearing is the mark of a true Master, the proper etiquette must be observed when Bushrangers are concerned, and woe be to anyone that makes a mockery of the annual Rowing championship (which takes place on a completely dry riverbed. They’re actually extremely put out when water suddenly appears on the riverbed).
As such, part of the conflict of the novel is Rincewind’s attempt to navigate this strange landscape which is almost identical to Ahnk-Morpork, but so profoundly different in so many ways. For example, Rincewind is somewhat bemused to discover that Criminals are a kind of celebrity, with the important distinction of being executed once their fame has run its course. Even more alarming to him is that the Watchmen here actively chase their targets, a vast difference from the cowardly plodding watchmen he knew of old. The novel is filled with such misunderstandings, such as Rincewind giving a sheep a haircut with all the bells and whistles, or accidentally stealing a sheep by holding it for someone else.
After a little while, a question begins to rise, are these really the things that comprise a culture?
I earlier said that the cultural scene of Australia felt empty, but I wonder what could conceivably make it feel full?
There’s a conversation that Rincewind has with the Fourecksian incarnation of Dibbler (‘Stone the Crows’ Dibbler), where he launches into a tirade that’s so familiar that it practically becomes scathing. He decries ímmigrants’ (I swear to god, this book has aged so well that… well I’d say that it’s not even funny except it’s hysterical), and when Rincewind delicately points out that Dibbler is himself an immigrant, Dibbler just turns around and claims that he ‘earned’ his ‘Nativeness’. And how exactly did Dibbler ‘earn’ his ‘nativeness’?
We are not told, but one can guess that it involved drinking the right amount of beer the right way, speaking the right kind of language, and being as tough as is expected of him. We can guess that it involved wholly embracing things considered by Ecksians to be… well, Ecksian.
And in the end, Rincewind is an Ecksian not because he lives there or because he was born there, but because he can shear a sheep and (with help) steal a sheep, because he can drink copious amounts of alcohol and then create a new desert for an Opera star, because he’s a good bloke.
But such acts divorced from their context, as Rincewind experiences them, are meaningless, and the ultimate question of The Last Continent is not ‘How would Rincewind react to living in Australia’, it’s ‘What marks someone as belonging to one culture or another?’
And the answer, it seems, is whatever you want.
Anything could can be attributed to one culture or another, anything can be considered ‘Morporkian’, ‘Ecksian’, ‘Australian’. A Culture is what people make it and what is reinforced throughout Ecksian and Australian cultures is the desperate need to conform, to do what is expected, a desperate rush to belong.
And it’s a desperation borne from inferiority, a desire to protect and enshrine what little Nationalistic icons there are, a mad scramble to escape from the ‘Cultural Cringe’.
The Last Continent isn’t just a summation of Australiana, it’s a cipher to Australian Culture.
Well that’s my take on it anyway, no doubt you have your own. Above all else, I recommend The Last Continent on the basis of its humour, brilliance, and biting precise satire. It’s a story of creation, culture, and a Land where the only non-lethal animals are some of the sheep.
It’s one hell of a ride.