Universal Translator

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sam Vimes, Stallone, and Superman

Since I am apparently discussing fiction this morning, I thought I’d write a little something about Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, Snuff.  The novel stars my favorite Pratchett character, Sir Samuel Vimes, and it is – as Pratchett’s novels consistently are – very entertaining.  But the pacing seems a little off and there is one problem with the treatment of Vimes that I thought I’d get off of my chest. 

What’s below the fold isn’t a review, really, but more a discussion of a certain problem that tends to creep into any serialized fiction.  I don’t believe it contains any real spoilers.  But I understand that there are those for whom fan favorite fiction – as the Discworld novels tend to be – often prefer to read the material without the slightest intimation of what to expect from the latest installment.

Which is why, of course, what follows is below the fold.

Those who have been following Sam Vimes’s character through all the Discworld novels in which he appears cannot have helped but notice how the character has evolved over time.  When we first meet him in Guards, Guards he is an extremely flawed character, a small man “brought low by drink” who nevertheless is trying to do a decent job.  Pratchett even dedicates that novel to all those faceless henchmen whose job it is in adventure yarns to run in when someone yells “Guards!” only to be summarily killed by the hero of the story.  It seems pretty clear that when Vimes was introduced he was intended to be a kind of Everyman character.

But Vimes has evolved to function as a stand-in for Pratchett’s own sense of morality and social justice.  In order to effect this, the character has had to be built up over time.  Part of this involves just making him an increasingly powerful figure in Pratchett’s fictional world; he becomes one of the richest men in Discworld by virtue of marrying Sybil Ramkin; his services to Ankh-Morpork earn him the title Commander and, later, Duke; his services on behalf of other kingdoms make him the trusted counselor to kings.

But part of it, as well, is the ever-increasing personal powers that Pratchett grants him.  I refer to this as the “Stalloneification” treatment.

For example, in First Blood, the beginning of the Rambo cinema trilogy, John Rambo is tough but he is also a deeply troubled and broken man.  A Vietnam vet with severe mental problems, Rambo wanders into a small Pacific Northwest town clearly addled but not looking for any trouble.  It is only when he gets pushed too far that he snaps and starts kicking major ass and even then, the movie makes clear, he is doing so because he is so completely broken inside.

But in the second movie, John Rambo is now just a consummate badass.  He gets called in by the government to undertake a mission (and to be used as a scapegoat/cover story), and is so extremely badass he actually pulls the mission off despite the fact he wasn’t supposed to succeed.

(I never actually watched the third Rambo movie because it seemed like more rah-rah jingoism, but from the trailers and ads it certainly looked like they just took Rambo and turned him up to – or even past - 11.  Of course, one almost never sees this movie on the cable channels nowadays; undoubtedly it is embarrassing to remember a time when the USA’s John Rambo allied himself with Osama bin Ladin to fight the Russians.)

In the course of only 3 movies John Rambo went from being a confused, tortured, broken drifter to an honest-to-god superhero.

The same thing happened to Rocky Balboa.  In Rocky, the titular character was a washed-up pug, none too bright, who happened to luck into the opportunity of a lifetime when he was given the chance to fight the Heavyweight Champion of the World:  Apollo Creed.  Rocky is a story about heart and determination and – in the end – Rocky loses the fight.

But, of course, by the time Rocky IV came out Rocky Balboa had been transformed into another superhero.  A man so clearly superior to anybody else who might climb into the ring with him that he can take on a Soviet Superman, who has been trained with the latest technology, who has been injected with the best designer steroids, who towers over and undoubtedly outmasses Rocky . . . and Rocky can still let that Soviet Superman punch him at will, over and over, all the while taunting the Soviet just to prove that Rocky is tough enough to “take it.”  And then Rocky goes on to win the fight.

In fact, now I think about it, maybe I need a new word.  It strikes me now that what I’m talking about goes beyond Sylvester Stallone roles and to the very genesis of the superheroic.  What I’m talking about is the “Superfication” of a serial character.

When he was first introduced in 1939 Superman was strong, sure, but not infinitely strong.  He was bulletproof but his skin could still be pierced by “a bursting shell.”  He could outrace a train, but he couldn’t break the sound barrier, let alone the speed of light.  He had no vision powers, super-hearing, or “freeze breath.”  And while he could jump very high, and very far, he couldn’t fly.

But over the years, all those abilities were added to the character.  By the Silver Age he had heat vision, x-ray vision, microscopic vision and telescopic vision (which, somehow, allowed him to see events light years away in real time).  He could fly faster than the speed of light and travel into the past or the future.  He could survive an exploding sun or a nuclear detonation.  He was strong enough to move planets.  (And on several occasions he did so, although that last fact always amused me; to anyone standing next to him, it would have appeared that Superman was merely doing a handstand.)

And he got boring.  With all these abilities, what villain could possibly provide a challenge for the Man of Steel?  And so his adventures became increasingly silly.  When Superman was first introduced he fought against slumlords, corrupt politicians and treasonous munitions manufacturers.  By the 1950s he was relegated to fighting magicians, aliens or – even worse – ordinary humans, each of whom just happened to have a big ol’ chunk of radioactive rock from a planet that exploded a galaxy away.  (I swear, so much kryptonite had found its way to earth by then that I’m surprised the planet’s mass hadn’t doubled.)

Something along these lines seems to be happening with Sam Vimes. 

In my favorite Discworld novel, Night Watch, the Big Bad is a psychopath named Carcer.  Carcer is a great villain.  Nasty, sneaky and smart, there always is a sense that Vimes will be lucky to survive any confrontation with Carcer, and luckier still to be able to catch him and bring him to justice.

But that sense of suspense is largely missing in Snuff, in which Vimes strides through the pages like an unstoppable colossus.  He is invariably smarter than anyone he meets, he can invariably outfight anyone he meets, he can invariably outwit anyone he meets.  He is never taken by surprise.  Although the putative Big Bad in Snuff is also supposed to be a wily and dangerous psychopath, in all of his meetings with Vimes not once does Vimes appear to be at a disadvantage and the reader never senses that Vimes might actually be in danger.  He is just too competent, too strong, too sneaky to ever be brought low.

And that, unfortunately, diminishes the book.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s still a good read, and I still recommend it.  And, of course, it helps that a good deal of the novel – as was the case with Night Shift – is devoted to issues of social justice and is not merely a fantasy police procedural.

But, still, as a long-time Sam Vimes fan I miss the character I grew to love the first few times we met.  I’d much rather go back to reading about him again than to keep reading about the omnipotent guy who stole his name and his life and has the starring role in Snuff

1 comment:

  1. Spot on. What's more, "Snuff" is obviously written by his collaborator with inputs from Terry. Everything is spelled out for the reader, no oblique references, clunky satire. Very disappointing overall.