Brains in your feet
Terry Prachett’s Night Watch is probably the single book I’ve re-read cover to cover the most times.1 It’s short enough for one sitting and as fizzy and easy to read as almost all of Prachett’s work2, but it’s telling a much more intimate and meaningful story about human suffering and time.3
A quick summary: His Grace the Duke Sir Samuel Vimes is chasing a murderous bastard named Carcer when they’re flung into a magic storm that sends them back in time to when Sam was just Sam, a snot-nosed kid freshly recruited to the Night Watch. Young Sam got his lesson in how the world works from one Sgt. Keel, a veteran copper who teaches the impressionable kid lessons about the world he’d never learn from the rest of the mediocre dregs in the Watch. But history is changed and Carcer kills Keel before he can teach anything. So Vimes (with the aid of the History Monks trying to set the timeline straight) must take on the role of Keel and teach Young Sam what the proper Keel had taught him, to make sure that this version of himself also grows up decent.
Overshadowing all of this is the Glorious 25th of May, a revolution that Vimes knows will claim innocent lives for only a few hours of freedom. He sees it brewing again and he knows how it went the first time. Vimes wants to change the future as little as possible to make sure there’s a future to come back to when the magic snaps back; but would Vimes be Vimes if he let it happen again while holding these memories of how it went before?
In Memories are environmental indices, I make the point that memories aren’t crystalline collections of meaning itself, but pointers to environmental configurations where meaning is stored. This idea comes up continually throughout Night Watch:
“You been here before, Sarge?” said Sam as they turned a corner.
”Oh, everyone’s visited Ankh-Morpork, lad,” said Vimes jovially.
”Only we’re doing the Elm Street beat perfectly, Sarge, and I’ve been letting you lead the way.”
Damn. That was the kind of trouble your feet could get you into. A wizard once told Vimes that there were monsters up near the Hub that were so big that had to have extra brains in their legs, ’cos they were too far away for one brain to think fast enough. And a beat copper grew brains in his feet, he really did.
As Duke and Commander of the Night Watch, Vimes is a manager, not a beat copper. He does this job well if not spectacularly. But all of Vime’s clarity comes from his time as a beat copper; from the cobblestones themselves. And while His Grace needs to wear high-quality, durable boots, Sergeant-at-Arms John Keel’s first priority is sourcing boots thin enough he can feel the ground beneath him:4
It was good to feel the streets with dry feet again. And after a lifetime of walking them, he did feel the streets. There were the cobblestones: catheads, trollheads, loaves, short and long setts, rounders, Morkpork Sixes, and the eighty-seven types of paving brick, and the fourteen types of stone slab, and the twelve types of stone never intended for street slabs but which had got used anyway and had their own patterns of wear, and the rubbles, and the gravels, and the repairs, and the thirteen different types of cellar covers, and twenty types of drain lids—
He bounced a little, like a man testing the hardness of something. “Elm Street”, he said. He bounced again. “Junction with Twinkle. Yeah.”
He was back.
Vimes brings knowledge from the future into a past where it can be used constructively. But the knowledge didn’t come from the far future. There wasn’t a grand Theory of Coppering that was studiously developed and then brought back to enlighten the primitive people of the past. His knowledge of the eighty-seven types of paving brick only helped because the city was still made out of those bricks. Vimes brought back his indices, and thank goodness he didn’t go back so far — they were still pointing at something.
Dr. Stone is another series about taking highly developed memories to a time that needs them, though it lacks Prachett’s deftness and emotional heft. In Dr. Stone, some mysterious force petrifies all of the humans in the world for thousands of years. The world regresses to the stone age, with children who were born post-petrification never knowing about the old world. But boy genius Senku remembers all of human scientific progress, and is determined to speedrun civilization back into being. The story feels like blitzing through a video game tech tree, an aesthetic Dr. Stone explicitly cultivates:
What it lacks are the eighty-seven types of pavement brick, the concrete understanding that bridges the gap between copper as a concept and copper in it’s use. Dr. Stone falls into the Rick and Morty trap where abstract “intelligence”, whatever that means, is trusted to be able to stand in for any manipulation of the environment. This just isn’t how human memory works, and Rick and Senku are ultimately larger-than-life comedy characters, a stupid person’s conception of what a smart person is.
But there’s one scene in Dr. Stone that’s worth highlighting5. Senku meets Chrome, a post-petrification child who’s an obsessive tinkerer. He has Senku’s drive, but not Senku’s knowledge. As Senku describes the old world, Chrome starts crying:
Senku: Why are you bawling all of a sudden? What’s up with your emotions?
Chrome: I’m not crying! Wait, damn it, I am! Who caused the petrification? If ever see them, I’ll kill them! How could we lose this? Our human predecessors spent millions of years slowly building this crazy, technological civilization, and it got wiped out in the blink of an eye?! I’m pissed as hell!
Senku: It’s not wiped out, idiot, The whole thing’s right here….two million years of human history is stored right here inside me.
Dr. Stone is right to give us Chrome’s awe of the chain of human knowledge and anger at it’s severing. It’s wrong to give us the idea of Senku, one bookish nerd that can somehow store two million years of history. As Feast of Asusmption points out in Monograph or aether, much of human understanding is transmitted via folklore while it’s relevant and lost when it isn’t. Our feet have brains, but not pens to write with.
And in Night Watch, the revolution fails again; the same graves are filled. Vimes was willing to throw his future away to save the people in this past, but he just wasn’t capable: his knowledge isn’t the sort of thing that saves revolutions and rebuilds civilizations. His wisdom is only good for putting a young copper on the right path and letting his lads die with their heads held high. Prachett was too smart to believe in nerds, and Vimes is too savvy to want this part of history monographed:
“They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it, and you can’t give them anything. Do you understand? They fought for those who’d been abandoned, they fought for one another, and they were betrayed. Men like them always are. What good would a statue be? It’d just inspire new fools to believe they’re going to be heroes. They wouldn’t want that. Just let them be. Forever.”
There’s a certain sort of knowledge that Prachett understood was too important to be lost to aether. But it’s not eternal knowledge left on a statue for nerds like Senku. Your feet still need to touch the stones.
I’ve opened Remarque’s Arch of Triumph more times, but I tend to do so when something in life reminds me of a particular passage, so I’ll just open it to there and start reading for a bit.↩︎
Tragically, his struggles with Alzheimer’s are apparent in his later books, when he was relying heavily on dictation in a way that seemed to severely constrain his style.↩︎
Transience and mortality are themes in many Discworld books, but Night Watch treats them with an uncommon maturity and tenderness, as though Prachett was constantly looking for different ways to express a certain understanding and finally hit upon the right one. Similarly, just about every Discworld book will touch on the dangers of easy prejudice, but there’s only one Thud!.↩︎
In an earlier book where Sam is but a captain, he comes up with his “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness, which has escaped the local context of Discworld to be a quick shorthand for poverty traps. But funny enough, while this is a true and very real phenomenon, Vimes in the books wants cheap boots, with the thinness of the soles standing in for his connection to the city.↩︎
In the ~10 episodes I could make myself watch. This ones the end of episode 7.↩︎