Maybe it was homesickness, but with more than a dozen Discworld books on the shelf in front of me, I had to choose the one that is set in a remote, dusty island prison that has a few things in common with ‘Straya. And I loved it.
And why? For exactly the same reasons Interesting Times bugged me. While I was a little uneasy about jokes about the Agatean Empire, I had the opposite reaction to the same, broadly stereotypical and often very astute observations about Fourecks, which of course is in no way related to my home country of Australia.
In the history of Discworld, The Last Continent is several books after Interesting Times. In the history of Rincewind, the Disc’s most hapless tourist, it is what happens after he gets landed on the continent that’s still under construction, a place marked on the map as XXXX, also known as EcksEcksEcksEcks. The Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography is central to curing the Librarian’s mysterious medical magic condition that has him changing shapes. (The cure is explained away in about two sentences later in the book, so that is obviously just a pretext to send the senior faculty of Unseen University to a deserted island where an atheist god is tinkering around with evolution. But, hey, with Mustrum Ridcully along for the ride, who cares what the excuse is?)
And, frankly, when there are jokes about The Sydney Opera House, Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rolf Harris, girting, (“Come out with your hands up, we have you girt!” Thanks Adam Hills) Waltzing Rincewind, Tinhead Ned (Kelly), Slim Dusty, Men At Work and the fictional city of Bugarup, the fate of the very much loved Librarian becomes rather of secondary importance. (Spoiler alert, he ends up as an orangutan.) Oh, and there’s a kangaroo named Scrappy who is in no way related to Skippy. Scrappy can say “Come quick, someone’s fallen down a deep hole” just by wrinkling its nose. It has nothing in common with that TV bush kangaroo at all.
There were two things I felt were a bit curious about this book, however. The first came on page three, when the phrase “duck-billed platypus” appeared. Call me pedantic, call me patriotic, call me late for dinner, but since when did a platypus need to be described as duck-billed? Wikipedia informs us that it is common, but then it also once said Amanda Keller went broke operating a chain of unsuccessful ATMs for people of short stature, and that turned out not to be true so we won’t rely on that as a definitive source of information. Seeing “duck-billed platypus” (Seriously? What other type is there? And surely Australia reserves the right to call them platypus-billed ducks? Don’t call me Shirley) so early in the book did make me stop and wonder whether a whole bunch of bad Australian cliches would be boiled into the book. The answer, thankfully, was that a shipload of good and bad Australian cliches were lovingly infused into this meat pie of a novel, then drowned in pea soup with a dash of tomato sauce on top. For flavour.
Which brings me to the second thing that I thought was mildly curious. While reading I marked the bits I really enjoyed with ticks or smiley faces in the margins, and noted particular pages that featured passages I found most enjoyable. Looking over that list, I discovered many of them ended with the number two. For instance, on page 52 of my edition there was a hilarious passage about girting. Okay, it’s more hilarious if you know the Australian national anthem (click here to see Adam Hills do it to the tune of Working Class Man). The first line is not “Australians all eat ostriches.” After all, we eat emus.
Page 112 had an almost unveiled reference to Mad Max that made me smile. There were human sheep on page 142, and a knowing reference to remote rural districts that reminded me of court cases I’ve read about. Page 172 mentioned that Tie Me Kangaroo Up was a bloody good fong. Page 232 was where Rincewind found himself reenacting Waltzing Matilda, that other Australian anthem that we more or less know the words to although for many people a Tuckerbag is a supermarket. And on page 342 the senior faculty of Unseen University are unwittingly creating the platypus.
In between the jokes about the tissues, I mean opera house, the creation of desserts in honour of cultural icons and just how drunk you need to be for a pie floater to make sense, there is the kind of fun plot we have come to expect from Pratchett. There are pub brawls, imprisonments, storms, magic, drag queens and balladeers. And, somehow, Rincewind is caught in the middle of the mess. Poor bastard.
Conclusion: it is my favourite Discworld novel. But then, I usually think that about the most recent one I’ve read. Usually.