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Retirement Plan

Yesterday I wrote that Vetinari is one of the two characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series I consider my favorites. It’s also the only fictional character who fits into a recurrent daydream of mine.

I like to imagine an hour with some historical notable, a chance to gauge his reaction to news of the future. An hour to reassure Lincoln in some hour of despair on the progress of the American Civil War that the Union survives and does indeed export representative democracy back to Europe and to many corners of the world, and to learn what he thinks as well of future successes like WWII and failures like the red scare. An hour to chat with Bach, who realized that his music was going out of fashion, to let him know it is now recognized as a cornerstone of western music, and to see what he thinks of a few samples of Benny Goodman or the Beatles. An hour with Archimedes, to test how quickly he can absorb Cartesian geometry, calculus, or special relativity. What would they say? Could they even relate to their legacies?

Lord Havelock Vetinari, patrician of Ankh-Morpork, is the quintessential enlightened despot. He has his citizens imprisoned or executed; he suspends the law; he has spies everywhere and meddles in foreign a well as domestic affairs. And yet, he also governs with as light a hand as possible. He shrugs off unflattering political jokes; he builds up rather than tearing down emergent (and threatening) technologies; he installs a police chief who can and does arrest Vetinari himself. Vetinari explains that he does so out of self-interest: tyrants who simply seize and terrorize, he observes, don’t last long. (Apparently, the Discworld has no equivalent of Fidel Castro…) But is this really so? Whatever self-interest Vetinari indulges isn’t very self-indulgent. Altough he lives in a palace, he works incessantly, eats meagerly, wears simple black—and probably would wear black even without an assassin’s training.

In a few of the more recent books, he claims to seek above all not power but influence. To-may-to, to-mah-to. And influence to what purpose? Racial equality, no mean feat in a city now populated by dwarves and trolls and myriad others in addition to humans. Free market ideals, which includes tearing down businesses which make taxable profits but prey on competition to the consumer’s detriment. A free press. International peace. An honest gendarmerie. All that power focused perpetually on maintaining something very close indeed to a democratic ideal—except for the complete absence of democracy. “One man, one vote,” as Pratchett observes. “And he is the Man, so he has the vote.”

And it all depends on his preternatural political acumen. This being a work of fiction, he can always be absolutely correct in every decision, steering every event to its perfect conclusion within plausible limits set by the fundamental imperfections of humanity (and other fantasy races). Even other master politicians, risen to the tops of their respective states, openly hold Vetinari in awe. Without this unique union of exquisite skill and enlightenment in the broadest theoretical terms possible, Ankh-Morkpork would descend quickly into what it was before the Patrician’s arrival: a cesspit of squabbling cutthroats.

So in my reveries, I wonder: if this autocratic utopia designed by and perhaps for Vetinari depends on this singular person himself, what plans has he for a successor? No such successor or plan is even hinted at in the books. What would he say if I were allowed to interview him for an hour on the subject?

Probably not much. Vetinari plays everything close to the chest, if only to maintain some dramatic tension for Pratchett’s readers. He wouldn’t share his plans with some random yutz like me, anyway. Maybe, just maybe Drumknott, but certainly not me. Or if he did discuss the issue, it would surely be with a casual dismissal, a claim to let the future take care of itself. Some combination of “I’ll be dead, so it won’t matter to me” and “people choose their own course, regardless of their supposed leaders’ wishes.” And both elements of that response would be lies. A man who cares for nothing but influence must surely care about influence beyond his death, because it can be had. And Ankh-Morkpork manifestly dances to Vetinari’s tune.

So if I could get an honest answer out of him or his authorial creator, what plans, if any, has Vetinari for a successor?

The question takes a more pressing tone with Raising Steam, in which Vetinari shows his first signs of failure: a failure of his faculties in an inability to finish the daily crossword, and a failure of ideals as he delights in that crossword designer’s destruction. If Vetinari deliberately left plans for a successor to a nebulous and unpredictable future, to be improvised, as he so characteristically improves, when the time came and variables could be minimized…well, the time has come. I’m invested in his vision for Ankh-Morkpork. I would dearly like to know he has arranged matters to ensure its continued vitality.

Neither plans nor future will ever be known, of course. Pratchett’s widely-mourned death guarantees that, just as we will never know what Lincoln might think of America’s future or Archimedes’s thoughts on the microchip. Which helps makes the question so interesting. We’ll never know how it all turns out. But I hope somewhere, in the infinite universe, it does all work out, as it does in Pratchett’s novels.

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