Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Nation" by Terry Pratchett

Summary: After an enormous wave in a large ocean destroys almost everything and everyone in the vicinity, two survivors are thrown together on one island. Mau, a native of the island, was away on an initiation rite when his entire nation was destroyed. Daphne, a young and well-raised British girl, is the only survivor of her ship. Together they begin to form a society on the island as they are joined by other survivors.

Musings: I'm a sucker for "living alone on an island" stories and adored books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, and My Side of the Mountain as a kid. I picked up this book with much of the same interest. The story I read was much different than I expected.

Nation has the trappings of a basic survivor and culture-clash story but instead is more about the existence of gods/God, the choice of society before self, and the Western appropriation of scientific ideas. After his society is killed by the wave, Mau begins to ask the classic question: why would gods let such terrible things happen? This questions haunts Mau throughout the novel, and his religion finally comes in the form of science. Science provides an answer for Mau's "because why?" questions and becomes the foundation on which he can build a society.

Mau and Daphne discover that Mau's ancestors had sailed around the world and made many scientific discoveries well ahead of the Western world. Although I appreciated Pratchett giving credit for such work to a new source, the concept didn't work fully for me. If his people were so learned, why was all the knowledge completely lost? Why did Mau's people live, more or less, like a Westerner might expect "natives" to live? At the end of the book, Mau's country is opened to Western scientists as place of learning. Again, a nice idea, but I find it hard to believe such knowledge would not be appropriated and manipulated by outside sources.

Mau and Daphne are extraordinarily capable to the point that many of their actions seem unbelievable. They are more archetypes for the ideal Britain/native than real people. The book does not have a desired romantic ending, but such an ending would not be in line with the book's message. As representatives of the ideal of scientific sharing and understanding, Mau and Daphne's only choice is to lead their people, not be together.

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