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BOOK REVIEW

In resonant 'Making Money,' author's wry wit is as good as gold

Email|Print| Text size + By Lylah M. Alphonse
December 20, 2007

Making Money
By Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins, 394 pp., $25.95

It's no secret that Terry Pratchett is funny. His novels are clever, wry, and insightful, and his fictional Discworld easily mirrors the real world on many levels. Until recently, his books have remained an underground phenomenon in the United States, but that changed with the release of "Thud!," which made its debut at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2005.

Now he's back with another book of political and social commentary disguised as satire. "Making Money" picks up where 2004's "Going Postal" left off. Our hero, Moist von Lipwig - former condemned prisoner, current head of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office, incorrigible con artist, and part-time thief - has revolutionized the mail system and turned stamps into a de facto currency. Now, the city's tyrant, Lord Havelock Vetinari, wants him to rehabilitate the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork, which is in shambles.

It seems that the current coin-based currency system is bankrupting the city. "It's ruinous, sir, it really is," explains a lowly, and slightly deranged, bank worker. "Y'see, it costs a ha'penny to make a farthin' an' nearly a penny to make a ha'penny." An elim, which is worth 1/16 of a penny and "made by widow women according to tradition, costs a whole shipping 'cos the engraving is so fine."

Though bored by his job at the Post Office, Moist is reluctant to become a banker. Aside from the fact that he used to rob banks (" 'Capital! Just reverse your thinking,' said Lord Vetinari, beaming. 'The money should be on the inside' " ), he just doesn't want to run one.

The thing about tyrannical requests is that they're awfully hard to turn down. Somehow, Moist manages to do so, only to have the position thrust upon him anyway, as the current bank chairman decides to leave all of her shares to her dog, and her dog to Moist, before dying that night. (Getting rid of the dog is not an option, since it is accompanied by a contract on Moist's life, duly filed with the Guild of Assassins.)

So Moist takes over the bank, introducing paper currency backed not by traditional gold, but by the city itself. "On a desert island gold is worthless," he reasons. "Food gets you through times of no gold much better than gold gets you through times of no food. If it comes to that, gold is worthless in a gold mine, too. The medium of exchange in a gold mine is the pickax."

His "experimental banknotes" are a huge success, bringing new customers to the bank in droves. The book touches on a bevy of modern issues, including the perils of having a largely immigrant workforce, the difficulties involved in stimulating the economy, inane government bureaucracies, and, of course, the political process. "I love democracy," sighs Vetinari the dictator. "I could listen to it all day."

There are a huge number of books in the Discworld series - this one is the 36th. Thankfully, each one stands well on its own, so you can read most of them at random, if you're so inclined. The gist of Discworld is that the planet rides through space on the backs of four elephants that stand atop a giant turtle (this has little, if anything, to do with the plots or subplots of any of the novels) and its cities are filled with extraordinary creatures and characters trying desperately to live ordinary lives: a bank manager who is avoiding his past (he's rumored to be a vampire) by immersing himself in his work; a working class made up of clay creatures called Golems, mysteriously and magically alive (though dumb as, well, dirt); insane, affected assistants named Igor (natch) who turn out to be the sanest of the bunch.

Pratchett insists that his books aren't parodies but "resonances," packed with images and ideas that are just a little off from reality, but still very familiar. Thus, "Making Money" is a brief history of our financial world, as seen through Pratchett's very cracked lens - and it is hilarious.

Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe staff.

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