Where’s Sam Vimes When You Need Him: Pratchett and the Occupy Protests

Police at Occupy Oakland via http://www.flickr.com/photos/52055911@N05/6308820692/When asked to describe Terry Pratchett’s work, I often say that he’s to fantasy what Douglas Adams is to science fiction…by way of Jonathan Swift. What’s always drawn me in is his ability to use humor and fantasy to create startling clear social commentary.

And he always seems to do it best in “The Watch” books* and I would say it’s mainly because of the main character, Sam Vimes. I’ll fully admit that he is my favorite character in Discworld (and probably in my top ten characters in all of fiction). I was quite happy to see my affection was shared by Pratchett who, in a talk I attended, said that Vimes was among his own favorites as well.

Pratchett has said of Vimes that he “is fundamentally a person. He fears he may be a bad person because he knows what he thinks rather than just what he says and does. He chokes off those little reactions and impulses, but he knows what they are. So he tries to act like a good person, often in situations where the map is unclear.”

Pratchett’s use of Vimes as tool for political commentary is so clear to me that, when we launched the most recent Iraq War, one of my first impulses was to re-read Jingo, which looks at nationalism, racism, and war…through the Pratchett lens of humor and fantasy.

So what’s that have to do with the Occupy protests?

Vimes is a watchman…a policeman. And right now, policemen aren’t getting the best of press. And with incidents like this, is it any wonder?

So as I was reading the new Discworld novel, Snuff, the following really struck a nerve:

It always¬†embarrassed¬†Samuel Vimes when civilians tried to speak to him in what they thought was “policeman.” If it came to that, he hated thinking of them as civilians, What was a policeman, if not a civilian with a uniform and a badge? But they tended to use the term these days as a way of describing people who were not policemen. It was a dangerous habit: once policemen stopped being civilians the only other thing they could be was soldiers.

There’s been a lot of political analysis about the militarization of police and how it led to the horrors we’ve been seeing at the Occupy protests. And tucked away in a fantasy novel, written months before the protests began and published only a few weeks in is a not-so simple policeman, with a not-so simple thought…

I can only wonder what the headlines would have been if there were only more Sam Vimeses on the police forces of our country.


*Terry Pratchett’s longest and most well-known series of books is Discworld. But the 30+ book series has several sub-series, including (but not limited to) the Wizards, Witches, Watch, and Death. It makes figuring out where to start and what order to read them in a complex decision.

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