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Professors who punt

By David Kirby
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

UNSEEN ACADEMICALS

By Terry Pratchett

Harper. 400 pp. $25.99

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Terry Pratchett's new novel begins with a gigantic bird bounding down a university corridor "making the flat honking noise of the sort duck hunters make just before they are shot by other duck hunters." This bird is pursued by senior faculty, otherwise known as "wizards," each of whom is carried piggyback by a bowler-hatted porter urged on by a bottle of beer dangling from a stick. Does this sound like your alma mater? And did your professors catch what turns out to be, in this case, a creature called a Megapode?

Neither question really matters in Discworld, where bestseller Pratchett has set dozens of previous novels. This fantastical place rests on the backs of four elephants that stand on the back of a turtle that stands on -- oh, never mind. Unseen University will receive a substantial bequest if it forms a team to play the game of "foot-the-ball or Poore Boys' Funne." As academicals, though, they don't really know what they're doing. Worse, their football team has to be composed not only of students but faculty as well. Worse still, the Unseens have to play an especially nasty group of townies, and they're not allowed to use magic on the thugs.

Wordplay abounds in Pratchett's prose (a busman asks a forgetful passenger, "My fare, lady?"), and his faux-medieval dialogue sounds like it came straight from Sir Walter Scott's trash can, as when one character cries, "I am the Archchancellor of this college, by lo, and I will rusticate, or otherwise expel, any man who skives off without a note from his mother, hah!" A mash-up of "Harry Potter" and "Monty Python," "Unseen Academicals" thrums with excess energy, and that's before the game even begins.

Do the wizards of Unseen U. stand a chance against the tough guys from town? Of course: The sports story wouldn't exist if underdogs didn't usually win a moral victory and occasionally a real one. What does it matter if the wizard strategists are prone to statements like: "Now let us consider this in the light, as it were, of the speeding ball. Where it has come from we believe we know; but where it will land is an ever-changing conundrum, even if only considered in four-dimensional space."

That professors are impractical, though, is rather old information. It's said that Einstein couldn't remember where he parked his car, but isn't it more important that he came up with the special theory of relativity? The stylistic razzle-dazzle notwithstanding, rehashing a cliche gets tiresome because whether it's a game or a novel, fans want to be surprised.

Kirby is a professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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