Nation (novel)

Nation (novel)
Terry Pratchett Nation.jpg
Author(s) Terry Pratchett
Cover artist Jonny Duddle
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Alternate history, Fantasy
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date September 11, 2008
Pages 416
ISBN ISBN 0385613709
ISBN 978-0385613705
OCLC Number 231884187

Nation is a Terry Pratchett novel, published in the UK on September 11, 2008.[1] It is the first non-Discworld Pratchett novel since Johnny and the Bomb (1996). Nation is in an alternate history of our world in the 1860s. The book received recognition as a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for 2009.[2]



Pratchett took his editors by surprise by writing it before the previously scheduled Tiffany Aching conclusion. He has said "I want to write this one so much I can taste it", and that he's been ready to do it for four years.[3] Pratchett said in February 2007, "At the moment I'm just writing. If it needs to be Discworld it will be Discworld. It could be set in this world 150 years ago while still more or less being a fantasy. The codename for it is Nation."[3]

Plot summary

The time is 1860 (the book refers to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species having just come out).[4] The place is a world, strangely like ours, but different in many subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways.

Scattered across the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean are chains of tiny islands. On one island, a boy named Mau has almost completed his ritual ordeal to become a man. Now he must launch the canoe he has built into the ocean and sail back to his home island, where he will receive his adult tattoos and be given a man-soul to replace the child-soul he has left behind. His entire village awaits him on the beach for his arrival.

Aboard the schooner Sweet Judy, presently voyaging through the Southern Pelagic Ocean, bound for Port Mercia, Ermintrude ("Daphne") Fanshaw sails to join her father, the Governor of the Pelagic Territories, presently stationed at Port Mercia.

In England, the dreaded Russian Influenza has killed all other heirs to the throne. The Gentlemen of Last Resort, a secret organisation serving the Crown, set out for Port Mercia to bring back Daphne's father within the nine months required by the ratified version of the Magna Carta, accompanied by the heir's mother. Thanks to the epidemic, he is now king, and Ermintrude is now heir to the throne of the British Empire. Neither she nor anyone else within ten thousand miles knows this.

Far to the south, a volcano erupts, blowing itself to bits and setting off an enormous tsunami. When the wave has passed, only Mau and Ermintrude remain alive, marooned together among the wreckage and corpses on the island called the Nation. Having left his boy soul behind but with no one remaining to give him his adult tattoos, Mau considers himself to be without a soul. Without his soul, Mau describes himself as a vulnerable blue hermit crab that has left one shell to seek another. This is a major theme throughout the book, since Mau is a man without a country. Just as a soulless person hungers for a soul, Mau is driven to rebuild his country.

Upon arrival at the island, Mau discovers that his entire village and family has been wiped out by the tsunami. Numb with horror Mau begins burying the dead, sending them into the sea wrapped in a substance called papervine, a type of tough local vegetation. Island tradition says that the dead, buried at sea will become dolphins. Distraught at what he is doing, he attempts to disassociate himself from his task, working on a kind of mental auto-pilot. Finally, after sending the last corpse into the sea he considers his life as a soulless person, neither boy nor man, and considers suicide. He is only prevented from doing so by Ermintrude, who tries to talk to him. In his dream state, Mau believes her to be a ghost, as she is pale-skinned and dressed in white.

Ermintrude is a resourceful girl with an active interest in science. Her ocean voyage was intended to be a way to get away from her overbearing grandmother and create a new life with her kindly, widowed father. Instead, she finds herself surviving mutiny, storm, and shipwreck. She is afraid of Mau, but after watching him bury his dead, she leaves Mau a lobster rollon a plate. When they meet again, she tries to shoot him with a pistol. Fortunately, the gunpowder in the pistol is wet, and the gun fails to fire.

Mau mistakenly believes that by waving a gun around, Ermintrude is giving him a spark-maker to make fire. With determination and good faith, the two begin to help each other and establish some basic communication. Ermintrude introduces herself as "Daphne" and never uses her given name, which she has always hated.

Soon, drawn by the smoke of Mau's fire, other survivors from neighbouring islands arrive at the Nation, including an old priest called Ataba, and a nameless woman and her infant. The woman cannot breastfeed, and the baby will die unless someone can find milk. With desperation and resourcefulness, Mau finds a way to get milk from a wild pig at great danger to himself. Due to Mau's lack of a soul and his rejection of the gods (since they failed to save his family from the tsunami), Ataba believes that Mau is possessed by a demon, referring to him as "Demon Boy" for most of the rest of his life. A few days later, more survivors arrive, including strong Milo and silver-tongued Pilu, two brothers who are able to communicate with Daphne in English. This speeds the translation of language along considerably. Milos' wife is heavily pregnant and 13-year-old Daphne is drafted as a midwife. She brings the child into the world, singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" throughout the birth, a choice that makes Milo revere Daphne throughout the rest of the book.

Confronted with the problem of the missing "god anchors" (white, non-indigenous stones that are said to "anchor" the gods and stop them drifting away), Mau locates and then tries to salvage them from the lagoon, where they have been left by the raging tsunami. He locates and restores two of the original three god anchors but, whilst underwater, searching for the third, he discovers several more of the white stones, one of them with a carving on it. The priest, Ataba, tries to destroy one of the god stones, which he claims to be false. His rage causes him to thrash about in the lagoon and he attracts the attention of a shark. Mau is nearly killed rescuing him from the shark and, having suffered hypothermia and chronic sleep deprivation (he has obsessively spent his nights guarding the beach) Mau falls into a coma. Accepting a magic poison from the women of the island, Daphne travels to the land of Locaha, the Nation's god of death, and rescues him. Still more survivors arrive, bringing news of cannibal raiders from another island who are hunting survivors.

Daphne is at one point told by the Grandmothers (the not-at-all remembered counterpart to the ancestral Grandfathers) to open the cave of the Grandfathers. Convincing Mau that this is what they should do, Daphne, Ataba, and Mau enter the Grandfathers' cave, an ancient burial chamber. There, they discover that the Nation is far older than any other civilisation on Earth, and has made huge discoveries (up to and including maps of the stars, telescopes and glasses) which have later been forgotten. Their knowledge of the stars is shown in the ancient legends of the Nation, which can also be seen as metaphors for the movements of the planets. It is from this ancient cave that the white stone that formed the god anchors came. The ancient discoveries remained part of the history of the Nation, but only as stories told to children.

When Mau, Daphne and Ataba leave the cave they are met by two English men who mutinied on the Sweet Judy and who were set adrift by the captain of that ship. When the old priest Ataba threatens them with a spear, the mutineers shoot and kill him. They take Daphne hostage as she tells the islanders to melt into the forest. She learns from them that the leader of the mutiny, a man named Cox, has joined the tribe of cannibal raiders, who worship the death god Locaha. Soon after this Daphne offers the two men a local type of moonshine beer. However, one of the mutineers refuses to spit into the beer, which neutralises the poisons in the beer and his first drink kills him. This causes the other to be scared off. He later escapes the island and meets up with Cox and the cannibal raiders.

Certain that the raiders will arrive soon, Mau arranges for the cannons on board the Sweet Judy to be set up overlooking the bay for the defense of the Nation. A test firing goes well. However, they only have enough gunpowder for one more shot.

The Raiders arrive, with Cox as their new chieftain. Daphne immediately notices that the Raiders hate Cox, but according to their laws they must accept him as chieftain because he killed the previous chieftain. Instead of allowing Cox and the Raiders to attack the entire village, Mau has the only intact cannon, which was reinforced with papervine, fired, frightening the Raiders. The Raiders and the Nation then agree to have the chiefs fight in single combat, as is the tradition. Everyone is surprised when strong Milo announces that Mau is the actual chief of the Nation. Cox is annoyed because a small boy is a more difficult target than a large man, but he is sure that his two pistols can take care of Mau. Mau remembers Daphne's first wet attempt to shoot him, however, and he knows that gunpowder fails when wet. Mau takes the battle into the lagoon, where Mau's skill as a swimmer and his knowledge of the territory help him win the duel. Enraged with the wrath of Locaha, Mau drives away the Raiders, forcing them to release their prisoners.

A few days after this battle, Daphne's father arrives. He, like Daphne, is fascinated with the discovery made in the Grandfathers' cave. The Gentlemen of Last Resort arrive two weeks later, informing Daphne's father of his new status as King and presenting him with the crown. Mau, who has learned about world politics from Daphne and Pilu, does not want to become part of the Empire but requests that his Nation become a member of the scientific Royal Society. In the end, Daphne leaves with her father. Though it is never explicitly stated in the book, it is clear that she and Mau would rather stay on the island and be together, but their combined sense of duty leads her to return to England and Mau to remain behind.

Years later, in an alternate present day, an old scientist tells this story to two children of the present-day Nation. He explains that Daphne returned to England to marry a prince from Holland and that Mau died of old age. When Daphne died, her body was sent to the Nation to be buried at sea so that her soul would become a dolphin. He tells them that from those days onward, thousands of scientists have visited the island, including Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Richard Feynman, and that dozens of observatories have been created to learn about the stars, as the Nation has done for thousands of years. The book ends with the elder of the two children (the girl - by six minutes) standing guard on the beach, protecting the Nation as Mau had done years before. In the lagoon, a dolphin leaps from the sea and the scientist smiles.

The book ends with several small "Don't try this at home" warnings, explaining how the book came about and how some of the things described in the book have real-world counterparts, if somewhat dangerous ones.


[original research?]

Two major themes run throughout the book: the movement from a child identity that is received to an adult identity that is self-created, and the relationship between an individual and society.

The child-to-adult theme is repeated in the story of Mau, of Ermintrude/Daphne, and of the Nation as a whole. Mau starts as a typical (if unusually thoughtful) island boy and would have been satisfied to walk the well-worn path of his forefathers. Instead, because of the wave and its consequences, he has a greatly prolonged moment between the shell of his boy soul and the shell of his man soul, and ultimately he chooses a much larger soul. Mau reinvents himself as a leader and protector of his people.

Ermintrude starts the story as a child, subjected to many Standards that must be Maintained. As a high-born daughter, she isn't permitted to learn anything useful or look forward to anything but marriage. On the island, she soon realizes that there is no one but herself to create the Standards. She instinctively renames herself Daphne upon introducing herself to Mau; the island is her first real opportunity to make what she wishes of herself. Daphne lets good sense and kindness be her guide, whether that means wearing a grass skirt, pre-chewing food for an old woman, or poisoning a murderer.

The Nation itself moves from childhood to adulthood under its new leadership. Before the wave, Mau and the other survivors had followed simple faiths and believed that the asking of questions was a pastime for children. As the Nation rebuilds, the survivors sort through a religious crisis. Ultimately, the Nation leaves its childishness behind, refusing to be either primitive nor colonial. It forges a new path and takes its place among nations as a leader in science.

The second theme asks what it means to have a nation. The word "Nation" is used primitively to underscore the idea that "Nation" is as fundamentally undefinable as "God" or "Earth." Mau is from an island society where no poet needs to point out that "no man is an island"; in the Nation, the individual's place in society is so fundamental that it is completely taken for granted. Mau thinks of himself as a man/boy without a soul, but what he has really become is a man without a country. When he saves Daphne's life, he says that she saved his life because as a boy alone he was nothing, but the two of them together was a Nation. At the end of the story, when the survivors have secured the survival of their new Nation, Mau gets the tattoo that gives him his man-soul.

Being part of a nation requires great sacrifice. When the first canoe of survivors arrives, it is clear that the baby will die unless someone can find milk. Mau risks his life and sacrifices his dignity in order to milk a wild pig. Commentators have noted that milking the wild pig in order to save the fledgling Nation is a direct counterpoint to Lord of the Flies, where killing pigs is central to the descent into savagery.[5] Daphne, who has adopted the Nation as her own, sacrifices her innocence when she kills someone in order to protect the Nation. Knowing their duties, Mau and Daphne ultimately part ways in order to fulfill their roles as leaders.

The concept of "nation" can be extended to embrace all of humanity, anchoring Nation in the philosophy of humanism as an answer to the question of "what is the role of the individual in society?" As with the Tiffany Aching series, Nation contains an undercurrent of passive faith transforming into active scientific enquiry, without losing moral dimensions in the process. Pratchett reinforces this theme with an offhand reference to outspoken atheist and humanist Richard Dawkins as "that nice Professor Dawkins" who was bitten by a tree-climbing octopus).

Like Tiffany, Mau and Daphne are resourceful and logical, with a penchant for questioning authority. They are also deeply rooted to their homes, and the awakening of science does not change how Mau feels about his home or his people. Indeed, when he casts aside his superstitions and explores the forbidden cave of the ancestors, what he finds there is both more truthful and more inspiring. Pratchett's books are distinguished by the manner in which logic is warmly paired with humanism and abiding loyalty. For example, when Mau risks his life to save his Nation (whether defined as Daphne, a baby, or all of the survivors as a whole), he doesn't even see it as heroism because he thinks he is merely trying to save himself. Without others to give life meaning, Mau's own life would be meaningless. Tiffany, Mau, and Daphne are tolerant of religious beliefs, but ultimately the meaning that they care about most is the meaning that people create for each other.


The novel was well received with The Independent calling Nation 'one of his finest books yet',[6] the Washington Post 'a thrilling story',[7] and The Guardian printing "Nation has profound, subtle and original things to say about the interplay between tradition and knowledge, faith and questioning."[8] Times Online called the novel "Thought-provoking as well as fun, this is Terry Pratchett at his most philosophical, with characters and situations sprung from ideas and games with language. And it celebrates the joy of the moment."[9]

Nation was an Honor Book in the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.[10] On 15 July 2010 Nation won the Brit Writer's Award Published Writer of the year 2010.[11]


The Royal National Theatre performed a theatrical adaptation of the book by Mark Ravenhill. Previews started on November 11 and the show opened on November 23, 2009.[12] Readings from the novel began on BBC Radio 7 on Saturday 30 January 2010 at 1800 and 2400.


Preceded by
Making Money
Novels by Terry Pratchett
Succeeded by
Unseen Academicals

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