Night Watch is one of Sir Terry’s most hopeless novels - and, by the same token, because of the same things, one of his most hopeful.
It’s a parody - and I use that word very loosely, because there’s really nothing funny about it - of Les Miserables. It’s about a failed revolution, and a barricade, and the people who fought and died there for nothing. Nothing changes. Politics with a capital P goes on, and even the most pure and noble of intentions only becomes food for the pit of snakes who pull the strings. The powerful remain powerful, the powerless, despite their solidarity, their desperation, their violence, their hope, remain powerless. Their little lives don’t count at all. Things continue exactly as they always have, minus a few faces in the crowd.
It is also, I think, where we see Sam Vimes at his lowest. Sure, Thud! does similar things in stripping him down, but that is under an outside influence, and he has his family to think of. He has something to fight for.
In Night Watch, though, all of that is taken away. Sam Vimes, eternal cynic, for once has Cassandraic knowledge that his cynicism is absolutely founded. He knows how this will end, and there’s no Corporal Carrot to make the world magically better around him, no Sybil and Young Sam to push through for, no city to protect. The absolute best that he can expect is to succeed, and lose that family, that future, forever. The absolute worst? He dies. Everyone he cares about here dies. And it’s all in vain.
Sam Vimes is an alcoholic. It’s something that we tend to bring up when we’re talking about how amazing he is, how much he’s overcome, but gloss over otherwise. Which is a little sad, because it’s fundamental.
Sam Vimes faced this exact dragon, years ago. Sam Vimes saw there was no way to slay it. He saw the ants eating at the heart of every hope, every effort. He saw the first man he really knew as a good and kind and just - but never passive, never weak - man die, horribly, slain for no reason but petty grudge and Politics. He saw John Keel’s garden wither and die in its bed. He saw the hope of a better, brighter Ankh-Morpork squelched, and the sacrifice of a good man wasted. He saw the world, in all of its rotting, miserable, pestilent despair, spoiling every good thing that dared show its face, its only ordering principle the slow decay of entropy.
Young Sam Vimes had no anchor. Young Sam Vimes had nothing left to turn to but the bottom of a bottle and the smelliest part of an Ankh-Morpork gutter.
Sam Vimes, as of the events of Night Watch, is back there. Not only physically temporally displaced. He has nothing. There is no reason for him to stand up, to take on the role of John Keel, to take responsibility for the barricade, to try to bring Carcer back to justice. To fight the doomed fight. There is nothing between him and finding a quiet seat at the Broken Drum, ordering himself a pint, and giving up. There is nothing between him and despair.
But he gets up anyway. He intervenes anyway. He tries to help anyway, even when he can’t believe it will make any difference. And it doesn’t, in the end.
Except that people lived who, save for the actions of John Keel, would have died. Except it quite literally meant the world to them.
And that’s where the hope is hiding, in this hopeless, bleak, despair of a book. There is no glory. There is no revolution. There is no good thing that cannot be corrupted. There is no point. Except.
The Disc turns on the ‘except’. Always has. Always will.