Wednesday, 18 March 2015

No More, With Footnotes

I've been trying to write this for days. It's astonishing how upset one can feel upon hearing of the death of someone quite removed from them. I never met Terry Pratchett. I wish I had. I could have made it to a signing or a convention without much difficulty, and met him, however briefly, but I never did. I did, however, read his books, and through someone's books may we know them, if only partly and fleetingly.

I've been reading Pratchett since I was around ten years old.* The library at my primary school** - where I would often spend breaktimes under the pretense of helping the staff, but in actuality just allowed us bookish types somewhere to read and chat in the warm - had a selection of his books for younger readers. There was Only You Can Save Mankind***, and its sequel, Johnny and the Dead (Johnny and the Bomb followed a little later). And there was the Truckers trilogy, now called The Bromeliad, the story of the tiny human-like Nomes and their high-speed life unseen by humanity. I'm fairly certain Truckers is the first of his books I read. Perhaps a little challenging for me at the time but I persevered. It was the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane, of this race of little people living in the confines of a supermarket, with their alien box the Thing, it absolutely fascinated me. Not long after I moved onwards to secondary school, where the library was bigger, had computers in which was quite exciting, and had a solid selection of Discworld books.**** The first one I picked up was Guards! Guards! I was hooked.

It's become fashionable, in some quarters, to knock Pratchett's earlier works, but there's so much joy and charm and inventiveness that I find it hard to understand why. The first Discworld novels are simpler affairs than the later masterpieces, fairly straightforward parodies of the sword-and-sorcery high fantasy, but they're shot through with such ingenious humour, and such brazen punnery, that they swept me away. They also have the Luggage, a most ingenious creation, and perhaps my favourite character after the ubiquitous and utterly wonderful Death*****. The man with the scythe appears in very nearly every novel in the Discworld series, but it was his first starring role in Mort that I feel marked Pratchett's first truly great novel. His works gradually became more complex, with the Disc becoming somewhere he could take a step back from reality and comment on its absurdity. Guards! Guards! was the first of the Watch books, which began the gradual journey of Sam Vimes from Captain of the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork to eventually the powerful position of Duke of Ankh, all against his better judgment. It's a turning point for the series and it's easy to see why it grabbed me so strongly and wouldn't let me go. Pratchett had addressed the lives of the "little people" before, but this was all about them. The guards, the henchmen, the lowly servants, who populate fantasy worlds but so rarely get their time in the limelight while the knights and kings and wizards are steering the course of history. Plus, it had dragons. I do love dragons******.

Vimes is one of Pratchett's avatars. You can tell them quite easily. While Pratchett's prose is saturated with his distinctive voice (perhaps why televisual adaptations of his works never quite seem to work as well as they should; that voice is absent, or at best, muffled), certain characters seem to speak for him. Rincewind, the cowardly "wizzard," was his earliest voice of reason, but in time Granny Weatherwax the witch, Sam Vimes, Tiffany Aching and Death himself all came to embody his unique worldview. Cynical, by god yes, but hopeful for this sad and delusional species called human. Somehow, though, it's when reading Vimes that I felt I was hearing his voice most clearly. For all the strength of the Discworld books being their human (or human-like) characters, Pratchett was never short of big ideas. Favourites are often those with a high concept at their heart, through which the poor, long-suffering characters must navigate. Small Gods, with its surgical deconstruction of Christianity, when God turns up to his one remaining true believer, as a one-eyed tortoise. Reaper Man, in which Death retires, with drastic consequences, and has to take his responsibilities back by force. Night Watch, with its exploration of destiny and free will, and Thief of Time, with its mind-bending time-twisting.

Not all the books were classics, but most of them were, and not many authors can say that. Not only the Discworld, though, oh no, there was much more. I may be in the minority, but I adore his two very early science fiction novels, Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun. So much invention, such wonderful alien creations, and such a skill for making us seem so mighty and so tiny simultaneously. The Carpet People, his first ever book, co-written by his teenaged and adult selves, which left me stepping very carefully for weeks. Nation, very possibly the best thing he ever wrote. A children's book, supposedly, but only in that its characters are young and you should give it to your children to read, because it will help them grow up to be wiser, kinder, more human souls. Not forgetting his collaborations: the Science of Discworld series with highly regarded scientists Stewart and Cohen, the Long Earth series with the great science fictioneer Stephen Baxter, and Good Omens, the apocalyptic collaboration of Pratchett with the other greatest modern British fantasy author, Neil Gaiman. Even Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars*******, with its many multiple Marses, was originally spearheaded by Pratchett.

Gaiman famously described Pratchett as not jolly, but angry, and this was more and more apparent in his later work. There is a seething anger coming through in his gentle prose, an absolute despair in humanity's failures and crimes. It's clear we disappointed him. Yet that golden, joyful, silly humour was still there, even as his Alzheimer's slowly took his skill from him. The Embuggerance, as he called it, slowly picking away at his great mind. What a terrible thing to have to live through, and to die from. Pratchett was a very passionate campaigner for the right to die, although in the end, his death was natural. If there is one good thing that has come of this appalling illness having struck him, it is the vast sums of his own fortune that he put into Alzheimer's research. Sufferers in the future may well have him to thank, in some small way, for their improved quality, and indeed quantity, of life.

Now he's gone. We'll never get a chance to read what was to become of Moist von Lipwig in the never finished Raising Taxes.******** There is one final Discworld book to come, that Pratchett finished before he died; The Shepherd's Crown, featuring young witch Tiffany Aching. There are still going to be adaptations of his books, and his daughter, Rhianna, is expected to take over the series, but it's unclear whether she'll be writing any more books or simply inheriting the intellectual rights. I'm actually pleased that I'm so far behind with my reading; I've four Pratchett books waiting, so for a little while at least, he lives on for me. And then I can just go back to the beginning.

Terry Pratchett was born on the 28th of April 1948. He liked astronomy, orang utans, and cats. He wrote fifty-seven novels and had an extinct turtle named after him. He died on the 12th of March 2015.

* That's 1994, fact fans.
** St. Wilfred's RC Primary. Headmaster Mr. Jones made sure we were well motivated. "Jesus always said, 'Try hard at swimming.'"
*** Which instilled in me a lifelong fear that I might actually be killing tiny pixellated people when playing computer games.
**** It's also where I first discovered The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy.
***** I used to flick through every book before reading it, looking for the TELLTALE CAPITAL LETTERS to make sure he was in it.
****** "Its eyes were the size of very large eyes."
******* Which had echoes in my very first professional publication, now I think about it, although that was really PPH's idea.
******** He was clearly going to become Patrician, wasn't he? Whether Vetinari liked it or not.

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