Revisiting Terry Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell books

A fond look-back at Sir Terry Pratchett's children's series, Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny And The Dead, and Johnny And The Bomb...

It might sound odd to combine the words “underappreciated” and “Terry Pratchett” and “wigwam,” but that’s partly because that third word doesn’t need to be there. Relatively speaking, there are less appreciated works among the many, many gems of Pratchett’s output. Still, there’s love out there for them, and we aim to reflect that here.

In the lower reaches of the Goodreads list of Pratchett books, besides the short stories and essays in anthologies, the first novel to stand out is Only You Can Save Mankind, the first of Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell series. It was published in 1992. It is a very 1992 book (One of the characters asks “Is it rad to say cool?”), and realistic swearing is not a feature. Compared with later books featuring Johnny Maxwell it’s a bit on the nose in its depiction of children, but the intention – to depict a variety of backgrounds and relatable struggles – lays the foundations for the subtler sequels. That’s not to say Only You Can Save Mankind hasn’t got some brilliant ideas running through it, many of them involving early Nineties gaming:

“There was the entire computer games software industry engaged in a tremendous effort to stamp out piracy, and there was Wobbler. Currently, Wobbler was in front.”

There was various Wobbler equivalents at school, ones who would copy you CDs or write out codes on torn-off bits of jotter paper. None of them, though, planned to make a real time game called Journey To Alpha Centauri which rewarded successful players with a message saying “Welcome to Alpha Centauri. Now go home.” There’s realism in computer games and then there’s realism in computer games. Obviously no one would ever make such a game in real life.

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Julian Fleetwood made Journey To Alpha Centauri in real life. It was released in 1998, and should take more than 3,000 years to complete. Obviously we can’t confirm that just yet, but as soon as we have more information about the verisimilitude of Journey To Alpha Centauri we’ll let you know.

The most interesting thing about Only You Can Save Mankind were its observations on empathy and detachment with regards moving images, but its ending counteracts the popular aphorism by stating that violence does solve some things. It might seem surprising in the context of the book, but then Pratchett has disposed of monsters with poetic abandon since. While examining the way in which gamers have to detach themselves from what they’re actually doing – I mean, try playing any real world conflict-based shoot ‘em up while thinking about the reality the simulation is depicting – he also brings in images of the Gulf War on TV. Considering the ending states unambiguously that some monsters must be fought, it’s ultimately a book that says “Ask questions first, shoot later.”

Johnny And The Dead followed in 1993. Again mixing lofty themes and fantasy with the mundane, the main characters feel a bit more realistic here. Here the ’90s feeling is different: it’s a book clearly set in and evocative of that time period, rather than a book that is evocative of how adults wrote children in that time period. See also: all attempts at swearing in late-Eighties Doctor Who that aren’t written by Rona Munro.

Similarly with Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead asks the reader to consider something they might see in their everyday life, to look beyond the surface of it and ask questions. It goes one step further, again, with its ending, where the dead stop waiting around for the next stage of their afterlives to happen. Again, it takes the ending you expect and gives it a little tweak, in this case with the people of the graveyard deciding that waiting to be saved isn’t all that. Inspired by councils selling off graveyards for tiny amounts to get rid of the costs of upkeep, it’s a wry and fond look at local history that might inspire you to do some investigation of your local graveyard. For example, if you’re in the sleepy Black Country town of Halesowen, you might notice a Wetherspoons called “The William Shenstone” named after a local poet, who is also buried within sight of the pub. It’d be interesting to know what he thinks about this.

So, again, it’s based around an interesting central idea. Plus, being Pratchett, these books are funny. You get lines like “You’ve got a lot of time for abstract thought when you’ve got your hand stuck up a dead badger.”

Funny and educational.

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What wasn’t clear when reading these books as a child was the influence of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. In 1994, a new TV adaptation made it fresh in the mind, but then there are many stories for children based around the activities of young gangs, which obscured the link. The Johnny Maxwell books accurately predicted my personal future with the idea of being in a social group consisting of all the people who weren’t in any other social groups. While Johnny’s male friends – Wobbler, Big Mac and Yo-less – are all nicknamed to within an inch of their personalities, Kirsty is instead a precursor to several Discworld characters (most obviously Susan Sto-Helit and Agnes Nitt). She’s smart, but doesn’t really know how to talk to people and gets frustrated by Johnny’s casual acceptance of the bizarre. The fact that Johnny Maxwell is deeply normal, for the most part, is significant. He seems amiably passive, and doesn’t react traditionally to his difficult family situation. Kirsty, despite being intelligent and brilliant, is atypically unpopular for her situation. They’re both outcasts in a group of outcasts, as Johnny talks to invisible dead people and Kirsty doesn’t really get on with anyone else.

All of Johnny’s friends get satisfying character development in the third and final book in the series, Johnny And The Bomb. This book, especially, with its mentions of the Trousers of Time and “Millennium hand and shrimp,” complements ideas in the Discworld universe, almost like a primer. That these come from a character called Mrs Tachyon may be entirely deliberate, as a theoretical time-travelling particle has echoes of both this book and the existence of something like the Discworld. While the ending might be the most straightforwardly heroic of the three books, Johnny’s friends are put into the midst of the fantastic more than in any other story. Big Mac promptly gets arrested for what he’s wearing, Wobbler fails to befriend his Grandad as a child, Kirsty is enraged at the way women were treated in the Forties, and Yo-less responds to casual racism with angry sarcasm. Again the fantastic – the time travel, the alternative realities – is combined with the mundane to great effect: bored teenagers trying to entertain themselves on weekends, lost cities being found round the back of Tescos, a race against time where someone trips over a sheep in the dark.

Another thing of note: in the 2005 TV adaptation, Johnny is played by George Mackay, who was in Pride. We don’t know if we’ve mentioned this, but Pride is brilliant.

Compared to Johnny And The Dead there are bigger, more emotive issues involved, and as such opinion is divided as to how sensitively Pratchett handles them. The most striking moment is when Kirsty tries – while attempting to help – to explain racist behaviour by saying people were brought up differently, and when she encounters sexism Yo-less witheringly responds by quoting her back to herself. It recalls the empathy of the previous books, which is otherwise not as prominent in Johnny And The Bomb. Still, this is the story I remember laughing most at for its first two-thirds – putting Kirsty in the mix with the rest of them gets some great lines – before the high stakes of the finale.

Overall, these three books are towards the lower end of the Pratchett novels on Goodreads (other literary review and rating websites are available), but their average rating is no lower than 3.5/5. It’s mainly adults reviewing, which isn’t a total shock as these are people who might have grown up with these books.

It’d be interesting to see how children react to them today. Maybe the references are too dated, but I’d hope the ideas and humour present would be enough to win anyone over: depicting a significant overlap between reality and fantasy, all the while asking questions about the nature of perception. Pratchett himself, as you might expect, said it best on the L-Space website:

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“So: is what happens in the books real? Yes.

Does it all happen in Johnny’s head? Yes.”