Sir Terry Pratchett: an appreciation

A few words on the life, books and humanity of Sir Terry Pratchett - a man who was a cast iron example of how to be a human being.

The first Terry Pratchett book I read was Truckers. The first Terry Pratchett book I heard was Only You Can Save Mankind, which we’d got out from the library a few months earlier to listen to in the car. The reason I got these books was simply because I had seen my Dad sitting reading Soul Music on holiday, laughing his head off, and I wanted in.

So, first of all, thank you very much Terry Pratchett for saving me having to think of a Christmas gift every year. That sounds glib, and lazy, but every year you could be assured of buying something that he was guaranteed to enjoy. It’s easy to take that for granted, but it’s a gift in itself, the knowledge that a problem simply doesn’t exist because this man – dressed as Puritan Santa – was writing. I wanted in. I still want in. I still haven’t completed the first Discworld computer game (1).

Writing a novel is difficult. Writing a good novel is like buttering fog. Terry Pratchett wrote loads of great novels. It goes without saying that they were entertaining, because he was as witty as Douglas Adams. In many ways he was a Douglas Adams for the fantasy genre, taking cliches and twisting them into new and wondrous shapes, like taking balloons and turning them into real breathing dragons. Not only that, but dragons with character, even if they never actually spoke.

When we were young, my brother and I used to see who could build the highest Duplo towers. Terry Pratchett took the fantasy genre as a foundation and built and built and built, starting off with tall Duplo towers before adding Lego and Technic complexity until these buildings grew impossibly tall, interweaving and solid despite the new shapes they displayed. They never lost the quality of Duplo bricks though, colourful and enthusiastic and creative, naïve but completely assured.

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The pathos and humanity in his novels didn’t come from his inversion of tropes, smart as they were, but from the characters that developed as a result. In hindsight, there’s something wonderful about watching Pratchett grow as a writer with his books. Compare The Colour Of Magic – with its Dungeons and Dragons parodies and developing universe – to Interesting Times and it’s clear that he became increasingly capable of emotional heft. It helps that the Discworld is rich with beloved characters (Granny Weatherwax. I mean. Granny Weatherwax. Come on) but it’s also bursting with ideas. Few authors could parody as well as Pratchett, who understood that the parody is nothing without a twist, the twist nothing without something at stake.

There are imitators. Pratchett’s creativity inspired many, but imitation is a step forward that Pratchett himself took, his earlier work demonstrating a genuine love of the genre he would later subvert. He inspires writing, and his prolific output meant he burned up concepts rapidly. Let’s look at some of the ideas one man alone used: treating the villains in a computer game as real people with conflicts of their own, legalising crime in a city state, exploring religious conflict through fantasy races, the mythology of Father Christmas, truth, justice, hard boil eggs, the devotion of a father, Death watching his family die. These are innately cool, but they’re all based around fictional people. You read Den Of Geek, you know the sway such beings have over us all.

Few authors have been able to develop so many characters in the same setting, and keep all these plates spinning while adding things to them. Rincewind. Death. Vimes. The Patrician. The witches. The wizards. The Watch. Moist von Lipwig. There is no cinematic universe of these stories, and that surprises me, even if I don’t feel like I need to see it. These are books, and they demonstrate why books will always be there. The details are delivered in a way that other mediums cannot reach.

They’re places of comfort, places of laughter and familiarity. They’re places of anger and fury, rage against injustice and unfairness and the dark places people descent into effortlessly. Pratchett wasn’t thought of as a dark author, but there’s always conflict and sacrifice in his books. Even Agnes Nitt becomes a cold, furious bad ass when confronted with something from a nightmare.

And then there’s Terry Pratchett himself, his reaction to his Alzheimer’s one of wit, melancholy, but above all a warm and rising fury that such a thing could happen to someone.

I first read The Colour Of Magic sitting on the steps outside the Primary Six hut, leaning back against the railings as dry Spring dust suggested itself into the many chinks and scrapes of the concrete. To this day that book is still a source of grit and sand that makes people ask if I read it on holiday. It wasn’t, but there is still a warmth generated from reading Pratchett that comes mainly from inside the book, something that appeals to a wider audience than most fantasy novels. They weren’t even his only stories. There’s more still than the Discworld, but those are his peak. A peak that lasted over three decades.

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If you haven’t read any of his books, I envy you. There are so many to look forward to. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop reading those books. Terry Pratchett books invite re-reading. They’re too pleasant not to call out to you from the bookshelf. They might not have the most literary acclaim, or be the most popular fantasy series, but they’re fundamentally stories about stories, ones that everyone knows. They’re inspired by other stories, tales we’ve been telling each other for centuries, unashamedly fantastic and reworked by Pratchett to reflect a different time to the faux-medieval setting. No wonder they’re comfortable, no wonder they’re familiar, and so widely read.

If First Contact occurs, you could do worse than give the aliens a Terry Pratchett book. It’s as good a way as any I can think of to say ‘This is it, this is what we’re like’.

1. The first Discworld computer game was famously difficult, not least because you could spend many happy hours working your way through every single gag, conversation, location and characters. In many ways these technically irrelevant but massively entertaining diversions were like the footnotes Sir Terry would deploy for ideas that weren’t strictly necessary, but were hugely entertaining and possibly the best use of the tool used in literature. I am going to play the Discworld game this week, and I don’t care if I don’t finish it. I just want to spend some time there.