Friday, March 13, 2015

On the Passing of Terry Pratchett

I first read Terry Pratchett’s work on an airplane, high over the North Atlantic.

It was 2004, and I was headed back to Wisconsin from Europe, where we had spent a lovely few weeks visiting friends.  We’d spent some time with Julia and Richard in the UK before heading off to Sweden to visit Mats and Sara, a trip we enjoyed so thoroughly that we did it again eight years later.  Before we left for Sweden Julia handed me a book she thought I’d like, which turned out to be The Truth, one of the later Discworld novels.

I will always treasure the friendship Julia and I shared, for any number of reasons.  This is just one more.

I’d never heard of Discworld before, which all things considered is quite a feat.  It was an eye-opening experience to fall into this world that Pratchett had created.  And – in a move that will surprise nobody who knows me well – I decided that I needed to read all of these books.

In order.

This was a big project.  Even then the number of Discworld books was well over two dozen and closing in on three (depending on how you count it’s now closer to four) and at that point I owned exactly one of them.  It became a project, one that I wanted to complete without resorting to the “log in to Amazon and order one of each” strategy if I could help it.  So I started with the first one and then haunted used book stores in multiple states until I found the next one in line.  That fall, for example, Kim had a conference out in Monterey, CA, and I went along as a trailing spouse.  There really wasn’t much for me to do during the day – they kept conference attendees busy until after dinner, so I was on my own while the sun was up.  The hotel was at the base of the peninsula, so one day I walked all the way out to the point, stopping at every carefully-mapped-ahead-of-time book store on the way.  It was a gold mine, as I recall.  And then I had to fly them home.

Eventually I caught up.

And then I read them all again in 2012.  I’ll probably repeat that sometime soon, too. 

I’ve since read pretty much everything else he’s written too.  The Bromeliad series.  The Johnny Maxwell series.  Nation.  Dodger.  The various city maps and guides.  Short stories.  Non-fiction.  And the gorgeously funny Good Omens, co-authored with Neil Gaiman.  You can read nothing but Pratchett for a long, long time and consider that time well spent.

The thing about Pratchett’s books is not that they were funny, though they are – you can always count on a few laugh-out-loud moments in each book, and more than a few things that make you smile quietly on top of those.  That’s how he started, after all – the first few books are little more than a slash and burn satire of the fantasy genre as it existed in the 1980s, a ripe target if there ever was one – and he never lost that humor, a gently probing sort of wit that demanded you consider things in ways that had probably never occurred to you before.  In The Truth, for example, the photographer for the new city newspaper is a vampire.  Every time he takes a flash picture he (logically enough, when you think about it) crumbles into dust and has to be reconstituted with a drop of blood.  Eventually he learns to wear a thin glass globule containing a small amount of blood on a cord around his neck, which smashes on the ground whenever he turns to dust and thus automatically reconstituting him.  When asked why he puts himself through this he replies, aghast that anyone would even ask, “For my art!”  In hindsight it all makes sense, but it’s probably not anything you’d have thought of ahead of time.

Had he stopped there the books would have been fun, but hardly worth memorializing or handing off to one’s friends.  But they were more than that.  Pratchett had an almost unparalleled ability to make you think while you were laughing, and that’s a very difficult combination to pull off.  I doubt I could name more than a handful of other authors who come anywhere near his skill with that combination.  It took him a while to find that rhythm – you don’t really begin to see it until the third book (Equal Rites) but by the eighth (Guards!  Guards!) it has become fairly consistently part of his style.

Underneath the humor, underneath the venal wizards, the corrupt city, the Machiavellian leaders, the ethnic strife, the gender politics, the poverty, violence, and general slovenliness of the world he’d created was a strong humanist moral code, one that emerged naturally from the characters, one that stood both in stark contrast to and of one piece with that world, and one that could get quite angry in its expression.

Pratchett believed in people not as perfect beings but as worthwhile in their many imperfections, and he had Granny Weatherwax – along with Sam Vimes, the moral center of the Discworld – several times point out that evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.  Rigid bureaucracy appalled him and was invariably treated with contempt and opposition.  The Auditors – grey beings who seek to run the universe by unchanging rules applied without pity to living creatures – were the enemy.  His take on religion as something easily abused by human Auditors in the name of gods no more moral or just than the people they claimed to rule followed naturally.  It all came down to people, of whatever their many varieties.  People matter.  Kindness matters.  Everything else was secondary.

He believed in justice, particularly economic justice.  His long explorations of poverty and inequality in Ankh-Morpork, the main city of the Discworld, can stand with any academic discussion of the issue that I’ve ever read.  Look at Sam Vimes’ theory of boots, if you want an example of how poverty entrenches and perpetuates itself.

He believed in facing the hard choices and doing what needed to be done, regardless of propriety or surface morality.  The Lancre Witches – Granny Weatherwax and her colleagues – were the embodiment of this.  They were out there on the front lines, necessary but often scorned for it by those who regarded themselves as the guardians of virtue, and they were more heroic for that than any puffed up fool with their nose in the air.  “'We look to the edges,' said Mistress Weatherwax.  'There’s a lot of edges, more than people know.  Between life and death, this world and the next, night and day, right and wrong, … an' they need watchin'.  We watch them, we guard the sum of things.'”

He believed that Death – an anthropomorphic character in the series who spoke in small capital letters – was simply part of life, and one that should be neither feared nor hated.  The character of Death is portrayed as a craftsman, someone who likes people but doesn’t quite understand them.  He has a job to do and he does it well.  Death has what I have always felt was the best line in the entire series, a cry from the heart against his own master: “Lord, what can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?”

I made sure to read the Tiffany Aching subseries to Tabitha and Lauren when they were younger.  Tiffany is a strong female lead character – all too rare in modern literature – and watching her grow up over her four book series, learning the ways of the Lancre Witches, guarding the edges, making the hard choices, all the while surrounded by the gleefully anarchic Nac Mac Feegle, was both howlingly funny and deeply thought-provoking.

Pratchett died yesterday, and the world is a poorer place for that.

I know that his daughter has been appointed to continue the series, and part of me doesn’t mind the idea that there will be new Discworld books in the future but honestly, most of me just thinks the characters should be put to rest with the author.  It was a singular world, and to have it picked up as a franchise feels wrong to me somehow.  I don’t get a vote, though.  And I’m honest enough to know I’ll buy them anyway, at least the first couple, just to see how she does with them, just to visit that world again.

No comments: