Issue #220 – In Memory of Sir Terry Pratchett

ppratchet1_1379206cThe recent passing of Sir Terry was far from unexpected, but sudden nonetheless. So I wanted to use this month’s column to look back at his body of work.

Best known for the Discworld series, Pratchett’s career actually started with an offbeat fantasy called The Carpet People (which he would come to re-write decades later in the 90s), as well as two science fiction comedy stories, The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata. Interestingly, early elements of the Discworld mythos can be found in all of these early works.

Pratchett always had a love of science and space, but lacked the mathematical skills to become an astronomer. He went on to be a journalist for a time and later a Press Officer a power company that covered several nuclear power stations, leaving that job shortly after Three Mile Island.

Those new to the Discworld will find that the early books in the series are someone rough, at least compared to his later and more consistent works. The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic are more or less a collection of short stories tied together by a failed wizard and a tourist exploring their world. These early works were more fantasy parody than anything. Equal Rites, which introduces witchcraft, features a Granny Weatherwax that looks like a work-in-progress compared to how readers come to know her later on.

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Pratchett spent so much time writing about the Disc that his stories became more than just a parody of fantasy tropes, they became their own cohesive universe that works in its own consisetent logic. The Disc became a twisted funhouse mirror to our own world, but never allegorical with a forced message. Instead the points made are in a mor broadly applicable way we can all relate to—or can choose to ignore and simply enjoy the stories as they are.

The Disc has evolved over the course of its 40-plus core books. It started off as an archetypal fantasy world in terms of technology, where magic managed to fill in certain modern gaps (such as a camera that uses a tiny imp to paint really fast), up to a more Victorian-era setting where steam engines exist magic-free.

Each of these leaps in technology is often the catalyst for one particular book, allowing a satirical look at why it came about, and what came from it. The Truth, for example, starts with the invention of the printing press, but quickly becomes about journalism, both in its well-intentioned and gross tabloid forms.

There’s even an internet of sorts on the Disc now in the form of the Clacks, advanced semaphore towers capable of relaying complex information across the land at surprising speeds. If the technological advancement of the Disc has been almost upsettingly rapid to some, well, one only needs to look at our own last thirty years to see what motivated it.

An interesting subset of the Discworld series coincides with when J.K. Rowling was gaining fame for her Harry Potter books. Pratchett took this opportunity to approach this genre in his own way with his Tiffany Aching series.

Like Harry Potter, each book has the title character age (Pratchett jumps two years instead of one), and has them learning more about what it means to be a wizard (or witch) while growing up and becoming more mature (both as a character and in terms of storytelling). But in Pratchett’s case, far more focus is put on how witches do their most important work doing little to no magic at all, and the importance of witches in villages as healers, midwives and arbitrators.

I’ve written about Pratchett’s Science of Discworld series before, co-written with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, which brilliantly uses the Discworld (which sensibly runs on the power of story) to look at and explain our far more confusing Roundworld, which runs on a magicless and storyless set of rules.

He’s teamed up in the past with Neil Gaiman to write a comedy about the apocalypse (Good Omens) and more recently with Stephen Baxter to write a series centered on the human race finding an absurdly easy way to jump parallel dimensions in The Long Earth. His works have ended up as video games, movies, radio plays, comics, and even a television series that should be filming this year.

But what makes him special to readers is his unique style of storytelling, which is funny but also knows when to be serious. Anyone who isn’t moved by Death’s encounter with the Little Match Girl on the Disc’s version of Christmas is probably a doppelganger and should be taken out before they kill you in your sleep.

DiscworldThere is a surprising amount of depth to Pratchett’s work, being highly moral yet rarely moralizing. Hopeful about what we are capable of while realistic about what many of us actually do. It shows us a world filled with magic, yet it is never magic that saves us. Time and again he demonstrates that real magic comes through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

I suppose the best way to describe Pratchett’s body of work is to use my favorite quote about him, from another favorite author, Harlan Ellison. “Terry Pratchett is more than a magician. He is the kindest, most fascinating teacher you ever had.”

And if THAT cranky ol’ curmudgeon feels that way about someone, you know there has to be something to it.

 

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