Terry Pratchett died last week.
The internet has filled with tributes and retrospectives, people pouring out grief and reminiscences about him. The aforementioned tributes are all far more lyric and effective than I can manage.
However, I do feel like writing about him – not a massive amount, not attempting to stand alongside the eulogies from his friends and contemporaries, but he was a great man and a greater author; he casts a long shadow. I could write for thousands of pages about everything that was so amazing about his books, but I’m not going to – I’ll just run down the very basics of why I think he was amazing.
Up until a few years ago, I could claim to have read all of his books – even Carpet People, a very early work that he was not amazingly proud of, but one I’ve always had a lot of affection for. It’s an epic fantasy novel set entirely in a carpet, miniscule heroes facing miniscule threats. It isn’t anything like as accomplished as his later work, but it has a lot of charm.
In the last few years though, I’ve been reading less and less (not voluntarily – I’m busy now, for what is essentially the first time in my life), and I’ve fallen behind on almost all of the authors I try to keep up with. I’ve yet to read Unseen Academicals or Raising Steam or Dodger. They’re books I want to read, and they are on the shelf less than two meters away, I just haven’t picked them up.
But I have read, I think, all of the others, and he’s one of the authors I most admired and enjoyed. I’d argue, in fact, that, until last week, Pratchett was one of the world’s greatest authors – far better than was ever recognised by the mainstream.
He had a massive following, sure, and was a very successful author, but he was always somewhat tarred with the brush of genre fiction. And frankly, that’s unfair. He started off writing comic fantasy, but I defy anyone to read the last few books of the Watch series and dismiss them as just comic fantasy.
As a rule, comic fantasy tends towards the terrible. It relies on reference and slapstick to avoid telling a complex story or dealing with deeper themes. Without wishing to single out authors, most books in the subgenre that I’ve read have been clunky and tired.
Pratchett has always used referential humour – The Last Continent contains a section that is just The Man from Snowy River, for example. But he also did more than that – his books weren’t just references strung together without thought or care. Instead, as he progressed as an author, the narratives and themes of his work displayed increasing depth; referential humour was used to ornament, not as a crutch. His books deal with mature themes and complex ideas: Pratchett wasn’t just a comedian.
It’s hard to write comedy well, and it is harder still to break out from the confines of comedy whilst still staying funny. Pratchett was an author who managed that feat, and managed it consistently. Thud, Night Watch, Reaper Man – these are all books that stand up well against fantasy as a whole, against books from any genre. They’re tightly plotted, thoughtful, complex works that show strength of narrative, character, and theme.
Mention should also be made of his prose – it was very, very good. I could list passages for hours from his work that are incredibly powerful and affecting. The Last Hero isn’t even continuous prose (it’s a graphic novel), and its final scenes still make me want to cry. I will give one example though, from Hogfather; it’s one of my least favourite Discworld books (I’ve never been quite sure why), but this section is just beautiful. Succint, powerful, and fluent.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.”
Pratchett was an incredible author, with a massive body of work that covered a huge number of ideas in detail and with extremely lyrical prose. I make no apologies for any of the superlatives following almost every noun in the previous sentence; it is difficult to describe Pratchett without superlatives.
He was a fantastic author, and leaves a rich body of work behind him. Writers of his calibre are rare, and their loss should be mourned.