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Remembering Terry Pratchett

Sir-Terry-PratchettTerry Pratchett is gone.

Like many readers, I will miss him dearly. There are few authors whose work I followed so exhaustively, and whose work has affected me in such fundamental ways.

His most abundant and popular works were his Discworld series, often satirical, often humorous books which numbered in the dozens, all taking place on a fantasy world called Discworld. As the name implies, Discworld is flat, and it rotates on the backs of four great elephants which stand on the back of the cosmic sea turtle Great A’Tuin who flies through space with his burden. Pretty much any Discworld book can be picked up and read with no prior knowledge of the series–there are recurring characters and in-jokes and developments in the world of technological, social, and other natures that will be appreciated more for readers who have read the earlier books in the series, but any book can be understood on its own. Some of the books, like Small Gods or Thief of Time are basically one-offs where the main character is the star of only this book. Other books are parts of sub-series which are probably best appreciated in order, a subseries of books following the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, or a subseries of books following Sam Vimes who begins as a beat cop in cardboard shoes on the three-man Ankh-Morpork City Watch and moves his way up in the ranks.

I was first exposed to the Discworld when I was about 14 (a very suitable age to get into the series) when by brother gave me a copy of Soul Music for my birthday. Soul Music follows the small town musician Imp y Celes who goes to Ankh-Morpork to seek his fortune. He makes some friends and they perform together, and are supposed to die in a violent bar brawl, but are possessed by the irresistable spirit of Musics With Rocks In, which has no objective value to those who aren’t directly posessed by it. There he meets Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter (a backstory covered in previous novels) who has been coerced by the universe to fill in for Death while Death grieves the passing of Susan’s parents in a carriage accident–she is there to help Imp cross over to the afterlife but is surprised to find him not dead. Susan has only recently become aware of her connection to Death, her parents having kept that as secret as possible while they sent her to boarding school, though she has happily taken advantage of the abilities her heritage gives her, like the ability to fade out of people’s attention at will.

Susan is one of best elements of the Discworld series. Competent, compassionate, but ever aware that she is not like the people around her. She struggled to understand her grandfather, Death, who is basically a metaphor taken shape and who struggles to understand human affectations and behaviors without the common ground needed to really do that. She is a creature between two worlds who has to learn to live with both halves of herself, trying to reconcile the nature of her humanity with the nature of what makes her different from everyone else. Like many SF/F readers, I struggled finding my social place in the world, and particularly at the age when I first read Soul Music. Just a couple years before I’d moved from a city to a very small town where the cliques were basically permanently formed since Kindergarten, and where there was even less room for social differences than in most places I’ve lived. The social aspect of life is a lot easier now, having found an engineering job where it’s easier to find people with like interests, and finding online communities of SF readers and SF writers where I don’t just manage to survive by pretending to be like other people, but where I can just be who I am without being forced out because of it. (I have a great love for SF Signal and other online gathering places for this.) But back then I had found no such place. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was struggling more with trying to find a place in the world than I ever had before and more than I ever have since then, and reading books with characters like Susan helped me in a profound way that I’m only coming to understand in retrospect. Susan is powerful, and amazing, but not without her struggles, to understand herself and to understand her grandfather. When I was older I read Hogfather, which again features Susan as a major character, but now as a grown woman who has found a niche in the world working as a nanny who is powerfully effective in large part because she acknowledges that the monsters of childhood are real and instead of trying to convince the children of their unreality she just beats the hell out of the beasties instead.

By far my favorite Discworld book is Small Gods. This story takes place a long time before most of the series, in the country of Omnia, which worships only one god, the Great God Om. Om has been away from the world for a while, off in other places romping and doing whatever gods do when they’re out of town. He decides to come back and visit his believers. On the Discworld, a god’s power is proportionate to the amount of belief that is invested in them. Every god starts small when some shepherd finds a lost sheep and stacks a small altar of rocks in thanks to shapeless forces, and the biggest of the gods grow and grow from there as more and more people join in. Om, therefore, expects to land and take some kind of grand manifestation like a great bull or an elegant swan, something suitably impressive for a god who holds the devout belief of an entire country. So Om is very surprised to find that instead he manifests as a two-pound tortoise that only one person seems to be able to hear. That one person is Brutha, a low-level ward of the church who spends most of his time doing menial chores in the Omnian temple.

And it came to pass that in time the Great God Om spake unto Brutha, the Chosen One: “Psst!”

Brutha is unusual in a variety of ways. First, the reason he can hear Om is that he is the most devout of believers. His grandmother taught him all of the lessons of Om and he can’t conceive of any of them being true, while most of the Omnian population actually believes in the Omnian church more than they believe in their deity. Most people think Brutha is simple, but he’s not really simple, he just thinks differently than other people, and other people have trouble understanding him as a result, and vice versa. Like Susan Sto-Helit, Brutha is different from the people around them, and those differences are what allows them to take on the roles that the world needs them to take.

Susan might be my favorite character in the series, though she might be neck-and-neck with Granny Weatherwax, who is in a coven of witches in the country of Lancre. Weatherwax at a glance seems like a bossy old hag whom no one could possibly like, seemingly the counterpoint to the ever-smiling companion Nanny Ogg, but as you read more about her it’s clear that this prickly exterior is in large part an affectation, a mask she wears that makes her role in the world more effective. She is no-nonsense, never willing to put up with BS from any source even when it’s dangerous to stand against it, but she is compassionate and a source for good as well.

I have already gone on. I could go on much longer, picking out individual characters and books to speak about at length. Maybe I’ll re-read some of the series and post more about them at a later time, but today I am mourning Terry Pratchett’s death and so it’s only appropriate that I celebrate Terry Pratchett’s Death (the character). Death himself, as an anthropomorphic personification, is a frequently recurring character in the Discworld series, probably the most oft-recurring character. There’s a subseries of books focusing on Death’s progression as a character, sometimes struggling against his own occupation, trying to reconcile his human form that’s been forced on him by a world full of metaphorically-thinking minds against his natural manifestation as an unfeeling and hard-to-define state of transition between something that is living and something that is not.

Death makes cameos in most of the books as some character or other dies. As a typically pithy quote from Sourcery says: “Death isn’t cruel, merely terribly, terribly good at his job.” Death is, at his core, a person with a job of work to do, a job that never ends as he ushers souls from their death to their afterlife. Often a character in the book doesn’t even know they have died until Death speaks to them in all-caps, and the person looks down to see their own body before Death escorts them to what comes next. In most cases, having already been freed from the mortal coil, this transition is no longer the terrifying prospect that we living mortals might anticipate of it. Death comes, Death speaks to you, you walk with Death and go to where you’re going. It is reassuring in its workaday feel–dying was a thing on your personal checklist, the only unavoidable thing shared by everyone’s checklists, and now that that’s out-of-the-way, it’s time to do something else. There is presumably more that comes after, but that “more” is always off-screen, because it has no place in our world.

(Some spoiler alert for Small Gods in this paragraph) One of the few cases where this is not the case is in Small Gods. A major villain in the book is Vorbis, who believes he is a new prophet of Om, but when Om looks at Vorbis’s mind all Om can see is a steel ball that reflects back on itself. Vorbis is in a position of power in the church, but truly he is a narcissist who doesn’t really believe that anyone outside of himself is real, and the voice he hears in his mind when he prays is not the voice of Om but his own voice bouncing back at him. When Vorbis dies, he speaks briefly with Death. YOU HAVE PERHAPS HEARD THE PHRASE THAT DEATH IS OTHER PEOPLE. “Yes, of course.” IN TIME, YOU WILL LEARN THAT THAT IS WRONG. Instead of crossing the desert to find out what comes next, Vorbis is paralyzed by his solitude and inability to really sense other people and simply huddles in terror in that space between worlds. But even to this villain, Pratchett shows compassion in death–when the protagonist Brutha dies some decades later, he finds Vorbis still huddled there in the space after death. Even though Vorbis did horrible things to Brutha and to the world in general when alive, Brutha shows compassion and takes Vorbis by the hand and leads him to the next place together, acting as the Death-analog.

Pratchett’s attitude toward the character Death has some direct relation to his real-world views on death. He has been struggling with Alzheimer’s for years , and has long been a proponent of allowing people to choose the manner of their own death, including assisted suicide. By what I’ve heard, I don’t think that his life ended this way, but I respect the idea in any case. Terry said “I endorse the work of Dignity in Dying because I believe passionately that any individual should have the right to choose, as far as it is possible, the time and the conditions of their death. Over the last hundred years we have learned to be extremely good at living. But sooner or later, and so often now it is later, everybody dies. I think it’s time we learned to be as good at dying as we are at living.” I think his public support of this concept fits in very well with his Death as a character–Death just has a job to do, and it’s going to happen sooner or later, so it should be within our choice to arrange the necessary meeting as best we can.

The announcement of Terry Pratchett’s death came from just four short notes on Twitter:

Terry’s obituary:

I cried when I read that. Typical of Pratchett, I can think of no more concise or more powerful way to mark his passing. I never had an opportunity to meet him, but after reading dozens of someone’s novels, you get to feel that you know them. I’m crying now as I write this, and I’m sure I’ll cry more later on when the post goes live, and at intervals after. But in the end I think that Pratchett has helped me accept the reality of death more than any other person in the world. I also saw this image tweeted by Cory Doctorow that I found particularly moving, an artwork of a smiling Terry Pratchett playing a game of chess with Death.

I don’t know if there’s anything that comes after when we die. It’s a question that I’ve pondered more than any other, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. But when my time comes , if there is another world to travel into I sincerely hope that the Death of Discworld is the one who escorts me. We’ll exchange a few words, maybe we’ll even talk about Terry Pratchett a bit, and then he’ll do his job of work to send me on my next journey.

And then, when I get to the other side, I’m going to find Terry and give him a great big hug.

About David Steffen (64 Articles)
David Steffen is a writer and editor and software engineer and a voracious consumer of podcast fiction. The first piece of fiction he's edited is now available, "Taste the Whip" by Andy Dudak on Diabolical Plots(http://www.diabolicalplots.com/dp-fiction-1-taste-the-whip-by-andy-dudak/). David is also the co-founder and administrator of the The Submission Grinder(http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/), a tool for writers.

3 Comments on Remembering Terry Pratchett

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // March 13, 2015 at 4:53 am //

    Thanks for sharing this.

    My first Pratchett was GOOD OMENS, and only later did I try Discworld and fall into that world. SMALL GODS was definitely one of my favorites.

  2. A lovely piece. Small Gods and Good Omens are such wonderful books of theology.

  3. Honey Anne // March 13, 2015 at 8:01 am //

    I hope Sir Terry goes to the Klatchian paradise. Girls with bells on, and regardless. 🙂

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