Sadly, the genre community has recently lost both Leonard Nimoy and Terry Pratchett, so I asked our panelists the following question:
In Prague in 1995 we took shelter from a sharp August rainstorm in a brightly colored bookshop with a small beautiful case of English language books, and because I’m me I pulled the one off the rack that had a picture of a wizard on it. He didn’t look like the wizards in my books back home, really, except in outline. Beard, yes. Robe, sure. Hat slightly rumpled but acceptable. General seeming-to-be-outclassed-ness: interesting. And I didn’t know what to make of the giant turtle on the cover, or the man beside the wizard in straw hat, Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, with camera. Or the ambulatory pirate chest. But I opened the book, and when the rainstorm passed I shuffled out reluctantly onto cobblestone Prague streets, and spent the rest of the day convincing my folks—while waiting for a concert of Mozart’s Requiem in an out-of-the-way and beautiful chapel all dark space and stained glass—that we should go back to the book store, you know, if we had time, so I could finish reading what I then did not know was a comic book adaptation of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.
My parents were remarkably patient.
I, being eleven in a foreign country, barely noticed the author’s name, because of course they have different authors in Foreign, and it is impossible to order books from bookstores, and even if I did order, what money would I use to buy it? I could have cleaned my room, but at that point my floor was a fossil record of my childhood. How could I deny future archaeologists the resource?
So I discovered Pratchett over and over again throughout my childhood. A copy of Only You Can Save Mankind, stumbled upon in the deep throes of Wing Commander addiction, got me laughing—and thinking about the cost of this play at digital war. But of course I didn’t remember the author’s name of that one either!
Good Omens was the book that did it for me. Who is this Pratchett guy? He’s hilarious! And then the realization—my god, I’ve been reading him for years!
Cue flailing, bookstore orders (I’d figured that one out, and by this point I had some pizza-place money), out-of-order devouring of novels, and a whole different sense of what, and who, fantasy should and could be about. It was that glorious moment in a detective story, so aptly summed up by Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye—Your case! My case! Same case! I’d been following disconnected leads only to realize at last the shape of this thing I’d traced. And I couldn’t stop laughing. Or crying, sometimes.
I cried when I heard the news.
I met him only once, as a fan. He came to my college bookstore around the release of Thud! I hadn’t realized he was due. I’d visited the store to buy, with the last of my pocket money, a Loeb edition of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. I only noticed TERRY PRATCHETT SIGNING TODAY on the way out the store. I stayed. He joked. I watched, with friends. The rules were, he’d sign anything and personalize copies of Thud! or Where’s My Cow?, neither of which I could afford after the Loeb. So when I reached the front of the line, I sheepishly handed him the Loeb. And he, without a beat, signed it and passed it back.
Maybe I was “that fan” that day. Almost certainly. But I still have that book, with that signature. It may be the only copy of Caesar in the world occupied by Terry Pratchett.
Nimoy, by contrast, I never discovered. He was there all along. Uncle Paul introduced me to Original Series Trek, his were the tattered VHS tapes I watched, but I knew Spock before that somehow. I had my hair cut like his. I read Diane Duane’s Spock’s World before I’d ever seen more than traces of the series.
Nimoy was an epoch. When we traveled out west in our Plymouth Voyager with the captain’s chairs in the back, which I loved because they were called captain’s chairs and that made me think of Star Trek, and we reached after wandering through canyons Los Angeles and the plaza in front of Man’s Chinese Theater which I knew because I’d seen it in the Rocketeer, Nimoy’s was the handprint within which I placed my own hand. In the Vulcan salute, of course.
We’re none of us the children of one mother or one father. The Pratchett quote abut ripples has passed from hand to hand and mouth to ear to mouth these last few weeks, and it’s true, but we’re also none of us ripples from merely one stone. We are living memories of those who came before. They built us, and we build in turn.
Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.
Terry Pratchett almost got me fired from my first job.
All through high school I worked as a page at the local library. It wasn’t much, a few hours a week at minimum wage, but I LOVED it. So many books! I mostly shelved books, prepared new books for circulation, culled old titles and changed out the periodicals.
One day I started my short weekday shift in the back receiving room, getting new books ready for the shelves. On the top of the pile was Night Watch. I had read all of Neil Gaiman by that point and recognized Pratchett’s name from Good Omens. I started getting it ready for circulation and skimmed through the first chapter.
I WAS HOOKED. I couldn’t stop myself. I read nearly the whole book right then and there. I didn’t even notice the time pass. I was instantly sucked into Discworld. Even though I hadn’t read any of the other books, I quickly figured the world out and it soon felt like I had lived there all my life. Commander Vimes was the most fascinating character I had read in months. I read through my entire shift and didn’t even notice.
The head librarian found me back there because the library was about to close for the night. She read me the riot act over the work I didn’t do that day and reminded me that as a teenager I was completely replaceable. I had left three carts of books unshelved and none of the new newspapers and magazines had been put out.
The next day I came in to the library and shelved all the carts off the clock and then checked out every single Pratchett book the library had. I don’t regret a thing.
Night Watch has always stuck with me, the way it dealt with fate and honor and duty. The way it spoke about revolution and change. How it discussed getting older but trying to stay true to all the promises you made yourself as a young, stupid kid. I think a lot about some of the lessons Vimes tried to teach himself and what he had learned as he got older, as opposed to the fresh faced kid he was who didn’t want to sell out and was so idealistic about the nature of mankind. I find something new in it every time I read it and I cherish that.
Totally worth almost getting fired for. Thank you for everything, Sir Terry.
I started reading the Discworld books when I was maybe 11 or 12. I loved them to itty bitty tiny little pieces. I had… I don’t know what they’re called, the little toys that are just fuzzy balls with eyes and feet, and I named them Rincewind and Twoflower and Ysabell and stuck them to the edge of my school desk. By the time I got to meet Terry Pratchett (who was not yet Sir Terry) at Lunacon in 1995, and ask him to sign my copies of Mort and Pyramids, they were already hopelessly battered. But I think he was always especially happy to sign well-loved books.
I will always be so glad that I knitted a square (with pyramids on it) for the Pratchghan . I like to think of him draping it over his bed… his spare bed, in the spare room stuffed with all the bizarre yet meaningful gifts that fans must have given him over the years. Or maybe he did actually sleep under it and feel the comforting weight of our earnest love for him and his work.
He wrote what amounts to scripture, for those of us who constantly struggle with the concept of death. It’s so easy to forget that when he was writing about Death, the anthropomorphic personification, he was also writing about actual death. Over and over again. From every angle. Religious, irreligious, spiritual, uncertain. Death and afterlife and undeath. Memory and grief.
I don’t worry about my own death, but one of my OCD manifestations is constant inner narration about bracing for the deaths of those I love. I call it Death Radio. I can’t turn it off and it’s very hard to turn down. It makes death feel like this enormous ever-present horror that could swoop in and steal someone from me at any moment. But Pratchett put death on an equal footing with humans. We could look it in the glowing blue eye. Talk to it. Make sense of it. I can’t overstate the value of that to someone like me.
He gave us so much that it’s hard for me to feel a sense of loss. He provided warning of his eventual demise, and promised to make it as easy on himself as possible so that we wouldn’t have to fear or be sad for him. To the very end, he made death feel smaller, kinder, a thing to nod respectfully to rather than cower from. Multicultural and increasingly secular communities don’t have a lot of comfortably familiar rituals around death, and it’s taboo to discuss it. That makes it really hard to cope with death in either the specific or the abstract. Pratchett worked so hard, in his fiction and his life, to change that, and to give us all something like a firm place to stand as we looked into the abyss. It was an incalculable gift to the world, and I find it very appropriate that we’re all making use of it now as we watch him walk into the desert on Death’s bony arm.
I feel a bit weird trying to celebrate Nimoy and Pratchett. They were both bright lights in the SF world, and they touched a lot of people in important ways, but for me, mostly it was touching how much they meant to people I care about.
I have countless friends who love the way he commented on society, and wrote a wide range of female characters who did interesting things. One in particular, named Tiffany, found the Tiffany Aching books to be a beautiful lifeline for her in a sea of depictions of people with that name as airheads or valley girls. I know people who have read his books to keep suicidal thoughts at bay, and others who have found solace in them while grieving for loved ones. My experiences of his work are smaller than that.
I have a vivid memory of my best friend visiting me when I was living in France with an English language copy of Equal Rites. We took turns reading it aloud to each other to pass the time in the laundromat. After my friend left, I was deeply lonely and unable to find any more English language Pratchett books in my town, so I engaged in my one episode of book piracy. I found a text file of Good Omens, which I printed out on a university printer and took home with me to read. It was not a terribly convenient way to read a novel, but it did the job of cheering me up. When I returned to the US, I bought a copy as atonement, and so I could read it again.
Nimoy, I have still less experience with. I mean, of course I’ve seen some Star Trek, and I knew him as Spock from early childhood. I also enjoyed his performances on The Simpsons, but that’s the extent of my personal experience of his work before he left us. Again, I know people who found hope in his performances, who found acceptance in his words and deeds, who loved him for the respect he gave to fans, and that, to me, speaks volumes. I have heard many stories of people meeting him at conventions and finding him to be compassionate, polite, and friendly. It wasn’t until after his death that I heard of his photography projects, but I have since learned that he was a bright light for several of my friends who loved his size acceptance work.
I feel like I didn’t really know these two great men, so I don’t know how much I have the right to celebrate them, but I have no doubt that they were great, that they touched many lives, and that the world, my world, was lucky to have them, and will continue to miss them.
How much did I love Leonard Nimoy? I saw Funny About Love at the movie theatre. Have you seen that? It’s terrible. It’s a romantic comedy which is neither romantic nor comedic, especially since it’s about infertility, miscarriage, death, divorce and infidelity. No one liked this movie. It has 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. But I went, at the age of 17, because I was a fan.
Star Trek was my recurring gateway into science-fiction. One of the few memories I have of my parents’ first house— we moved out when I was four— is sitting in the living room and seeing “City On The Edge of Forever” on the tiny TV we had back then. That episode has always stuck with me, perhaps even imprinted on me, and a good part of why went to Nimoy’s performance as Mister Spock. Of course, I didn’t consciously realize this at the time— I was only three or four, after all— but there was something so compelling about this character, even at my young age. Here he was, declaring, “Edith Keeler must die.”, a horrifying course of action that he arrived at with the cold logic of necessity, but his performance was still filled with compassion under that emotionless veneer.
When I saw Wrath of Khan several years later, I didn’t really know who any of the characters were, save Mister Spock. And here Nimoy hit that same balance— showing Spock choosing a course of action, arrived at with cold logic, but at the same time the underlying heart was so present, up until Spock’s death. It remains, for me, one of the most affecting death scenes on film.
The Voyage Home, which Nimoy directed in addition to starring in, was a work that truly got its hooks into me. I’m fairly certain it was the first movie I went to in the theater where I paid for it with my own money. After seeing that, I became fully obsessed with Star Trek, watching every single episode I could when it showed at 6 p.m. on WSYT, much to the annoyance of my sister. Watching Star Trek formed the foundation for my love of the genre. And, if I’m being objective, Original Series Trek is uneven and erratic, especially in its last season. But Nimoy was a stabilizing force that made every episode eminently watchable. Heck, I even enjoyed him jamming with Space Hippies.
I found out he died while at the airport, waiting for a long-delayed flight to eventually take off. It wasn’t a surprise, as I knew he had been sick, but it still was a blow. Sitting in public, I wasn’t in a position to mourn particularly openly. But my thoughts went to his body of work, and the journey it had put me on as a genre fan, to eventually being a genre writer… a journey that had led me to be waiting for that plane to go to a convention. And in that moment, I felt no grief, but gratitude.
Leonard Nimoy’s death is like the loss of a friend—someone who’s been with me so long that I struggle to process it. I discovered him like many others on Star Trek reruns in the 70s, as a child, and I was quickly captivated by the brilliant “otherness” mixed with humanity with which he played Spock. Later, I discovered him in Mission Impossible, The Man From UNCLE, and other shows. I admired his directing of comedies like Three Men and a Baby, and his range in playing many other roles as well. For me, Spock was important because he was an “other” we all easily related to and accepted in ways we might have never anticipated, opening our minds to the possibilities of commonality with otherness in ways that might have otherwise been difficult. Sometimes relating to those with differences can be a challenge, and even being raised to not think of race, sexuality, etc. in judging others, I found Nimoy’s portrayal of the Vulcan quite inspiring and unforgettable. The character has certainly cropped up in my writing, from Yao Brahma, the Tertullian best friend to Davi Rhii, the hero of my space opera series, to other characters I’ve written as well. And certainly the normalcy of such humanoids as expected cast for science fiction books and programs was established via Nimoy’s work. Who can imagine such books and shows without humanoid characters now?
As a man, he was a good friend, and a thoughtful spirit, dedicating time and money to make the world better beyond entertainment in other ways. I admire that as well, because I was also taught the importance of that by my parents. And seeing someone famous and wealthy willingly sacrificing time and effort on such paths was a constant reminder that we have a responsibility and privilege both to make the world better. I never got to meet Nimoy, something that makes his death more painful, but I certainly felt like I knew him, and I always will. And that as much as anything speaks to the power of his work, his presence, his gifts, and his character. Live long and prosper, friend.
I’m sorry, I have tried to write something elegant but the words just won’t come. Some of my earliest memories are of watching Star Trek. I was maybe four years old. Leonard Nimoy’s voice – like Oliver Postgate’s – has been a constant presence in my life for forty years. He will be sorely missed. I wish I’d had actually had the chance to meet him.
I did meet Terry Pratchett on a couple of occasions. I heard of his death – as one does with so many people nowadays – on Twitter. I read it just as I was about to leave the house. I got in the car and started driving and felt the tears boil up in my eyes. My heart beat like a caged animal and my veins turned to liquid lead, trying to suck me down, through the floor of the car, into the ground below. I had a full-on anxiety attack in rush-hour traffic. The loss of Iain M Banks had been hard; losing Terry and Leonard in the same week felt like a body blow. Death’s scythe was humming through the air, reminding us that no-one was safe, that no amount of love could forestall the inevitable. And so I bit my lip and tried not to cry, and kept driving. Because what else can you do?
If there is an afterlife, I hope Iain, Terry and Leonard are sitting at the bar with the others who’ve gone before us (Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick…) and that they’re having a drink and hatching ideas for new projects, and laughing at each other’s jokes.
I think it would be a bit facile simply to thank Leonard Nimoy for playing Spock. Obviously, he embodied our favorite Vulcan, gave him voice and manner and poise, and embellished him (and his culture) with personal inspirations and the occasional notion borrowed from Judaism. But Spock was a decades-long collaboration with too many writers, producers, costumers, and directors to name here, so instead I’ll cite Nimoy for the duty of care he displayed toward the character when the pointy ears weren’t on.
While many cult SF actors eventually become notorious for barely tolerating the roles that land them in the popular consciousness, Nimoy generally handled all the peripheral aspects of Spockdom with dignity and good humor. He respected the fact that Spock is one of those precious fictions that make life more bearable. Spock is imaginary in the same way that baseball is imaginary and music is imaginary and love and hope and fan communities are imaginary; a thing of little immediate practicality yet infinite sustenance for the spirit. Spock is a powerful symbol of logic, loyalty, and enlightened tolerance to millions, and even when it would have been effortless for Nimoy to mock their attachment, he chose to be a gracious caretaker instead.
I found Nimoy eminently watchable in nearly anything, but that’s hardly the stuff of eulogies. Many absolute rat-bastards are great performers. What made Nimoy special was his warm sense of duty toward the rest of us, his willingness to share, his refusal to sneer. We tend to dismiss those qualities as quaint and commonplace, but are they really so overwhelmingly in evidence among people of Nimoy’s stature that we can afford to do so? Leonard Nimoy was a gem in an industry justly famous as an asshole factory. We were blessed to have him for as long as we did.
Like most people in the SFF community, when the passing of both of these giants was announced, I was absolutely devastated. I couldn’t stop crying.
But with this sadness came a sense of knowing and thanks. Knowing that both Nimoy and Pratchett have added something to my life, and incredibly thankful for that.
I wanted to write something soon thereafter but really wasn’t ready, and so many wonderful tributes have said everything that I want to say and so much more.
Way back when I was a small child, I was obsessed with mustaches, mainly because of the Westerns I used to watch (Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Bonanza etc). So much so, that I used to ask my Grandfather to draw mustaches on paper and then I would tape them to my top lip and pretend to be a Cowboy. That was until I saw my first few episodes of Star Trek: TOS.
I remember being distinctly entranced with the pointed eared, logical character of Spock on the screen. As a child that was amazing. He was smart, he was handy in a fight with the cool Vulcan nerve pinch, he was alien, and yet human. The paper mustaches for playing pretend turned into paper pointed ears, and added with the blue school jumper I felt like Spock, I felt part of something, and as I got older that influence never left me. Nimoy was an incredible human being and was an Inspiration to all. I had always wanted to meet him but sadly never got the chance, and yet he was no stranger to me.
I must have been in my teens when I first read Sir Terry Pratchett, and it was through The Color of Magic, and the first book in the Nomes trilogy (Truckers.)
The Colour of Magic is still one of my favorite Discworld books and the only book that was responsible for me getting a detention.
It was quiet reading time in school, and I was reading The Colour of Magic for the first time. There was a particular scene in the book that made me shout “F**K!” Really loud. The teacher was not impressed. Once the Discworld was opened up to me through the first book, myself and my friends were absolutely obsessed with them. My friend used to read them a lot faster than I and would tease me with things in the books that I hadn’t yet read. Myself and my friend would sit around in each others houses reading about the Discworld pausing only for bouts of laughter. Those moments have never left me and never will.
Pratchett’s voice was unique and his like will not be seen again. The way he took the fantastical and turned it into something absolutely beyond fantasy shows us all how truly amazing genre can be.
Yes, the Color of Magic was maybe Octarine, but the true name of magic was Sir Terry Pratchett.
Despite being a voracious reader as a youngster, I’d avoided reading any Terry Pratchett books. The covers looked silly and at that time I tended to disregard fantasy in favour of science fiction. I then caught a few episodes of Truckers, the TV series based on Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy, and quite enjoyed them. I then read Strata (Pratchett’s 1981 Niven-esque SF novel featuring a proto-Discworld) and quite liked that too. Finally, when stuck inside school due to a bomb threat in 1993, I sat down and read the graphic novel version of The Colour of Magic, followed by the novel version. Finally, I Got It. I used up my entire library card allowance of 14 books on Pratchett novels and read books like Small Gods, Guards! Guards! and Lords and Ladies back-to-back. Pratchett’s withering, angry deconstruction of religious fundamentalism in Small Gods was one of most powerful, damning and yet brilliantly funny things I’d ever read (and still is). There are vanishingly few characters in all of fantasy, serious or otherwise, who are as well-developed as Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.
The reason Pratchett was a great fantasy author was that he used fantasy as a mirror to the real world, and used it to point out the absurdities of real life. Even the occasionally-maligned Colour of Magic (the least sophisticated of the novels, but still entertaining) does this brilliantly by having Twoflower introduce the concept of insurance to Ankh-Morpork, which results in the spontaneous creation of the insurance industry and the city promptly being burned down to claim on it within the space of about 48 hours. Small Gods has a fire-happy priest so convinced by his own righteousness that he even tells his fairly laidback and merciful god he is in the wrong when he finally appears to him for real. Later books waxed lyrical on banks, the press and steam trains, but Pratchett always found a way of commenting on reality even when writing about a flat planet mounted on the back of four elephants and a giant star turtle. Pratchett also had a fine eye for satirising the genre – what would happen to Conan the Barbarian if he lived to 86 but just couldn’t give up his barbarian rampaging ways? – and not being ashamed to, occasionally, just go for the belly laugh. The grand finale to Moving Pictures simply inverts King Kong by having a 100-foot-tall giant woman climbing up a tall building whilst clutching a monk…orang-utan in her hand and pretty much sums up the whole book (and the lunacy of Hollywood) right there.
In his later years a better understanding of Pratchett the Man emerged, thanks to his very public battle with posterior cortical atrophy (an Alzheimer’s-related condition). He talked about it in interviews, wrote articles and was knighted for fighting for greater recognition and funding of treatment. He got involved in the Right to Die movement, and spoke movingly about the experience of watching his father die with tubes and machines all around him and the desperate need to avoid the same. Pratchett tackled his situation with courage, determination and dignity.
In an interview with 1994 Pratchett expressed dismay at the idea there could ever be a “last Discworld novel”. Now there is one, and reading it is going to be very hard. But he leaves behind a body of work almost unparalleled in SF history: 57 novels and barely an underpar one in the lot (and arguably not a single completely “bad” one), not to mention many more tie-in books, works of non-fiction and collections of short stories. As Scott Lynch said, “Terry Pratchett can die, but he can never go away”. Damn straight.
On Leonard Nimoy:
I have very vague memories of watching the original Star Trek when it was shown on ITV in the early 1980s, but the very first, clear memory I have of the franchise is being 4 or 5 and watching The Wrath of Khan. The epic space battles were impressive, Ricardo Montalban made for a compelling villain and the director coaxed a reasonably decent performance out of William Shatner. But it was the ending where Leonard Nimoy gave a terrific, human performance as Spock sacrificed himself for his ship and friends that resonated the most. The notion of giving up your own life to serve the needs of the many was alien to my younger self, but the film present that idea superbly and even made the illogical inverse – Kirk and his friends sacrificing their own careers and almost their lives to save Spock in the next film – make sense.
That Nimoy was a great actor who brought the character of Spock to life superbly and ensured the integrity of the character in every appearance (and even gamely indulged his friend Shatner’s somewhat, er, untempered directing skills on Star Trek V) is well-known and indisputable. But it was interesting seeing him grapple with the problems of typescasting, even publicly in his biographical book I Am Not Spock and, twenty years later, I Am Spock. He was a skilled director, writer and producer, with Star Treks III, IV and VI all immeasurably improved by his presence behind the camera as well as in front of it. In interviews he came across as thoughtful, intelligent and artistic. His appearance in the 2009 Star Trek film added a much-needed element of gravitas and legitimacy to the project. Nimoy also tackled a new role with enthusiasm and verve, when he was cast as William Bell in the TV series Fringe. His relationship with John Noble’s Walter Bishop was magnificently handled by both actors and won over a lot of new fans. In his later life it feels like Nimoy had a renewed burst of fame and respect, something he seemed to enjoy and appreciate with warmth and humour. One of the last things I saw him do was a very funny car commercial with Zachary Quinto which featured some brilliant self-deprecation and wit, and it was great to see him come to peace with his fame.
Ultimately, Nimoy was Spock and now always will be.
Terry Pratchett and I go way back.
I read Strata first, before I’d ever heard of the Discworld proper – I must have been, maybe 16… it would have been mid to late 80’s. The Colour of Magic was out, The Light Fantastic was not, but almost. And… Strata. Strata is the proto-Disc book (the accreation disc?). it’s a gloriously mind-bending piece of hard SF that takes the general set up of Niven’s Ringworld and turns it inside out and back to front. It was my first encounter with a novel that was also a puzzle, littered with subtle little clues that tell you all is not what it appears. It’s still one of the books I go back to, over and over.
Soon after that, one of the RPG magazines I got – it was a short-lived UK one, I can’t even remember what it was called – did a Pratchett piece, and I think it was for the release of Light Fantastic (Maybe Equal Rites…?) and then there was a short story, “Final Reward”, which I loved (collected in Blink of the Screen, I believe). And after that, the Discworld series itself just started unrolling like a wonderful magic carpet – Mort and Wyrd Sisters were the two that cemented my love of the place. But it was Strata, first. Pratchett was one of the first authors to really make me think.
And he had a quite unique career. Like Banks, he was one of the authors to reach beyond the usually close confines of the genre to touch a far wider audience. He was a household name, and aside from, say, Rowling and King, how many fantasy authors can honestly say that? More, he used his acclaim to good effect. He was someone who had strong opinions on justice and society, and he wasn’t afraid to push them in his writing, nor did they detract overmuch from the books.
And he was a builder of worlds par excellence. Fantasy worlds have a tendency to be static, or at least circular. Nothing ever changes, except sometimes the Dark Lord’s up and sometimes he’s down. In my own work I’ve tried to present a fantasy world where events have lasting consequences – where things evolve and react. Pratchett was way ahead of me, though. Each Discworld book builds on the last – not so that you need to sit there with twenty books and an encyclopaedia to understand them, but in a fluid, organic way that makes perfect sense without getting in the way of the story telling.
And he always had a lot of time for his fans. And he was an extremely gifted comic writer, and that’s also a rare breed, and a far more difficult skill than most people realise.
I was not raised by geek parents, but they did love them some Star Trek. In fact, along with Baker-age Doctor Who, watching the original series along with my parents is one of my first television memories. I know I was younger than five at the time, well before I was a fully developed person. Which probably explains my nerdy tendencies to this day.
Which is the long way around to saying that I don’t remember Leonard Nimoy not being a part of my life. Dr. Spock was the most often impersonated character in my house, my dad’s thick eyebrows already halfway to Vulcan. I struggled for years to get my fingers right for the Vulcan salute (I can do it with both hands now) and followed his career through movies, reboots, and even ballads of Bilbo Baggins.
Maybe that’s why I thought he was the narrator in the Rankin-Bass Hobbit for so many years. You have to admit there’s a similarity there. I remember listening to my 45 recording of The Hobbit and feeling quite certain that Mr. Nimoy was taking the time out of his space-traveling adventures to tell me the wonderful story again.
It was the 80s. I really didn’t know any better.
I loved most of the Trek films, especially when Spock figured prominently. And while I’d never consider myself a Trekker by any stretch, I admired Nimoy’s ability to counter Shatner’s ridiculous antics and bombastic personality with an enduring kind of nobility. He rocked Twitter. He was what many actors who strike fame along geeks should be. Gracious. Friendly. Humble.
Those are also words I could ascribe to Terry Pratchett.
Admittedly, I was not a wide reader of Pratchett. I blame it primarily on having discovered him too late, and having been far too obsessed with Tolkien in my teens. I wish that someone had suggested that I go to Discworld in junior high school, rather than my instance that I read LoTR over and over and over again. Pratchett’s wit and humor would have done me a great deal of good and saved me a lot of really horrid poetry.
But I can’t change that now. I can say, as a writer who has “grown up” on the Internet, for the lack of a better term, there were few who did it better than Terry. New media didn’t scare him away, but it gave him a voice to share the depth of his personality. As Neil Gaiman put it so well, Pratchett wasn’t a happy go lucky kind of fellow. He was furious. And his art helped him channel and make sense of his fury in a way that touched people. But that he didn’t let out with his fans.
Nimoy and Pratchett touched so many lives. Generations of writers, dreamers, artists, and people. The world is dimmer for their losses in some ways, but it others… well, it’s so much better for them having been here. Whether you believe death is just another door, or the final frontier, there’s no doubt that the life lived on the other side changes the fabric of reality just a little. Ripples and butterfly wings.
I can’t mourn for long. (Especially not in the drawn out, wailing way the Internet seems to do.) At the end of the day the emotion I feel most is, well, just a sense of peace. And a strange sense of joy in seeing such brilliant careers lived and celebrated. What we know is only the surface, the barest of hints, of what these men were truly like. But that they shared it with us, a most often undeserving and unappreciative audience, is the true honor.
“The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.”
–Sir Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Years before my wife and I both realized that our secret love for each other was, in fact, reciprocated, Sara spent a summer working for an aid agency in Burundi, not far from the Rwanda border. Before they left the country, while dealing with malaria vaccinations and work visas and all the other preparations, the volunteers were also urged to make special arrangements in case of dire emergency. To leave instructions for those left behind; to write goodbye letters.
Sara’s unsent goodbye letter to me — a love confession — said, in part, “Thank you for introducing me to Terry Pratchett.”
I first stumbled into the Discworld around 1988. I remember the very moment more clearly than I remember some of the things I did today. Browsing through boxes of paperbacks in a used bookstore in the old Apache Plaza in St. Anthony, Minnesota — my friend Matt and I had taken the bus to the mall; neither of us could drive yet — I found a mass market paperback copy of The Light Fantastic. I could only see the spine, a tantalizing hint of something marvelous. So I pulled it out and saw a luscious Josh Kirby painting of Rincewind riding the Luggage, and this blurb across the top: “Funnier than the Bible.” I was hooked. I had to own this book.
I still do.
Not long after that, I met the woman who would eventually (decades later) become my wife. I remember that moment, too, just as clearly. 25 years later I can still see the room, the windows, the arrangement of tables and chairs, down to who was in the room and where they were sitting when Sara walked in. I was hooked. I had to know her; I wanted so desperately to become a part of her life, however casually.
I did. She accepted my timid overtures of friendship.
I devoured The Light Fantastic. I smuggled it into study hall only to give myself away over and over again. It was so damn funny — I’d never read something that made me laugh aloud from beginning to end. Discworld, I eventually discerned, was a thing. There were other books by the same author. I had to find them.
Back then, in the pre-Internet Cretaceous, I would call friends on the telephone just to read passages to them. “Listen to this,” I’d say. And then I’d read the footnotes. Just the footnotes. And we’d laugh together over the ingenious silliness of the Discworld.
I was an immature high school student growing up in an undistinguished suburb of the Twin Cities. I had an ugly-ass ponytail and no understanding of the world. Sara was an unhappy transplant: her family had moved halfway across the country when she was halfway through high school. I was shy and awkward; she was brilliant and shy and alone.
Back then, in the pre-cellphone Cretaceous, we didn’t text or IM each other. We were both too shy even for the telephone, frankly. Instead, every Monday, after class let out, I’d catch up with Sara in the parking lot. (I had, by then, obtained my driver’s license.) And, standing next to our cars, while everybody else went home for the evening, we’d chat. Shivering outdoors in the Minnesota winter, we talked about everything: Mystery Science Theater, REM, Shakespeare, physics, The Kids in the Hall, our hopes and dreams for the future. We continued that conversation every Monday .
I owe so many of my favorite reading experiences, those perfect moments of the sheer pleasure of getting lost in a book, to Terry Pratchett. For decades, one of my life strategies has been to always keep one unread Discworld book on the shelves. In that way I’ve always had something to look forward to. No matter what was going on in my life, through good times and impenetrably dark times, I’ve always had a Terry Pratchett work in reserve.
During one particularly dark time, I blew off grad school for a week and did nothing but read Discworld books. It saved my sanity. Because while the Discworld may be a bizarre place, Pratchett also made it fundamentally humane. Fundamentally sane. A welcome balm when life is neither.
Sara and I lost touch with each other after going off to difference colleges, stayed out of touch for close to 15 years.
I remember the last time we saw each other before that long hiatus. We caught a meal and saw a live show of Mystery Science Theater. All afternoon, though, she seemed terribly uncomfortable. I gathered she wasn’t keen on the company, but willing to put up with it for the sake of a ticket to the show. At the end of the day, as I watched her drive away, my heart deflated. “I’m never going to see her again,” I said to myself.
I knew I would never stop missing her.
Over the years to follow, I did two things, and probably only two things, with dependable regularity. I checked every so often for news of new Discworld releases, and I thought about that charming young woman I’d known in high school. In a very real way, I grew up reading Terry Pratchett and, in my imagination, courting Sara.
Funny thing. Somewhere along the way, the books grew up, too.
Google made it a lot easier to keep track of new Pratchett works. It also made it possible for old friends to find each other.
When we connected again as adults, I discovered that I’d misread Sara. She wasn’t the angry young woman I remembered, nervous around me and always just a little bit at arm’s length. She’d emerged from the cocoon of years to become the wonderful adult that everyone had always sensed, even in high school. I’d misread her nervousness all those years ago. She hadn’t been unhappy with my company. Unbeknownst to either of us, we both wanted this to be about something.
It was around the same time that I realized I’d misread Discworld, too. They weren’t simple fantastical comedies. They were thoughtful, meaningful explorations of the human condition. They were about something.
They’d gone from books that made me laugh to books that made me laugh and cry. In public. I went from an immature kid embarrassed to laugh so openly among strangers in the student union, to an adult who felt no shame wiping his eyes when he read Monstrous Regiment on the bus.
When news broke of Sir Terry’s death, the sorrow that hit me was of a piece with the sadness that came over me when I watched Sara’s Mazda hatchback recede in the distance. But where before I had just a handful of letters, I have an entire bookshelf to revisit. And where before I’d had to grapple with that searing disappointment in the pre-Internet Cretaceous, this time around I participated in a spontaneous worldwide wake.
At home that evening, Sara and I held each other and shed a few tears for Sir Terry and all the wonderful adventures we’ll never get to have.
Thank you, Sir Terry, for introducing us to the Discworld. And for the privilege of growing up alongside it.