I discovered Terry Pratchett when I was a teen.
I knew of him before then. I spent a lot of time in bookshops, haunting the fantasy & science fiction aisles, and the garish, glorious covers of his books stood out. I think I even played one of the spin-off adventure games. It wasn’t until The Last Hero, released in 2001, that I actually read one of his books. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Pratchett was very funny. I still laugh when I think about the unhygienic frying pan (containing one single nutrient, crying because it was all alone). As observed in many obituaries, he was also remarkably humane. Fantasy and science fiction are packed with unreasoning monsters — “always chaotic evil”, in the old parlance of Dungeons & Dragons. Not Pratchett. Everyone in his novels is a person: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes bigoted or stupid, never mindless. Sometimes, Pratchett played this for laughs, as with vampires who’ve given up drinking human blood. Sometimes, it could underpin an entire story, as in the case of troll vs dwarf racism. And his talents extended beyond Discworld. Readers of this blog might be interested in Only You Can Save Mankind, a clever riff on Wing Commander (and video games more generally). What happens when the aliens decide they’ve had enough of being slaughtered by the player?
Individual Pratchett books were hit or miss. As a whole, his work was great. If asked to pick favourites, I would name two from Discworld: Guards! Guards! and Night Watch, written thirteen years apart. Both star the same character, veteran policeman Sam Vimes. When we meet Vimes in Guards, he’s a pathetic drunk, worn down by a thankless, dangerous career; amongst other things, Guards is the story of Vimes rediscovering his duty. Guards isn’t very deep, and it doesn’t delve into the serious themes that the later books do. It’s also, for me, the single funniest thing Pratchett has written, spoofing everything from secret societies to heroes who always win when the odds are a million to one. Night Watch, in which an older, tougher Vimes finds himself caught up in a revolution, is a different beast — topical, in light of the last few years, and far more serious. The Vimes of Night Watch wears a lilac to commemorate fallen friends; I thought it would be appropriate to use a picture of a lilac to accompany this post.
We are the poorer for Pratchett’s death. I find myself thinking of his take on the afterlife, and specifically, what happens (spoiler warning) to an old schoolteacher who tags along with a group of ageing barbarians. The deceased barbarians can look forward to Valhalla, the teacher knows, but he’s rather surprised when after dying a hero’s death, the Valkyries carry him away to the barbarians’ afterlife. I’m sure the Muses themselves would have showed up for Pratchett.