Today, 12th March, is the third anniversary of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series, a number of books not set in Discworld, and co-author of three books bringing serious science to the masses (The Science of Discworld). He was only 66. During his life he authored many books. There are 41 in the Discworld series alone. He received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, had a number of honorary doctorates from universities, and won a number of literary awards.
I am a Terry Pratchett tragic. I have all his books in hardback in a glass-fronted book case to protect them from mould (which is a constant problem here in the sub-tropical north). An orangutan keeps watch over my office from his perch on one bookshelf, a job he shares with Darth Vader, a stormtrooper, and Princess Leia, who preside above the glass-fronted bookcase. (Which probably tells you a few Things About Me.) I’m sure he won’t mind me not using his title, though. I don’t think he was ever that kind of guy. Although apparently he was so disappointed that he didn’t get to keep the sword after he got his knighthood, he made one for himself – literally, right down to digging up the iron ore and making a kiln. You’ll find the details of that story here.
Terry was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and departed arm in arm with Death in 2015 – having written another seven books before he succumbed. Although he was a great advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he died naturally. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and I would not wish it on anyone but I find it particularly evil that this man of words had words stolen from him at such a young age (58). While Death is the great leveller, disease is a torturer.
A documentary about him, called Back in Black, was made after his death. Here’s the link to the version on Youtube. Actor Paul Kaye did an excellent job of portraying Terry, complete with his unusual accent. Sure, there were talking heads. His great friend, Neil Gaiman, his personal assistant, Rob Wilkins, Discworld’s illustrator, Paul Kidby, his daughter, Rhianna, and others all contribute information about the man they knew. But a lot of the facts were delivered by Pratchett himself (through Paul Kaye). The stand-outs for me were as follows:
- Terry wasn’t a child prodigy. When he was six years old his headmaster told him he would never amount to anything. That put a fire in his belly that never left him.
- He left school at age 17 and never attended higher education.
- He had an accident as a small child which left him with a speech impediment. And he also had a stutter. As a result, he was bullied.
- He got a voluntary job in the local library where he read everything he could get his hands on. Books were his friends.
- Over time he collected all those books he would subsequently write into his head. At one stage he was publishing three books a year. And it seems he also worked on as many as three books consecutively. Wow. Just wow.
Terry Pratchett’s Death – a seven-foot skeleton wearing a black robe, carrying a scythe and riding a white horse called Binky – is among Terry’s most popular characters. He stars in several of the Discworld books – Mort, Reaper Man, Hogfather, and Soul Music – and has a cameo appearance in most of the others. Death is fascinated by humans and their foibles. Terry can ask himself questions such as what would happen if Death took an apprentice? What if he decided to be a short-order cook instead of doing the Grim Reaper duty? What I particularly like about Death comes from the little cameos where he turns up to take a life. The recently-departed asks about where they’re going. “Will there be [insert folk belief of choice]” to which Death replies, “Do you want there to be?”
The results are funny, sure. But most of Terry’s books are character-driven. The Discworld is just a nightmare’s distance from our own, but the people are us. He shines a light on prejudice, where trolls and dwarfs substitute for Arabs and Jews or whoever we don’t like at the moment. He talks about women’s rights in Equal Rites, Men at Arms and in fact many other books. He pokes fun at Academia through the (male, celibate) wizards at Unseen University, and contrasts them with the worldly-wise witches, who perform the simple magic of midwifery, medicine and plain common sense.
All that reading Terry did in the little country library stood him in good stead. He often picked up a legend and shook it around to see what fell out. Hogfather, which was made into a terrific little mini-series, is about Christmas – what it used to be, as opposed to what it has become. The Hogfather (Father Christmas) has been kidnapped, so Death (seven-foot skeleton riding a white horse called Binky) assisted by his grand-daughter, Susan, takes on the job of doing the Christmas run, including the obligatory appearance in a department store. Elves are given their treatment in a few books, notably Lords and Ladies. For Terry, they weren’t the noble master race you’ll find in Tolkien. He goes back to earlier times, when they were nasty individuals, prone to playing tricks on people – and not in a nice way.
So today is a day of mourning for me. I’ve read and re-read Terry’s books since that day when I first read the prologue to The Colour of Magic in a newsagency at Perth airport back in the late 1980’s.
I’ve copied this list of his achievements from his Wikipedia page to save you the trouble of looking it up. Not bad for a kid who’d never amount to anything.
- Pratchett received a knighthood for “services to literature” in the 2009 UK New Year Honours list. He was previously appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire, also for “services to literature”, in 1998. Following this, Pratchett commented in the Ansible SF/fan newsletter, “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any,” but added, “Still, I cannot help feeling mightily chuffed about it.”
- Pratchett was the British Book Awards‘ ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction Author of the Year’ for 1994.
- Pratchett won the British Science Fiction Award in 1989 for his novel, Pyramids, and a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2008 for Making Money.
- Pratchett was awarded ten honorary doctorates: University of Warwick in 1999, the University of Portsmouth in 2001, the University of Bath in 2003, the University of Bristol in 2004, Buckinghamshire New University in 2008, the University of Dublin in 2008, Bradford University in 2009, University of Winchester in 2009, The Open University in 2013 for his contribution to Public Service and his last, from the University of South Australia, in May 2014.
- Pratchett won the 2001 Carnegie Medal from the British librarians, recognising The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents as the year’s best children’s book published in the UK.
- Night Watch won the 2003 Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel.
- In 2003, BBC conducted The Big Read to identify the “Nation’s Best-loved Novel” and finally published a ranked list of the “Top 200”. Pratchett’s highest-ranking novel was Mort, number 65, but he and Charles Dickens were the only authors with five in the Top 100 (four of his were from the Discworld series). He also led all authors with fifteen novels in the Top 200.
- Three of the five Discworld novels that centre on the “trainee witch” Tiffany Aching won the annual Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book in 2004, 2005 and 2007.
- In 2005, Going Postal was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best Novel; however, Pratchett recused himself, stating that stress over the award would mar his enjoyment of Worldcon.
- Pratchett received the NESFA Skylark Award in 2009 and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2010. In 2011 he won Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association, a lifetime honour for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature”. The librarians cited nine Discworld novels published from 1983 to 2004 and observed that “Pratchett’s tales of Discworld have won over generations of teen readers with intelligence, heart, and undeniable wit. Comic adventures that fondly mock the fantasy genre, the Discworld novels expose the hypocrisies of contemporary society in an intricate, ever-expanding universe. With satisfyingly multilayered plots, Pratchett’s humor honors the intelligence of the reader. Teens eagerly lose themselves in a universe with no maps.”
- He was made an adjunct Professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin in 2010, with a role in postgraduate education in creative writing and popular literature.
- I Shall Wear Midnight won the 2010 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) as a part of the Nebula Award ceremony. In 2016, SFWA announced that Sir Terry would be the recipient of the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award, presented at the 2016 SFWA Nebula Conference.
Photo by Luigi Novi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org w/index.php?curid=22449958
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