I first met Terry Pratchett’s books in a news agency at Perth airport many years ago. I was looking for a book to read on the 5 hour flight to Sydney and idly picked up a paperback with a colourful cover showing all sorts of grotesque creatures. I read the first page (as you do) and discovered this novel was about a disc world carried on the backs of four elephants which stood on the carapace of a Star Turtle. So far so good. Then I read about the star turtle’s journey through the heavens. Some scientists believed in the ‘steady gait’ theory, in which the turtles journeyed unendingly through the multi-verse, never changing pace. Others contended that the turtles were travelling to a meeting place, where they would mate and create more star turtles. This was known as the ‘big bang’ theory.
After I’d wiped tears of laughter from my eyes, I made my way to the counter and bought the book. Since then, I’ve bought hard copies of nearly every book Sir T has written and enjoyed them all, some more than others. Why? Because I like them.
That, dear reader, is the only reason I read books. However, I shall go a little further. Sir T breaks every rule in the Little Red Book of Writing. He uses ‘there was’ all the time. He indulges in great swathes of apparently superfluous narrative, such as regaling us with the amount of food etc consumed in the city of Ankh-Morpork. He writes in accents. Sometimes he has prologues which serve no other purpose than to bring the reader up to speed. And so on.
What I love about his work is the way he can brew an eclectic mix of myth, folklore, history, archetypes and pure, hard science, all laced with a shrewd understanding of human nature and politics, and make it funny. Mind you, much of what he writes has a darker, more serious side. He examines racism frequently, using the on-going tensions between dwarves and trolls, and people and paranormal people like vampires, werewolves and zombies to mirror our own behaviour in our round world. Sir Terry has sent up just about every icon we hold dear – he seated the four horsemen of the apocalypse around a table and had them learning how to play bridge; he examined what happened to heroes like Conan the Barbarian when they get old; he has mocked sexism (in Equal Rites, Men at Arms and Monstrous Regiment to mention two). The church, academia, Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli’s Prince – you’ll recognise them all in the Discworld.
In the midst of all this he creates believable characters such as the reformed alcoholic, reluctant member of the peerage, commander of the city watch, Sir Samuel Vimes; Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax the tyrannical witches; the wizards at Unseen University and their Simian librarian. (The librarian was turned into an Orang Utan by a random discharge of magic in an early book and has since steadfastly avoided any attempt to persuade him to return to human shape.)
Sir Terry examines truths and mores as if they were rocks in a field. He picks them up, turns them over, looks underneath. Take Christmas, that iconic Christian festival. Sir Terry’s version is Hogswatch, when the Hogfather comes down from the north in a sleigh drawn by wild hogs. Except Death has to take the gig because the Hogfather is missing and we wouldn’t want to disappoint the kiddies, would we? So the archetypal Death wraps himself in a red coat and does the department store ‘meet the kiddies’ thing, which is absolutely hilarious. However, Terry digs deeper. Underneath that rock labelled ‘Christmas’ we find the meaning of that red coat, blood sacrifice to bring in the turning of the year. The book’s name is Hogfather.
There are so many examples. I could analyse every book and find serious messages hidden amongst the hilarity There’s isn’t a Discworld novel I haven’t enjoyed, but of course, some are better than others In fact, the two first books (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) are not amongst the best. I don’t think Sir T had any idea how popular they’d prove to be. If you asked me to name a favourite, one of his best was Thud, which is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the on-going, ancient war between the trolls and the dwarves. And Witches Abroad, the hilarious adventures of the witches as they journey down to a city that is suspiciously similar to New Orleans. Highlights of that trip include junior witch Magrat winning the running of the bulls, an encounter with what might well be Gollum in the mountains, the bit where Nanny’s cat, Greebo, eats a vampire in his guise as a bat. The tale becomes darker, though, as the witches meet real people acting out fairy tales.
But Discworld is not all Pratchett wrote. His ‘Johnny’ series is young adult, about a lad in modern London, all worth reading even if you’re seventy going on seventy-one. The first is called Only You Can Save Mankind and it’s about video games, specifically pacman. He wrote a wonderful children’s series called The Bromeliad Trilogy, again set in modern England. It tells the story of the Nomes, tiny creatures resembling gnomes who live in a department store that’s about to be demolished. This is not a fairy story, though. The Nomes are aliens and they have to get back to their spaceship in orbit around Earth. Once again, grown-ups will enjoy it too.
Dodger is a look at the life and times of Dickens’s artful dodger in Victorian London. Nation, set somewhere in the Pacfic during colonial times, is a look at colonialism from the point of view of those colonised. Good Omens, written in conjunction with Neil Gaiman, is an irreverent look at the book of revelations.
Sir Terry was afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s and passed away several years ago. I miss him still but his legacy lives on.
I, too, adore Sir Terry’s books, and have nearly all of them, including one of the final series he wrote in conjunction with Stephen Baxter, the Long Earth series.
I bought the first Long Earth book, but found it didn’t do it for me. Maybe I need to try again.