An Author Ian Likes: in memorium, Sir Terry Pratchett

(This post was originally written on the original stuffianlikes blog the day after Sir Terry passed. I’ve tidied up some grammatical errors and added a couple of pictures but this is otherwise the way it appeared 4 years-minus-a-day-ago)

I usually dwell on these posts for bloody ages but this one needs to be gotten down quickly or it will never be done.

It’s 1985. I’m a weedy, bespectacled kid of 15 with acne, bad hair and a desire to see more of other worlds. I see a new book on the shelves of Angus & Robertson on my weekly trip into Hobart to bookshop crawl. The Colour Of Magic, by Terry Pratchett. It’s thin but the cover looks great and the blurb sounds pretty cool (I have no idea who Jerome K. Jerome is but I still think Douglas Adams is funny so half of it has worked) so I’ll give this a go. That same morning I pick up the latest issue of my favourite SF magazine, Space Voyager. It contains not only a review of the book but an interview with the author by my favourite columnist for this magazine, a young fellow called Neil Gaiman.

It’s fate, I think.

I read the interview on the bus home and it primes me for the book. I read it in an afternoon then, for one of the last times in my life, turn back to the front and start again. I could tell that there was some parody going on: I picked up the Fritz Leiber references despite not having yet read any Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories (but I will have by later that year), I had devoured Anne McCaffrey’s novels the year before so I was pretty good on the Pern gags, Lovecraft was new to me but I spotted the jokes played on him instantly. I hadn’t read any Robert E. Howard at this point but I got those jokes as well since – when I did eventually read him – it seemed he had been directing my D & D group’s adventures from beyond the grave.

There was plenty of original stuff in there as well that I could recognise that this was a writer I would probably read the next book by.

It took two years but there was another book about Rincewind and Twoflower and it was even better than the first: the jokes were funnier, the story was tighter and the parody had been reined back heaps.

Then there was another one the year after that: slower and different with more emphasis on the story rather than the pratfalls; and one the year after that, and so on.

It wasn’t long before Terry Pratchett became an author I would routinely watch for and actively seek out, and when he teamed up with Neil Gaiman to write Good Omens, I first felt the joy that comes from following an author and watching them becoming immensely successful (that’s right: I was a hipster before it was popular… or, rather, when it just got you called a poseur).

Terry Pratchett also informed my thinking before I realised I was thinking it: his novels taught me about the banality of evil long before I understood the phrase. He taught me about how people allow themselves to be led into despair because it seems so reasonable. What it means to rise above your role and what it can really cost. How ordinary people are the most heroic of all because they have circumstances rather than odds (even million-to-one odds!) to get over. And that sometimes you have to be the one who does stuff because nobody else is going to step up

And he did it while being bloody funny as well.

I met him eventually: I had so many questions to ask but instead I went all raving fanboy on him and just made a fool of myself. However it didn’t stop him from keeping my best friend’s secret from me: that he’d signed a piece of MDF that would become a briefcase decoupaged with images from his books as a gift for services rendered as Best Man.

By this time the Discworld and other books had become more thoughtful and had lots to say about the state of the world and how we interact with it. Small Gods became the moment when it happened for me, though a recent reread shows that it had been going on for years previous, it was just that I hadn’t realised it yet (as a sidenote, Small Gods was written during/ just after the time that the Vatican formally apologised to Galileo for how they treated him during his lifetime). At about the same time I realised I had no clue about how to deal with the world and began Taking Steps to deal with that: I started reading more widely, trying to think more about issues and how they affected me and I tried not to react quite so much to events – or, to put it another way, to be less like Rincewind and more like Granny Weatherwax or Sam Vimes. (When I succeed in this aim, I shall let you know.)

So Terry Pratchett became one of those people who was a hero to me without me realising it. He was that person on whom I depended for clarity and the best way to think about things. And when he was diagnosed with Alzheimers almost a decade ago I tried to prepare myself. Unfortunately he just kept releasing books with only a slight decrease in quality and every obstacle he came across was faced with such bonhomie and wit that we – I – just assumed he was going to live forever.

But he hasn’t and we – I – have to live with the idea that there are no new words of wisdom, no twisted gems of insight and brevity, no more footnotes, no more food for thought, just the stories we already know and love.

And it hurts that we have been taught so much but are left with having to discover things for ourselves without Terry’s compassion to take the brunt of it for us.

Because he showed us so much, it hurts that he can tell us no more.


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