I had to mark Terry’s passing last week. he went out in great style, tweeting a mini-short story featuring his greatest character (?), Death. It was just the perfect ending.
I’ve been reading Sir Terry since the mid 80’s, and pretty much everything he wrote. The DiscWorld series of some 40 novels is a comic creation of the highest order – I see back in the day he came 15th on my all time list of favourite writers, which isn’t bad but feels a bit low in hindsight.
Some memories of Discworld – on a train back from a union meeting or conference in the 80’s, god knows where, with several colleagues in their 20’s all getting drunk and being silly as you do. I got the Pratchett novel I was reading at the time, and one of the women in the group (yes, there were women trade unionists in the 80s) picked it up scornfully, as if it was toxic, and said “So you actually read this kind of stuff do you?”. Now to be fair in those days the paperbacks covers came illustrated in a fairly childish manic manner (see below) which suggested pretty strongly that these were children’s books – which I don’t agree with for one minute – so the reaction was understandable, if still a bit condescending. Fast forward ten years and a friend came to visit, him an Oxford PhD and all, and he got out his hardback copy of the latest TP, which happened to be “Hogfather”. At the time, having a young family I was saving a few quid by buying the novels in paperback, which were published when the latest hardback came out – so I was always about 6 months in arrears. A hardback Pratchett struck me as a single man’s indulgence, although I hope I had enough sense not to say so!
Reading TP was – and is – an interesting experience. Without any effort at all I can consume the books in a matter of hours, the rest of the world fading out for that space of time. But strangely the plots rarely stay with me. That means of course I can enjoy re-reading the novels, but I think it says more than that. I think with Pratchett the plots are not that important – the scenario, yes, but the details of who does what to who, less so. With Pratchett it will always be character that is king. And what a cast of characters he developed, captured simply in a line or two – Ook – each utterly distinctive. For Terry there seems never to have been such a thing as a minor character – almost everyone is developed with care and attention to detail, so that Foul Ole Ron for instance or CMOT Dibbler are easily remembered and with as much affection as Vimes or Veterinari.
Lastly his books entertained because they are bursting with ideas. Often the ideas are thrown away quickly enough, but there is always another along quickly to take its place. He created a wonderfully completely realised universe and tackled contemporary issues seriously and effectively. You never got the sense that Pratchett was dialling it in or just writing another Discworld novel, and even in less effective novels you can see what he is trying to do. With “Raising Steam” we see Discworld beginning to come to terms and be comfortable with modern technology, which was an optimistic was to end. I think there might be an unpublished 41st in the series to come, which will be bittersweet.
I hate to end on a down-note, but I have to say this. Elsewhere I have slated the Long Earth novels Pratchett co-wrote with Steve Baxter. I have expressed doubts about the extent to which Sir Terry did more than lend his name to these books. I may of course be wrong, but there is more humour, wit and imagination in the name Moist von Lipwig alone than there is in the whole Long Earth series. So I don’t hold them against him!