Thursday, 12 March 2015

Saying Goodbye to Terry Pratchett

So Terry is dead.
I was walking home when I saw the email. It was from Penguin Random House and it began “It is with immeasurable sadness that we announce that author Sir Terry Pratchett has died at the age of 66.”
I didn’t read any further then.
Terry is dead.
It’s funny. Sir Terry Pratchett wrote books a continent away, and he was my friend. He was Terry. Not pterry, though I know that story.
It was 2000. I was in Hyderabad, and I was tripping on Harry Potter. On the Potter newsgroups, I came upon a thread asking for recommendations for other fantasy authors. Terry’s Discworld novels were the most frequently mentioned. There were wizards, one poster said. And there was a University full of them. Another recommended that the books be read in chronological order, from The Colour Of Magic on.
I bought The Colour Of Magic at a shop in Secunderabad. It was near Kamat, if memory serves me well. I think it was the Book Selection Centre. The shopkeeper had a shelf full of Pratchetts, and I thought, “That’s good. If this series works out, there’s plenty of stuff for me to read.”
As it turns out, there wasn’t nearly enough, but that’s another story.
I read TCOM. I was … underwhelmed. I could see that it was a parody of existing fantasy literature – I caught the D & D references and that Hrun was obviously Conan. I’d heard of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though I hadn’t read any Leiber. It was also obvious that Bel Shamharoth was Lovecraftian. But I hadn’t read any Anne McCaffrey and only knew of Stormbringer from Nethack. It seemed that the author was trying too hard.
It was still better than most other stuff I was reading then. I bought The Light Fantastic a couple of days later.
The book was better, but still not wow! Ymper Trymon was a satisfactory villain, and I was getting used to the idea of a cowardly hero. And I loved Cohen the Barbarian, especially the quote about the best things in life being “hot water, good dentishtry and and shoft lavatory paper”.
I liked Equal Rites even better. But it took me long time to realize that Pratchett’s books weren’t always funny – not in the Wodehouse sense, which was what I had been expecting at some level. There was serious trope deconstruction, which was always good for a laugh, provided you understood the trope existed. But there was always a kernel of commentary there – about people, about attitudes, and traditions and ideology. And it always made me stop and think.
Take Guards, Guards – this was still early on, when it’s Carrot who is the hero, and Vimes is still a secondary figure, not the determinator-asskicker he would become with the later books. But even here, there’s this: “Down there - he said - are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no”
Or take the entirety of Small Gods, one of the finest meditations on faith I’ve ever read. “Fear is a strange soil. It grows obedience like corn, which grow in straight lines to make weeding easier. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.” Or “Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant, provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible, and trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch with the view of the ordinary philosopher in the street looking for a towel. And then five years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.”
Or this one:
““Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit, and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that'd happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn't a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time”.
By the time I got to Small Gods, I was hooked.
It wasn’t that all of Pratchett’s books were equal. There was the early instalment weirdness – the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites is nowhere near the Granny Weatherwax in Carpe Jugulum.  Vimes in Guards Guards is very different from the His Grace Sir Samuel in Snuff, character development notwithstanding. I found Pyramids weak among the early books. Among the later books, I’m not a fan of Monstrous Regiment or Snuff. But dear God, there were so many fantastic books inbetween.
There was Night Watch, my personal favourite – along with another book that I will come to in a bit, which has this quote about people who want to change society:” People on the side of The People always ended up dissapointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people. As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up.”
Since he’s gone now, there won’t be any more lines like this.
But Terry had Alzheimers. He was failing. He wanted to rid himself of his embuggerance by drinking a Brompton cocktail and “with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.”
He didn’t need the cocktail.
The other favourite book is Reaper Man, where Death comes to terms with his own mortality – while Windle Poons, Unseen University’s oldest wizard hasn’t died properly. After the adventure is over and Death is restored, he comes for Poons, who has been quite busy living in his un-life.
Poons and Death have a brief conversation.
Poons says “One lifetime isn’t enough”
“And, with great relief, and general optimism, and a feeling that everything could have been much worse, Windle Poons died”
I can see something similar playing out when Death came for Terry earlier today.
He was always angry. His best characters were angry. His characters were at their best when they were angry.
I don’t want to say “I hope he has no more need for that anger”.
I will miss the anger.
I will miss him.
I will miss the fact that I don’t know what the patrician will do to get Moist Von Lipwig to sort out the problem of tax collection in Ankh Morpork.
I don’t know how Salacia Von Humpeding will shape up in the watch
I don’t know what Tiffany Aching will grow up to be
But it’s OK.
There’s enough stuff in his existing books to keep me happy for a long long time.

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