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“They said that dying was just like going to sleep, although of course if you weren’t careful bits of you could rot and drop off.” – Reaper Man
We knew this day would come. For at least eight years, Terry Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis hung over him, cloaking his last books with the weight of foreboding and making his readers hold their breath.
Out of some kind of misplaced superstition that would have belonged in Small Gods, I had not read his last several books, the ones dictated to a machine when he could no longer touch type.
If I do not read those books, the series cannot end and Sir Terry cannot die and he would keep on telling glorious stories for as long as Great A’Tuin the Turtle kept moving through space – had been what had passed for a thought process.
But Death (or Bill Door) will not be cheated.
And so it is that Sir Terry has walked off into the endless night, leaving us with the “distant and second-hand set of dimensions” that he created.
The Discworld might have been fantastical, but calling Sir Terry a fantasy writer has been a gross mislabelling, for it suggests a smaller, more remote and less consequential body of work than it truly is.
Instead, Sir Terry’s Discworld is outsized and vivid, the city-state of Ankh-Morpork teeming with dwarves, goblins and Corporal Nobbs, all powered by too-human impulses. Its denizens either blow themselves up or cheerfully shank each other in the back (some of the murder is alright, if you’re from the Assassins’ Guild).
Sir Terry’s heroes too, are drawn in technicolour, mostly with crayon. Sometimes, the heroes are not all that heroic, either. The wild-eyed, quivering Rincewind, a failed wizard, is a hero only because things insist on happening to him. The view the reader frequently has is one of his rapidly retreating behind, taking hasty leave of whatever fresh horror he has unearthed.
And which of us has not felt like Rincewind? Aren’t we all in constant avoidance of unpleasantness, fanciers of the path of least resistance which we fervently hope leads to self-preservation?
What I will miss most about Sir Terry was how he worked words extraordinarily hard, packing into them layers of humour and insight, reinforced by a deep intimacy with the English language.
“My motives, as ever, are entirely transparent,” Lord Vetinari, ruler of Ankh-Morpork, says in The Truth, causing his unsettled guest to reflect that ‘entirely transparent’ meant “either that you could see right through them or that you couldn’t see them at all”.
Any reader of Sir Terry’s had to work hard, too. Let your attention stray for a moment, and you risk missing nuances and rip-roaring or snigger-inducing tides of humour. (“Mrs Evadne Cake was a medium, verging on small.”)
Last year, Neil Gaiman wrote that Sir Terry had not been a jolly person, but an angry one. He was a good friend of Sir Terry’s so he was well-placed to say this, but any reader whose eyes were attached to their brain would have reached the same conclusion.
The basic premise of Sir Terry’s anger, aimed squarely at our flawed universe, had been: This Is Not How It’s Supposed To Be.
Nowhere is his rage more evident than in a later Discworld novel – Making Money – about the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork.
This novel came out in 2007 just as the bottom began to fall out of our own financial system and in it, a character says, “My late husband always said that the only way to make money out of poor people is by keeping them poor.”
It is a book in which “people lower their voices in the presence of large sums of money” and “whoever said you can’t fool an honest man wasn’t one”.
So, maybe the appropriate response to Sir Terry’s passing isn’t just sadness, but anger too. Now, I will look at the The New York Times’ best sellers list and take personal umbrage at the presence of the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy.
Now, there is one fewer person to counterweigh the crush of banal thoughts and lazy words. We are stuck with the long-lived sods who end speeches with “last but not least” and say things like “it goes without saying”.
Now, we have to inhabit a world devoid of Terry Pratchett, a world where *mediocrity is our normal prison. That makes me very angry indeed. That, and the Kardashians’ inexplicable, confoundingly large success.
I suppose there is not much to be done. Like Rincewind, all we can do is sit tight, hang on and be hauled screaming through life. Try not to get eaten by a large sapient pearwood box with hundreds of little legs. Don’t use anything made by Bloody Stupid Johnson. And for the love of Om, never buy a sausage from Mr Dibbler.
Godspeed, Sir Terry, and thank you for showing us the colour of magic.
*This phrase is cribbed from Harlan Ellison’s introduction in one of The Sandman’s volumes, but neither he nor Morpheus is likely to mind.