We knew it was coming, but it was still a shock to read that Terry Pratchett died yesterday.
Pratchett’s work had a huge impact on me, as it did for a lot of people. My Twitter feed has been full of writers, editors and readers attesting to that fact. I was thinking about this, and as I thought about PTerry, the characters he created and imbued with such extraordinary life came to mind as well – it felt like I was remembering a group of friends, of people I had once known in real life. Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat, Agnes/Perdita, Carrot, Angua, Cheery, Om, Brutha, Johnny, Yo-less, Kirsty, DEATH, Susan, the Amazing Maurice, and and and …
His books shaped my moral sense and my understanding of the world. Discworld has something that, to me, represents the very best of speculative fiction – this particular secular, inquisitive, compassionate, humorous, humanist worldview that I find in so many of the friends I have met in SFF. Pratchett used Discworld as a vehicle to express a lasting fascination with our world; a conviction that this life, our life right now, is as incredible and interesting as anything we could invent. His world felt real because he was all too aware of what assholes people can be. But he believed in us as well.
I first came to his books as a young teenager – when I was 13 my parents started taking me to the British Council library, because I’d pretty much exhausted the delights of Perpustakaan Kanak-Kanak KL. I started with The Last Continent (a Rincewind romp in Discworld’s version of Australia, nearly incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with Discworld, and a terrible one to start with!). But I persisted through that and Maskerade (not, I have to say, one of my favourites), and got to Guards! Guards! That, and the rest of the Watch books, sealed the deal. Vimes’s boots blew my tiny mind!
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.
— Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms
A lot of people seem to have come to Pratchett at a similar age, and been influenced by him in a similar way. I was thinking about why this was, and I think it’s because his style and his books are so fun and accessible, but they also take the reader seriously — they respect the reader, and they’re not afraid to tackle big ideas.
When I started reading Pratchett I’d already found Jerome K. Jerome and P. G. Wodehouse. I was delighted to find that books were allowed to be as fun as Jerome and Wodehouse’s books were – you could quote Keats and make it funny! You could have entire scenes featuring someone throwing flowerpots at a window, or an entire book about losers having hijinks in a boat! But I wanted something more as well. I didn’t know what it was I was looking for, until I found Discworld.
I stopped reading Pratchett’s new novels a couple of years ago. I think, honestly, he went a bit too easy on his characters towards the end – Vimes is a signal example – and that made them less interesting. But I would not write or think the way that I do now if not for Pratchett. His books were – and will continue be – a source of joy and comfort and enlightenment for me. He taught me about economic injustice, and he made Death a friend.
Thank you, Terry. I hope you receive the judgment you deserve, at the end of the desert.