I suspect that Terry Pratchett—funny without being silly, insightful without being condescending, lovingly pointing-out human while simultaneously understanding its origins and inevitabilities—works best for non-fantasy readers, despite the fantasy tropes he runs with. This is certainly the case with me; he remains one of the very few SFF authors whose books I genuinely adore. (This particular sentiment he would abhor, but I can defend it.)
I came to Pratchett in 2010. I hadn’t been a fantasy reader, but I chanced A Game of Thrones, loved it…and found it hopelessly draining. My then-girlfriend suggested I take-up Pratchett to cure the blues.
“But he has like a million novels,” I said.
“Just try this one.” She handed me a book. “It’s a standalone. You’ll love it.”
Monstrous Regiment is the story of Polly Perks, a Mulan-esque trooper who disguises herself as a man to pluck her brother from the war. The story is mostly wry and amusing, and, in the last quarter, suddenly hilarious.
But looking back, the first thing I consider about the book, and Pratchett generally, is his Dickensian aesthetic. Like Dickens, Pratchett’s characters are caricatured, but believable and rounded. Like Dickens, he’s got a fantastic, double barrel-absurdist sense of humour, powered by a fabulous wit (“Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life”).
More important, however, is Pratchett’s understanding of comedy as framework for seriousness. The hilarity of Monstrous Regiment’s last quarter is wrapped within a resoundingly truthful climax—one I dare not spoil—elevating it into something sublime, and it’s a visceral truth that works on multiple levels. This element of truth Pratchett packs is rooted in a rage—against injustice, apathy, laziness, misconduct, neglect—which he deftly turns into charismatic charm. In other words, the trick to Pratchett is that, while his books are largely decorated with fantasy tropes, his most famous creation taking place on the backs of four elephants balanced on top of a turtle hurtling through space (I am not kidding), his concerns are, the first two books excepted, human. And he’s polite enough to be funny about it.
It’s easy to see the man behind the text: this humanitarian who saw wonder despite humanity’s effort to obscure it. Easy to glimpse the person who campaigned for the right to assisted suicide, and who would make Choosing to Die.
Not all the books are homeruns, obviously, and I speak from the experience of four novels and some essays. Years after Monstrous Regiment, and needing a laugh, I picked-up Guards! Guards!, a book concentrating on the Night’s Watch and the lovable group which forms it. That book is recommended without reservations, a steady drip of feel-good that I somehow found cathartic. Mort, which sees Death looking for an apprentice, is recommended as well, despite one subplot which stretches believability. But the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, is a parody of fantasy novels, and while it is rich in one-liners (“What he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk”), it is lesser than the sum of its parts. If you are hoping explore his Discworld books, consult a reading guide.
Meanwhile, I’m here thinking that the world is a little poorer today, and I find myself hoping that, when he passed, he passed the way he wanted to, surrounded by loved ones and listening to Thomas Tallis. The strange thing about today is I have a lifetime’s worth of his treasure to discover, and realise that it’s this very body of work which would, on other days, provide comfort.
I cannot do him justice. It’s a task I suspect will be achieved by Neil Gaiman, his co-author on Good Omens (their sole collaboration…and that’s my stupid joke for the day).
But I can say this:
It has been a privilege to see the author peeking from behind the words. It is a privilege, always, to explicate Jane Austen’s views or Eleanor Catton’s or Virginia Woolf’s from the words.
Or Terry Pratchett’s.
Goodbye, you beautiful man.
It’ll be a pleasure to know you better still.