I was going to continue my series of book posts with a review of the last book we read for bookgroup, but then I heard the news that Sir Terry Pratchett had died and decided that I’d write my own eulogy.
I first read Colour of Magic as a teenager who was into fantasy literature and Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a straightforward parody of various fantasy tropes, strung together with a wafer thin plot that exists solely to take the characters from one set piece to the next. The plot doesn’t matter – it’s funny, and like the best parodies it seems to come from a love of the thing its mocking. It was more than just a cheap joke at the expense of fantasy literature, as was being done in books like “Bored of the Rings”.
I read a few others at the time, and hadn’t read any more until they started coming up in the bookgroup while we were reading our way through the BBC Big Read top 100. I read them again with a more critical eye. Colour of Magic was still funny, but I could see the flaws. Then I read a couple of the City Watch books and was hooked again.
It became clear that Pratchett had developed as a writer. Plots were becoming more complex, characters more rounded and the jokes more subtle. Increasingly the humour came from sharp character studies and situations – although the puns were still ever present. I watched as Sam Vimes developed from a cut-out cliche of a drunken, cynical cop into a fully rounded and complex character. The targets of the writing became less about the foibles of fantasy literature as Discworld became a way for him to satirise the real world. He took on everything from racism and religious fundamentalism to the banking system and used Discworld to shine a light on the problems of our world.
Unusually for a fantasy setting, Discworld also developed. The early books maintain the medieval stasis of typical fantasy literature. When something comes along that threatens the status quo, like cinema in Moving Pictures, it is dealt with and the world returns to normal. In later books, developments such as the telegraph system and newspapers stick around and are incorporated into future plots. By the end, Discworld is undergoing an industrial revolution. It’s a remarkable achievement from such simple beginnings.
Diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007, Pratchett continued to write and became a prominent campaigner for the right of terminally ill people to choose to end their lives on their own terms. It’s a right he never had to exercise in the end, but it’s worth watching his Dimblebly lecture on the subject.
There are still many Discworld books I have yet to read, and I can see myself eking them out knowing that there won’t be any more to come. So thank you, Sir Terry, for the reading pleasure past and future, and I hope that somewhere you’re lobbying a skeletal figure in a robe about the right of people to give their own hourglass a gentle nudge towards the end…in Books