For more than forty years his novels have defined sections of book stores; regardless of how small or large those stores may be, there will always be a wealth of titles with the name “Terry Pratchett” emblazoned on them, and you will know you are within Fantasy. While there are many worlds created by talented authors, few capture as much devotion, loyalty and adoration as the Discworld series. Once referred to as Britain’s “most shoplifted author” his work has appealed to fans from all backgrounds, as can be attested by the wealth of tributes being paid from fellow writers to world leaders, comedians to clerics, and programmers to police.
First published at the age of thirteen in the school magazine with a story entitled The Hades Business, Pratchett’s taste for fantasy was clear and inspired by a voracious appetite for reading, crediting his education not to his schooling but to Beaconsfield Public Library: “Libraries are one of the places people go when school fails them.”
On leaving school at seventeen he begin a career in journalism but continued writing fiction, his stories being published in the children’s section of the newspaper he worked for under the pseudonym “Uncle Jim.” One of these stories was an early version of what would become his first novel, The Carpet People, published in 1971 to favourable reviews and followed by the more science fiction themed The Dark Side of the Sun in 1976 and Strata in 1981.
“Reading itself just filled my veins.”
In 1983 while working as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board his first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, was published. Four years and four book later with growing sales and popularity he left that position to write full time, describing it as “The most fun anyone can have by themselves.” Over the next thirty five years he would write forty Discworld novels as well as several stories beyond that realm, but it was through the popularity of that series which meant that by mid-nineties Pratchett was the UK’s top-selling author.
When trying to explain the popularity of the Discworld novels they are frequently introduced as fantasy novels about a disc shaped world which sits on the back of four giant elephants, who sit on the top of a giant star turtle, “the Great A’Tuin.” While this is entirely accurate it remains a poor description which fails to capture the heart of these stories.
They are about us. They are about people. All the best stories are mirrors held up to real life, reflections of our own world which teach us. While most mirrors are plain and boring, the Discworld is a veritable fun house mirror, giving us a view of our own world through the lens of comedy and fantasy, and they are satire in its finest form.
“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
Giving possibly the most perfect description of humanity, “where the falling angel meets the rising ape,” Pratchett understood the human spirit, its faults and its potential; this was the true strength of his writing and why his appeal is so vast. Director Kevin Smith wrote of him that there would be no Dogma if not for Good Omens, the novel Pratchett wrote with his long-time friend Neil Gaiman. His influence continues to spread from fan to fan, stranger to stranger, librarian to young reader. That’s what happens when an author lights the fire of your imagination, you want to share that same world with everyone you meet.
Terry Pratchett’s services to literature were recognised with a knighthood in 2009 when he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire. As all good knights should have a sword, he promptly forged his own from a combination of local iron ore and meteorite and also had a family crest designed bearing the motto Noli Timere Messorem: “Don’t fear the reaper.”
In 2007, at the age of 59, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, or as he called it in his announcement “an embuggerance.” On being diagnosed he said “I’ve never felt so alive as I have in the last few months, I think that’s the anger.” That anger spurred him on to put himself in the forefront of the fight against this disease, and while sometimes not comfortable in front of the camera as the “Alzheimer’s patient” he pushed through his own personal discomfort to bring the issue into the public consciousness.
On top of numerous television and radio appearances on the matter he starred in a BBC documentary entitled Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimer’s (2009), a moving insight into the effects of the illness and a look into the world of a patient. He gave a voice to the charities, to the researchers, and to those suffering with this illness. He made the world talk about Alzheimer’s, because in his words “Before you can kill the demon you have to say its name.”
He continued challenging the public to talk about difficult subjects, and to be a speaker for those who lacked a public voice when in 2012 he was part of another documentary about assisted suicide, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. He had the courage to use his own struggles to bring attention to issues that do not get spoken of: “I think it’s time we learned to be as good at dying as we are at living”
Refusing to allow the illness to stop his writing or impede his accessibility to fans, he continued to attend events, greeting crowds in his trademark fedora and with a smile. Despite losing his ability to type through the Alzheimer’s he continued working by dictation with the help of Rob Wilkins, his assistant of many years. In 2014 he finished his last Discworld book The Shepherd’s Crown, part of the Tiffany Aching series, which is expected to be published posthumously later this year.
The news of his passing was announced in a style he would be pleased with, a series of messages posted on his Twitter account by his daughter, Rhianna. Death’s voice, as always in Discworld, was in capitals.
A Just Giving page has been set up in his memory by his publishers to raise money for the Research Institute to the Care of Older People (RICE), who according to his family, were vital in supporting Sir Terry throughout his illness.
“The wise man sees Death as a friend” – Sir Terry Pratchett
The End… Or is it?
Since the news of his passing tributes have flooded the internet. One is a campaign on Change.Org to petition Death to “Reinstate Terry Pratchett,” currently signed by more than 29,000 people. Pratchett made Death a friendly figure, a hard working anthropomorphic personification who could murder a good curry, doing his job while trying to understand the constant puzzle which is humanity. Perhaps Death owes him one.
“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.”
The world is a darker place for his passing, but every day more people are picking up his books. He will continue to inspire authors, scientist, politicians, librarians (who will continue to say ‘Oook’ at any given opportunity), police officers, witches, thieves, and every other kind of person. His world will continue to live on in the hearts of an ever growing legion of fans. How can ever be considered an end?
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away”
Another tribute spreading through the internet is programmers and developers leaving “GNU Terry Pratchett” hidden in the code on sites, a reference to the series of semaphore towers in the Discworld novel Going Postal. The name of an engineer who passed away is hidden in the “overhead code” of the messages, with commands (GNU) that will make sure the name is passed on, not logged, and returned at the end of the line so the name continues going up and down the line forever. The many fans of Terry Pratchett are ensuring the same happens with his name.
“He’d never have wanted to go home. He was a real linesman. His name is in the code, in the wind in the rigging and the shutters. Haven’t you ever heard the saying: A man’s not dead while his name is still spoken?” – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett