Another sad day for the twin moons of geek and letters as we hear of the loss of author Sir Terry Pratchett at the age of 66. Terry authored more than 70 books in his career, but it was Terry’s unbelievably intricate and hilarious Discworld series – which include collaborations with fellow authors Neil Gaiman and Steven Baxter – that stand as one of the most prodigious and inventive collections of narrative ever assembled.
While Terry’s last seven years were underpinned by a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s which he referred to, in typical Pratchett fashion, as an “embuggerance”, he continued to write for as long as he could while simultaneously campaigning better support for Alzheimer’s research and assisted suicide in the United Kingdom.
In a final, heartbreaking and strangely hilarious act for his legions of fans, Terry narrated his own death on Twitter – in the all-caps personification of his longtime character of Death – with his assistant Rob Wilkins doing the actual tweeting:
Holding a mirror to our absurd world
Pratchett’s work, continuing into the summer of 2014 with his last, as-yet-unpublished Discworld novel, used a combination of recurring characters and fantasy tropes to reflect on the world in which we live. By establishing a patently absurd world (think of a large disc resting on the backs of four giant elephants, all supported by the giant turtle Great A’Tuin, as it swims its way through space), he established a place where the rules were different than ours, but just barely, and in doing so could hold a mirror to the real world.
Pratchett exposed our own fears and foibles, as each book layered upon the disc with new ideas, new technologies and – always – a sense of the unbelievably absurd nature of existence.
Satire may be one of the most effective and brutal rhetorical tools in any writer’s arsenal, but in his hands it was less a cleaver than a scalpel. While his work cut and did more to expose the ultimate failures and generally pathetic nature of humanity, it never crossed into contempt. Like a skilled artisan weaving strands of gold into a tapestry, he infused all of his work with a fundamental kindness and humanism that belied his fun-house mirror approach to the world in which we live.
Reminding us of our own humanity
So: what do we take from this man, from the life he lived? As one of the early adopters of computers and the internet in the production of his work interactions with his fans (not to mention the creator of one of the most beloved fantasy series of all time), Pratchett gained unequivocal stature in the world of the geek, but it is not Terry the Titan that we should be remembering and continuing to learn from. It is the way he thought about his world and the people that inhabit it..
It is that humanity that underpins his work we need to keep in mind when we think of others. For all of Pratchett’s wit and presumed ability to expose anyone and anything’s failing at the stroke of his pen, he continually resisted the urge to simplify the heroes and villains of his story, giving us complicated, challenging and relatable characters that more closely resembled us than the usual fantasy clichés.
For those moments when we see injustice or inaccuracy in the world, for those times when we are filled with contempt or disgust at the endless sea of slights and failures that wash over us in our interactions with other people, think about what it takes to write the funniest and most heartfelt book ever written about the end of the world.
At the end of Good Omens,
It isn’t his sense of good and evil that keeps us all alive, it is his ability to see the people around him – his friends “the Them”, his parents, and the residents of his little town of Lower Tadfield, Oxfordshire – as actual people, not just constructs of his own ego and power, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The next time you feel hurt and you have the power to hurt someone back, remember Adam. Remember “the Them” – and how their essential grace and kindness spared the world’s end. The best we can ever hope for in this world is to be nice to each other and forgive.
It’s what Sir Terry would have done.
Header image courtesy of Animagess’ DeviantArt page.