Once upon a time, I pledged in a very idle way that I’d like to share my thoughts about Terry Pratchett, an author whose books I uniformly enjoyed and frequently adored. And I never did it, because of laziness and fear of mission drift (film critics critiquing prose? Anarchy!), though every now and then one reader or another would bring it up (and one reader in particular, whose enthusiasm for the prospect of knowing what I had to say on the matter, kept it alive in my head almost constantly for most of the last ten years). There’d always be time to do it later, I figured.
On 12 March, 2015, Pratchett died. It’s not worth going through the whole affair of his final sickness; a century from now, when we’re all dead and buried and people are reading his books from a good period of detachment, nobody will ever know from the late texts themselves, which are fearlessly sharp and precise in all the right ways, focused when they must be and shaggy when shagginess is actually just a different way of getting back into focus, that anything might possibly be wrong. Only the overachieving kids who read not only the editor’s introduction to the annotated version of old books, but also the timeline of the author’s life, will ever have a clue what was going. I will say only that when I heard the news, the first thing I thought was to be sad in a way that was hugely disproportionate to the death of a man I never knew who lived in a country I’ve never been to, and the second thing I thought was that I’d waited long enough and I had to write this essay. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion. That week wouldn’t do; I needed time to gather my thoughts and recover a little bit. August, though, I knew would be good. August was the 10th anniversary of when I started blogging, and I wanted to make it a celebratory month. The week of 27 August was even more special, and if you don’t know why, you’ll find out at the end.
Enough preamble, and now allow me to share with you the reasons that, if I’m being honest with myself and taking off my “I was an English double major” hat, and my “of course, we all know that Best is more important than Favorite” hat, Terry Pratchett was pretty unshakably my favorite author of my lifetime.
To talk about Pratchett is almost invariably to talk about the 41 books in his Discworld series, stretching from 1983 to 2015. They are not his only books: he had three novels to his name before the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic came out, and he intermittently published one-offs and a trilogy in the intervening years. They are probably not, at least in the United States (where his books have never attained a fraction of their popularity in the UK), his best-known work: Good Omens, from 1990, takes that crown, owing in large part to being co-authored by Neil Gaiman.
But they are his definitive opus, and frankly, all of his best books are to be found within those 41 titles (to be fair, there are some much weaker efforts, which had a nasty tendency to come in twos or threes). Good Omens is a terrific comic novel, and the 2008 Nation is a greatly impressive piece of thoughtful, highly literate historical fiction for young people, but those are easily the cream of the crop outside of Discworld, and they’re nowhere near the heights of the series. So just the Discworld it’s to be, and that leaves more than enough to be said.
For the uninitiated, the Discworld is a setting first and foremost, cobbled together from scraps of myths that have popped up across the globe. A giant sea turtle, Great A’Tuin, swims stoically through the void of space; on his back stand four elephants, and on the elephants’ shoulders rests the flat disc of the world. The cultures that live on this world represent a panorama of fantasy fiction tropes, and in the beginning – The Colour of Magic and 1986’s The Light Fantastic, a pair books that form a single arc – the purpose was nothing more or less than to create a funny riff on one of the most reliably uninspired genres in literature. Funny they are, too, though at times so committed to genre parody that you need something like a degree in ’60s and ’70s nerdery to get it all – one-quarter of The Colour of Magic is a specific parody of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, and another quarter a parody of Fritz Lieber’s ongoing characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – which makes them a little harder to dive into than the most often-cited comparison point for Pratchett, the comic science fiction of Douglas Adams. Who is, I think, easier to love for his comedy than Pratchett.
There are other things to love Pratchett for. And they start to show up in his third Discworld novel, 1987’s Equal Rites, which has many of the same basic limitations of the first two books, in terms of its central parodistic intent and its overall thinness, but is the point where the core of what would eventually be the best Pratchett novels would show up: the fiery, anguished optimism in conflict with the deep disappointment in humanity’s pettiness that only a down-to-the-bone humanist could feel. His great gift was in smuggling through his goofy genre pastiches a series of moral problems: how do we do good, why do we do good, and why bother if everybody around us is going out of their way to do very bad? Not every Discworld book hinges on these problems, but the best almost uniformly do, and I have particularly found that the best do them through one of two characters, the ones that strike me as being the most obvious author mouthpieces in the series. The first of these is the old wise mentor figure of Equal Rites: irritable country witch Esmerelda “Granny” Weatherwax.
The great flowering of Granny Weatherwax’s ethical philosophy would be delayed until the 12th and 14th Discworld books, 1991’s Witches Abroad and 1992’s Lords and Ladies, part of the strongest sustain run of books in Pratchett’s career (six straight books between 1991’s Reaper Man and 1994’s Soul Music which could all be easily defended as the best individual title Pratchett ever wrote). But I do find the books starring her or the other witches of her countryside to be certainly the most consistent of the main subgroups in the overall series – the books centering on Rincewind the cowardly, inept wizard (including the first two written, and many of my least favorite – he quickly became a vestigial organism, a parodic clown in an increasingly nuanced world); those involving the City Watch of the quasi-medieval city Ankh-Morpork, and its boundlessly cynical leader, Sam Vimes; the books focusing mostly on the anthropomorphic personification of Death (who puts in at least a tiny appearance in virtually every book in the series) and his human granddaughter Susan Sto Helit; and most recently, the books providing a whirlwind history of the industrial revolution, falling mostly upon the shoulders of the quick-witted con man turned civic visionary Moist von Lipwig.
The Discworld books are, I have indicated, essentially humanist texts, no mean feat for a series where gods and paranormal elements are burned deep into the concept (words to exactly that effect show up in Vimes’s inner monologue at one point). Granny is the greatest expression of that tendency. Her presence after Equal Rites, which is more of a satiric comedy on gender roles than an ethical argument per se (otherwise, the witches books are the most overtly ethical), is as the grounding element to the fantastic elements around her; she is the sour, bitterly practical response to the florid genre elements, belittling and diminishing the very same trappings of magic that she nominally embodies with good common sense and a functional code of behavior more driven by what needs to be handled than what is, on paper, the Right Thing. It’s telling that when, in the last decade and change of his life, Pratchett split the Discworld into the main series and a “children’s” series, Granny Weatherwax was, as it were, demoted. Her last starring role was in 1998’s Carpe Jugulum; her next appearance was in 2003’s The Wee Free Men, the first book centered around adolescent witch-in-training Tiffany Aching, and there Granny served only as a supporting character, a role which she has filled in most of its sequels.
We live in an environment of literary consumption where I could be forgiven for trying to argue that the Tiffany Aching books aren’t really for children. But they are. They are, and this part matters a lot, profoundly sophisticated children’s books, leaving the thorny questions of the “adult” witches books intact, and revealing their hope of a target audience largely by clearing out the sex. They’re also a bit blunter in their intention to tell theme: this is how to behave, this is how to make hard choices, this is how to take responsibility, this is how to deal with the fact that it is in fact not possible to remove all the suffering from the world. Putting a slightly softened version of Granny Weatherwax into that setting as the Voice of God is just about perfect, and while the “grown-up” Discworld books since the start of the 21st Century have been a bit spotty, the Tiffany Aching books have been splendid, one and all, top-tier Pratchett even as he occasionally lost the thread in the main series.
That being said, even the weakest of the later Discworld books is still a generally pleasurable experience of conflating parody with great flourishes of witty prose (Pratchett’s humor was of both the “joke that causes a loud guffaw” and the “wry situation that builds up piles of verbal complexity* and is more ‘clever’ than ‘funny'” varieties, and it’s the latter that tends to stick with me), all in a distinctively warped setting. As he went along, the fantasy elements generally drifted away – in later books, the fact that the Discworld is a flat disc is relegated to a throwaway, usually in the opening paragraphs – and the series’s interest focused in on using the mirror universe possibilities of a magic-tinged parody of Medieval and increasingly Enlightenment-era Europe to comment on our own real-world history and contemporary life. I have mixed feelings about this; the Moist von Lipwig books,† in which the sword-and-sorcery metropolis Ankh-Morpork is very suddenly and violently aged into 19th Century London, feel the least “Discworldy” in a lot of ways, and the author’s interest in those books changes from character-based considerations of philosophy and morality to musings on how social change works and how technological advance can be painful and terrifying but also important – the most recent book, 2013’s Raising Steam, has many lovely moments of bittersweet musing on the fact that trains must be invented, but trains also mean that there won’t be the old world anymore. They’re generally less funny, and less psychologically acute, and those are both rather disappointing failings.
It is to be greatly lauded that Pratchett tried so hard to avoid repeating himself, though. Certain elements of the Discworld books are formulaic; they tend to open and close their plots in the same rhetorical gestures, and it’s easy to see when he’s building a certain flavor of joke, if not necessarily to guess the punchline. But for the most part, the differences between the books are much more striking than the similarities. The second anything becomes stale, it gets cut off, or even before that: the books about Death and Susan are some of the most deep and probing, but also hilarious, and grandly-plotted, they’re all remarkably different, and there’s only five of them. I presume this is because both Death and Susan have certain limitations as personalities; but Susan’s are very much like Vimes’s, and Pratchett never ran out of stories to tell about him. But then, the madcap attempt to keep Vimes stories fresh didn’t always pan out well. But then, Vimes is a character quite on par with Granny Weatherwax: bitterly sober-minded and clear-eyed, an angry populist and someone who can never see the world being unfair enough times for it to stop bothering him. It’s easy to understand why he’s the most common figure in the series, and the clearest vessel for the things the author cares about.
Not that all of the books are earnest tracts; they’re all, ultimately, comedies, some with a very serious tinge and some with only the ghostly shape of depth. The sharp humor of his most cynical characters is always contrasted with the broad comedy of the more grotesque cartoons, and the acute observation of certain types; one of the compensations for the author’s occasional returns to the Rincewind strand (a character he plainly liked more than I could ever manage to) was that it meant revisiting the burly, arrogant Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully of the wizards’ school, Unseen University, and the extravagant parodies of academic bureaucracy in the form of his most trusted faculty members. One of the added pleasures of Granny Weatherwax’s presence is that means the earthy, sex-minded witch Nanny Ogg, and her endless array of dirty songs, is close at hand. The books are smart, the books are furiously thoughtful about the way the world works, how we can make it better, and why we surely won’t, and the books are crisp and direct in presenting ideas that they care about, without being in the least bit artless or uncrafty – it’s amazing how many of his novels have what amounts to an Aesopian moral spelled right out, but so woven into the plot and the characters’ responses to it that it never feels clumsy.
But the books are also fun – pleasurable to read and let the twisty sentences ebb and flow; exciting to get lost in the well-detailed corners of one of the most fully-built, if often inconsistent, worlds in all of English-language fantasy literature. They are so much fun that it can be damned hard to believe that they could also possibly be good. And yet if we can’t use that word to describe a body of writing with this much knowldge about human beings and their ways, both the good and the bad, then what’s the point of loving literature in the first place? Pratchett wasn’t a literary genius, but he was a galvanising storyteller and an unsparing observer and one of the great wits of the modern age, and his books have taught me every bit as much as far more literate novels with far more sophisticated philosophy and far more inventive form. And they’ve done it while always, always leaving a big damn smile on my face.
On 27 August, Terry Pratchett’s final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, was published in the UK, following in the US on 1 September. It is be the fifth book in the Tiffany Aching cycle; I will read it (when I finally get the chance to, which I am afraid will be weeks from now) with great enthusiasm because it is a new Discworld book and greater enthusiasm because it’s about her, and when I’m done (after trying to make it linger as much as I possibly can), I will undoubtedly be more grateful and more sad than I have been in a very long time.
I won’t end by writing, “thank you, Terry”, because acting like he’d be around somewhere to appreciate it would be all contrary to the ideas to which he dedicated his life and his career. So I will simply say that I am very, very thankful that I’ve been there to read at the same time he was there to write, and leave it at that.
Lastly, thumbnail reviews of all the Discworld books. My ratings are relative; compared to all books ever, none of these would really be an “A”, and certainly none of them would be a “D”
The Colour of Magic (1983) C+
-Necessary to get the world built, and it’s funny enough, but the in-jokey parody hasn’t aged well.
The Light Fantastic (1986) B
-Funnier, cleaner in its structure, and more balanced in character than its immediate predecessor, but still a touch primitive.
Equal Rites (1987) B+
-The proto-Granny isn’t as rich as her later incarnation, but she anchors the first book that feels like it “means” something.
Mort (1987) A
-The first Death book is a staggering leap in ambition and imagination, and the themes start to get really tough here.
Sourcery (1988) B-
-Richer than the earlier Rincewind books, but not as funny.
Wyrd Sisters (1988) A-
-You can see Pratchett figure out what he wants the witches books to be, now he just needs to go out and do it.
Pyramids (1989) B
-Remarkable, crafty, literate humor, and there’s no faulting the ambition of the setting or content, but this one-off suffers from its lack of connection to anything else in the franchise.
Guards! Guards! (1989) B+
-I freely admit that I’d love this one if its first sequel wasn’t so much more complex, but Sam Vimes emerges fully formed.
Eric (1990) D+
-Its origins as an illustrated novel make for a story that’s almost aggressively trivial, even by the standards of the Rincewind books.
Moving Pictures (1990) C+
-The sheer quantity of movie-parody jokes gets in the way of anything deeper, but it’s fun enough as an exercise in filtering our world through the Discworld.
Reaper Man (1991) A+
-The cream of the crop. Grave without being unfunny, and the depth of Death’s musings is all the more penetrating for coming in such an unassuming package as a comic fantasy.
Witches Abroad (1991) A
-In a pinch, this is my favorite witches book, the one where their warring personalities are most winningly explored in the context of a sprawling comic travelogue.
Small Gods (1992) A
-What Pyramids wanted to be: a critical but understanding study of faith and history that is chronologically apart from the rest of the series, but aware of its traditions.
Lords and Ladies (1992) A
-Granny Weatherwax’s finest hour, a rich saga of Northern English folklore turned on its head with creepy splendor. And as the only meeting of the witches and Ridcully, it’s invaluable.
Men at Arms (1993) A+
-An extraordinary cop movie parody that finds Vimes at his very best, and his supporting cast not so large that they can’t all thrive in small moments.
Soul Music (1994) A
-The funniest of the Death books, and the one that introduces the magnificent Susan, though she’d only improve in later appearances.
Interesting Times (1994) B
-Having a more developed community of Unseen University wizards to play with makes for the first genuinely good Rincewind novel, though parts of it are weirdly fanservicey, and it’s not always critical of Orientalism instead of just being Orientalist.
Maskerade (1995) B-
-Better than Moving Pictures, but similar in that it’s “just” a parody of stale tropes, theatrical here instead of cinematic. Easily the weakest of the witches books.
Feet of Clay (1996) A
-Something of a retread of Men at Arms, but no less clever or effective, and it neatly introduces the great theme of the later books, the way that traditional fantasy creatures deserve consideration as sentient beings.
Hogfather (1996) A-
-Susan’s peak as a character almost a rich in her earned cynicism as Vimes, and its one of the funniest books in the series, too.
Jingo (1997) C
-The first and worst attempt to get Vimes out of Ankh-Morpork. An anti-war piece that is the clearest case in the franchise of ideas that Pratchett hadn’t fully worked out before he started writing.
The Last Continent (1998) B
-On one hand, a great parody of Australia, with the very best Rincewind material ever. On the other, terrific material about idiot academics out of their element. But boy, do the two halves not cohere.
Carpe Jugulum (1998) A-
-The last “adult” witches book is slightly too eager to show off Pratchett’s ability to write vampire facts, but it’s the most snugly-plotted book in this partculare sub-series, and probably the funniest.
The Fifth Elephant (1999) B-
-A slightly better attempt to get Vimes on the road; the plot is too ambitious for its own good, setting up many plot threads that will be explored better in later books, and some that were simply quietly dropped. Exquisite Chekhov parody, though.
The Truth (2000) B
-An experiment that didn’t quite take; the Moist von Lipwig books would be steadier attempts to treat the Industrial Age with Pratchett’s signature humor. The cast of side characters, however, is terrific.
Thief of Time (2001) B
-All transparent attempts at fixing one’s gnarled internal chronology should be this exciting as race-the-clock thrillers, and the villains are an inspired creation. But points off for giving Susan very little to do in her last appearance.
The Last Hero (2001) B
-A vastly superior illustrated book than Eric, just slight enough that its elevation of a one-joke side character from earlier books to protagonist status goes down well.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001) B
-The first children’s book is the most childish, but that’s not a real sin, and the riff on the Pied Piper is creative enough and then some for the target audience.
Night Watch (2002) A
-An apology of sorts for taking Vimes away from his city; this time-travel adventure and parody of Les Misérables is a beautiful meeting of past enthusiasm and present wisdom.
The Wee Free Men (2003) B+
-The first Tiffany Aching book presents her as a striking, terrific protagonist, worthy of admiration but not some soppy Chosen One. The plots get better.
Monstrous Regiment (2003) B+
-It really feels like this should not work: mostly divorced from the rest of the series and palpably an attempt to Share a Message. Still, its witty character-driven exploration of the absurdity of arbitrary gender and social roles is funny and smart, and the thoughts on politics are sober enough to help the sugar go down.
A Hat Full of Sky (2004) A-
-Deeper and more challenging than the last Tiffany Aching book, it’s a simple YA scenario but a great exploration of interpersonal relationships.
Going Postal (2004) B
-The first Moist von Lipwig book is the funniest and also, frankly, the blandest, but it sets the Discworld in a wild new direction with some intelligence.
Thud! (2005) B+
-The redemption of The Fifth Elephant, though I still don’t quite see why these characters and this story need to go together.
Wintersmith (2006) A
-The harshest, most unapologetically confrontational Tiffany Aching book in its refusal to ease up on its themes, and so far the best.
Making Money (2007) B+
-A retread of Going Postal with tighter plotting and more thematic intention, but also the one where I really started to wonder how I felt about the direction the series was going.
Unseen Academicals (2009) C-
-Aimless randomness. I gather that the previous year’s infinitely superior Nation took too much of Pratchett’s attention; this book signally fails to answer the question “why am I telling this story?”, and it’s not even all that funny.
I Shall Wear Midnight (2010) A-
-Starts to take the Tiffany Aching story into slightly too obvious YA beats, but she is, as a character, more deliberately-written and unconventionally brilliant than ever.
Snuff (2011) A-
-Would you look at that, a “take Vimes out of Ankh-Morpork” book that finally nails it, parodying rural English novels and murder mysteries alike, and repeating a recurrent Discworld theme – all people are moral beings, no matter what they look like – as smartly as it has ever been expressed in these books.
Raising Steam (2013) A-
-Thematically pushy, but the sheer scope is amazing – one senses that Pratchett wanted to give a whole bunch of characters and themes and locations one last hurrah, just in case. Making Money is “better”, but this one feels deeper, richer, and worthier of revisitation.
*And, of course, footnotes. Can’t talk about Terry Pratchett without mentioning his flair for building jokes across ironic footnotes.
†Possibly also including 2000’s The Truth; though it has a one-off protagonist, it’s the book that introduces the “Industrial Revolution” thread.