For the second time in as many weeks, the nerd world is having to say goodbye to one of its Greats: Sir Terry Pratchett passed away today from Alzheimer’s disease. Leonard Nimoy had reached a good old age; Terry Pratchett was still comparatively young – only 66.
But his passing, too, was not unexpected; the disease had been claiming him bit by bit for nearly eight years now. Alzheimer’s has a way of doing that. I think for the bereaved, the mourning has often been done long ahead of the time they actually die, because the person you love has already gone. That’s what happened with a relative of ours – she spent the last ten years of her life slowly disappearing. The real grief was the point of realising that she was no longer who she had been, years ahead of the time of her actual death.
With Terry Pratchett, as a reader and fan I found that that point of grief (which is, of course, no comparison to the grief his family feels – but still is a reality) occurred last summer when I read his last book, Raising Steam. It was sad. To me, Raising Steam feels like a book that was ghost-written by someone who is trying to write like Pratchett, but isn’t making it – almost like a fanfic of his work. The voices of the characters are wrong, the world seems off, the plot is – I’m sorry, I have to say it – lame. In fact, I found it hard to believe this was really Pratchett writing – I kept checking online to see if there wasn’t some indication that this was the work of a ghost writer. It wasn’t.
And the only reason I felt that way is because I’ve read every single other Discworld book of his, and most of his other novels as well, from The Carpet People onwards, and I’m so familiar with the way he wrote before the disease took it away. Pratchett was brilliant, sparklingly, amazingly brilliant. He could go from laugh-out-loud funny to smack-you-between-the-eyebrows profound in the same sentence – or even better yet, footnote. His footnotes are an art form in itself. I propose that we coin a new phrase in his honour: how about “pratchetting a footnote”? Hilariously witty non sequiturs which manage to pack a little bit of sharp truth into a paragraph squished at the bottom of a page. And more often than not, the footnotes have footnotes, themselves. Nobody wrote footnotes, sub-footnotes, and sub-footnotelets like Pratchett.
However, what he excelled in above all was character creation. On Twitter this morning, someone said they are not just mourning the loss of Terry Pratchett, but of his characters. My reaction to that was surprise. Pratchett’s passing is sad – but his characters, to my thinking, gloriously live on. He created Sam Vimes, Captain Carrot, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Tiffany Aching, Lord Vetinari, Rincewind, the Librarian, DEATH (how could I forget Death?), the Wee Free Men (Och! Crivens!)… so many, many others – and because he created them, they will always exist. The Power of Story does not wane with the passing of its creator. Whenever I choose, I can pull one of Pratchett’s books off the shelf, immerse myself in the world he created, and associate with the people who sprang from his imagination. Whenever it suits me.
And that reminds me of one of his oh-so-quotable lines from the opening scene of the book that is one of my favourites of his, Wyrd Sisters. The setting: a violent thunderstorm on “dark, rain-lashed hills”.
“In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?’
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday.'”