Sir Terry Pratchett, God-King Of Literary Nerds, 1948-2015

Terry Pratchett, satirical fantasy author, creator of the Discworld series of novels, and all around fine human being, died Thursday at the age of 66. He had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2007, but kept writing until the completion of his final novel, Raising Steam, last summer.

"The world has lost one of its brightest, sharpest minds," said Larry Finlay of his publishing company, Transworld [...]

The author died at home "with his cat sleeping on his bed, surrounded by his family," Mr Finlay said.

Pratchett loved cats, and knew them well. As he once said, "In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this." Same goes for his familiarity with dogs -- one recurring character is a mutt named Gaspode, who lives for the moments when he is reminded that he is a Good Boy.

Finlay added, "Terry faced his Alzheimer's disease (an 'embuggerance', as he called it) publicly and bravely. Over the last few years, it was his writing that sustained him. His legacy will endure for decades to come."

Pratchett's first Discworld book was published in 1983, and while he detoured into other settings from time to time, the bulk of his novels were set on the Discworld, a deliberately impossible place where magic is a simple fact of everyday life, and where wizards, while powerful, tend to be more concerned with academic politics than with saving the world. The Discworld itself is a planet-sized disc carried by four elephants standing on the back of an ageless giant turtle voyaging through space, possibly with a destination in mind, though the turtle never said for sure.

Pratchett used the fantasy genre as a vehicle to satirize contemporary politics and culture, with an intensely humane approach to topics like racism, religion, militarism, policing, and the like, with a cast of recurring characters that readers could never get enough of, such as the honest but pragmatic police captain (and later commander) Sam Vimes, who while on foot patrol in the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork had occasionally brilliant insights into the human condition or economic realities:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

-- Men At Arms

Or there was Lord Vetinari, the Patrician and dictator of Ankh-Morpork, who believed in the one-man, one-vote system of governing: He was the man, so he had the vote.

And of course all the daft wizards of Unseen University, who pursued truth, knowledge, a comfortable office, and a reliable schedule of free faculty lunches. Not all of them were incompetent, of course -- there's Ponder Stibbons, the Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic, who tends to be the one guy who gets things done. And the Librarian, who happens to be an orangutan -- he was human once, but was hexed by a grumpy wizard zapped by a high-energy magical book, and refused any attempts at reversing the spell since he found brachiating through the stacks more efficient than bothering with stepladders. Just don't call him a monkey.

Pratchett was also an unapologetic feminist. The witches in his novels tend to have little regard for the fancy show-off magic of wizards, being far more attuned to actually doing a bit of practical good for people, albeit in some cases only grudgingly. As Granny Weatherwax points out to a girl she's training in the job, most of being an effective witch is just "headology" anyway. Pratchett's "Tiffany Aching" books, about that apprentice witch, are some of the best young-adult works in the genre, and not merely because they feature a bunch of tiny blue drunken fairyfolk called Pictsies, whose magical swords take on a warning glow in the presence of lawyers. Tiffany herself has no interest in marrying the prince she rescues, though he's a nice enough lad.

Pratchett is also one of the few fantasy writers to address some of the ugly practicalities of magic. Sure, you can turn someone into a frog. But conservation of matter is still a thing, even on the Discworld, so once you've cast your spell, you're left with a lot of icky stuff floating up near your ceiling that you need to hang on to if you ever hope to reverse the transformation.

And of course, there's Death, the tall fellow with the robe, the scythe, a library full of every life's hourglass, and a pale horse named Binky. He SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS, but quietly somehow, and generally finds mortals fascinating, if a bit befuddling. He's a pretty cool guy, all in all.

Just how cool was "Sir Pterry," as he was known to nerds? Cool enough that after he was knighted in 2009, he dug up iron ore from a field near his home, threw in some meteorite iron for style, smelted it himself, and had it forged into a sword. He kept the sword stored in a secret location, he said, so as not to run afoul of British laws against deadly weapons: "It annoys me that knights aren't allowed to carry their swords," he said. "That would be knife crime."

We also can't think that it's a mere coincidence that the BBC obit for Pratchett happened to feature this particular sidebar image for an upcoming programme:

While Pratchett had said, after his Alzheimer's diagnosis, that he would consider assisted suicide, his publishers say that he did not take his own life.

Pratchett's Twitter account announced his death Thursday with the following set of messages, a perfectly planned farewell to his fans:

The best way to remember Terry Pratchett, of course, is to read and talk about his books. Get to it in the comments, you.

[BBC / Independent]

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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