Certain authors and novels, if you come across them at the right age, will change your life. Terry Pratchett was one of those authors for me, and while his recent death was long anticipated, due to the cruelty of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the news, when it came, proved just as gut-wrenching as the original announcement of his illness had been.
Already, there have been plenty of appreciations of the man and his work. It’s a mark of both the nature of the man and the talent of the author that someone who primarily wrote comedic fantasy touched as many people across as many fields as he did.
I never met Terry Pratchett—the closest I came was during one of his visits to Dublin, when I spotted him walking in College Green, heading from Trinity College to (presumably) a pub, surrounded by a gaggle of students and admirers. It would have been nice to have the chance to talk to him, but at that stage he’d been talking to me through his work for years.
Books like Good Omens, Small Gods and Pyramids reduced me to helpless giggling more than any since Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Another author and decent human being taken too soon.) Across the 40 books of the Discworld series, Pratchett mixed the deftest wordplay with humour both low and cutting and serious thoughts that stole upon you in the midst of the laughter and stuck around long after the jokes were done.
As a kid growing up in a Northern Ireland still caught up in the lunacy of the Troubles, Pratchett provided constant reassurance that there was a better humanity out there. That being decent to other human beings mattered most of all, that you ought to be suspicious of anyone or any organisation that would tell you what to think, that being curious, patient, and argumentative were all good things. Thoughts that I found it hard to express, even as I was working them out in my own head, I found reflected in his prose.
As an aspiring writer, the most important thing I learned from him was that it was possible to underlay fantasy and science fiction writing with serious topics without preaching to your audience. I learned as well that language was a game, one that you won if you brought a smile to your audience’s face, or just made them pause and consider for a moment.
As a human being, he was, like his collaborator Neil Gaiman, like Douglas Adams and Charles Darwin, one of those people it was possible to admire without having to look up to them. Possessed of immense talent that never overwhelmed his innately decent humanity, yet driven by an inner anger that allowed him to churn out books of breathtaking quality and wit year after year.
That same anger helped him to deal with the unfairness of his diagnosis. Deeming it “an embuggerance,” he continued to live his life even more fully than before, fighting on behalf of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and those who believed that they had a right to end a life that had become unbearable. His eloquent arguments in favour of the right to die in the manner of his own choosing revived a debate that is still going on.
Reading Pratchett and authors like him and growing up where I did and among my family and friends has led me to the belief that if we have a purpose in life, it’s to increase the amount of happiness in the world, both your own and that of those around you. Far more than the number of books he sold, the joy that his work and personality brought to so many is a marker of his success in life.
If I ever have any kids, I’ll enjoy sharing his books with them. And whether or not they turn out to be fans like me, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned in reading his books will be the same lessons I share with them.
Twenty years ago, I was preparing to start college and live away from home for the first time. Sixteen years ago, I was about to interview for a job that, counting promotions, would keep me employed for the next dozen years. Three years ago, I watched the sun rise over Japan during a journey that was a reaction to losing several of the props of the life I’d built for myself and trying to figure out something new. Two years ago, I was beginning a Masters course that was a bigger challenge than anything I’d taken on in years, and one year ago I was completing it successfully. This year, I woke to see sunrise over the pinnacles of Meteora and will go to sleep in Delphi, the centre of the ancient Greek world, in time for sunset.
Draw any straight line through a life and you’re likely to find a similar degree of drama. This particular history sticks in my mind because my birthday and that of two thirds of my family fall within the space of a month at this time of the year. Late September and early October has always been, for me, a time of change and new beginnings. (That school years in Ireland, north and south, also begin at this time of year probably also helped to set this association in stone.)
For today though, I’m not so much starting something new as passing from one thing to another. Walking among other the monasteries of Meteora this morning (as the image above depicts) has been followed by much travelling by bus. Lamia, amid the mountains of central Greece, was my resting place for the past few hours. Unable to make my way to Thermopylae, only twenty kilometres away (sorry dad), I avoided being stuck in the bus station for four hours by heading into town for a stroll and a frappé (a Greek habit that’s proved worth picking up), returning to the station a safe hour before the bus to Delphi left.
Sunset was lost behind the mountains south of Lamia as we followed a road that Xerxes would have given a king’s ransom for. The closest I got to Thermopylae was passing around the wrong side of a mountain, though perhaps not far from the goatherd’s path that betrayed Leonidas and the 300 Spartans (minus two injured “tremblers” but plus their normally ignored helot slaves and allies). From there it was switchback corners up and down mountainsides into the gathering gloom, changing in Amfissa to take on even narrower mountain paths in the dark, heading towards a site of pilgrimage for a thousand years and more.
In Ancient Greece, travellers to Delphi went there seeking answers to what the future might bring. It was a dangerous business though, seeking out prophetic wisdom. Even if they heard what they wanted to, there was no guarantee that their interpretation was the correct one. Not for nothing has the word “Delphic” come to mean “enigmatic to the point of deliberate ambiguity.” (Look up Croesus for an example of the trouble misinterpreting prophecy can get you into.)
The Pythia’s not been in business for centuries though, and I’m not inclined to look for answers from inspired sources. For me, these blog entries have provided answer enough to something that’s been bothering me for a while. I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of writing for a few months but unable to break through a barrier of self-consciousness. What Greece has provided is a chance to get away from habitual surroundings and strip back my tools to the basics. (I have with me a pen and notepad for writing and an iPhone for posting notes and photos.) With less to worry about, I feel more relaxed, and I hope that shows in my writing. Unlike the ancient Greeks, I’ll be arriving in Delphi with no question in dire need of answering.
It’s been way too long since I wrote in this blog. My writings have rarely been regular, but recent developments workwise have suppressed the writing impulse to the point where nothing has been appearing for several months. This is clearly unacceptable. So consider this a manifesto for getting back on track.
When I first set up this blog, it was as a receptacle for stray thoughts as I made my way eastwards around the world. (You can go all the way back and check it out if you like.) I also adorned it with some earlier blogging efforts and sprinkled a few of my more favoured attempts at fiction across the top. Further down the line, I began to throw a series of reviews at it, mostly books, cinema and games. Well, I’m still enjoying all of those, but the reviews have dwindled to nothing.
Along the way, there have also been moments of whimsy, political opinions and reflections on the current course of my life. All of this should provide plenty of material to keep the blog mill spinning. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it hasn’t. I still enjoy writing, it’s just that the moments where it previously fitted into my schedule have been shuffled around, and an attempt needs to be made to nail them down again.
There’s plenty to be said for commenting on the state of the world. Politics and the media are in no less surreal a state than they have been for the past few years. The Ferguson affair in the U.S. and the ISIS rearrangement of borders and peoples in the Middle East are raising hackles and some of the weirder excesses of both participants and commentators.
On a more personal level, my reading habit is finally getting back in gear after a few months (hell, call it a year and a bit) where it was hard to find time to fit reading into the rest of my life. Right now I’m rereading Julian May’s “Galactic Milieu” trilogy, having already raced through her “Saga of the Exiles.” May’s one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read, and the Saga of the Exiles would make a great TV miniseries in the mode of Game of Thrones. So add that to biweekly cinema excursions courtesy of a Meetup.com group and some PC and iOS game experiments (both good and bad), and there should be plenty of reviews emerging in the near future too.
Lastly, and most excitingly (for me at least), I’m finally planning to head off on a holiday lasting longer than a week. It’s been over two years at this stage, and it’s more than long overdue. The destination is Greece, as longstanding a travel goal as I have, and the itinerary is intended to take in as much beautiful scenery and sites of historical interest as the cradle of western civilisation has to offer.
So look for some brand new travel diaries coming towards the end of September. In the interim, I’ll try and keep the home fires burning by dropping the odd opinion, review and unusual fact into the hopper for general distribution. Possibly not tomorrow’s cinematic outing though. I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about The Expendables 3.
It’s my hope that the below won’t read like a rant, but it probably will. So, spoilers ahoy!
One of the great things about reading science fiction is receiving a glimpse into the future. It’s not true of every science fiction writer, but a great many of them are well read in the social and scientific trends of their day and weave that knowledge into their writing, extrapolating out to take a guess at where we all might be in a few decades, centuries, or millennia. Of course, predicting the future is a hard business, and it’s a truism that nothing dates so quickly as science fiction. Still, Verne had men travelling to the moon, Clarke foresaw the communications satellite, and Gibson gave us cyberpunk and the kind of brain-computer interfaces that are even now emerging into the light.
I’m even guilty of it myself, in the short stories that I’ve written that veer into the science fiction arena. I’m not claiming any great foresight, but I do enjoy finding here and there among the materials that I read an idea or two that sparks a story. In some cases, the original inspiration gets forgotten. So I don’t really know where I got the idea for “Life and Death on the Edge of Unreason“. I suspect I just liked the idea of an observation station orbiting a star about to go supernova. As settings for a detective story go, it’s pretty evocative.
It’s not the best story I’ve ever written – the fact is that a detective story in a panopticon society with instant access to information is never going to work well. Still, I was reminded pleasantly of it when I read this article, all about one of the main elements in the story – a charred planet surviving in a star’s outer layers. Pleased enough to be inspired to tidy it up and offer it here as some Christmas reading material. I hope you enjoy it.