Tag Archives: terry pratchett

Terry Pratchett – An Appreciation

So much enjoyment in so little space.
A Pratchett bookshelf – and this isnt all of it.

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.

Good Omens About the Radio

I'd give anything to have been at that reading...
The Good Omens team gathered for a reading. Aren’t they a lovely bunch?

What’s your favourite book?

It’s always been a tough question to answer for me. What are the criteria? The Lord of the Rings is a superlative work of creation. Rubicon is as great a work of historical narrative as I’ve ever read. The Lies of Locke Lamora impressed me more than any novel in the past ten years and genuinely shocked me with one of its many twists. Planetary and V for Vendetta are superbly well-crafted comics series. I could dig in to my library and make an argument for many more of the books in there.

But if I’m allowed to narrow it down to the book that has given me the most joy, then the answer’s easier. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are two of my favourite authors, their storytelling skills and mastery of wordplay having made me smile more often than most, and when they collaborated to create a novel, they both surpassed themselves. That novel, Good Omens, reduced me to even more helpless giggling than Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide series ever managed.

The news, then, that Pratchett and Gaiman are adapting Good Omens as a six-part BBC Radio 4 dramatisation, just fills me with even greater joy. Add to that the fact that the team behind it was also responsible for last year’s wonderful adaptation of Gaiman’s Neverwhere and joy levels are starting to reach near-terminal levels. Anything else? Oh yes, how about the amazing Peter Serafinowicz as co-lead Crowley, “an angel who did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards”.*

Needless to say, a radio-centric Christmas can’t come soon enough. I may just have to dig out my very-well thumbed copy of the original novel** and remind myself of just how good it is in order to prepare myself…

*He hadn’t meant to fall. He’d just hung around with the wrong people.

**It was first published in 1990. That’s … quite a while ago.

November Book Reviews

So many people looking for books as Christmas presents.

Yes, this is very late. I’ve been busy. College stuff, you know? Of which more, hopefully, anon. More on a lot of things anon, with any luck. The first semester is over, and I may just take a few days to reset my brain before the Christmas break, during which I’ll have more College stuff to do. Of course.

In the meantime though: reviews!

Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul: Exactly what are games, and video games in particular, and how are they defined by the real rules that players interact with and the fictional worlds the games themselves present? Juul takes a systematic approach to both elements of video games, exploring first their presence in games throughout history, then their development in the video game era, then looking at how video games have combined both elements, either successfully or not so successfully. Though laden with examples and thoroughly explained and footnoted, this is a very readable tour through video game history and explanation of a theory of game design and development.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward R. Tufte: A classic in the annals of graphic design, this is a survey of the use and abuse of charts and tables, breaking down every technique going and then building up a new methodology to guide anyone seeking to convey data through the intelligent application of ink. Tufte is a laconic host for this process, saying no more than he has to as he praises the best charts and dryly demolishes the foolishness, frippery and plain misleading imagery of the worst. In the end, the reader will at the very least know how to charts better than they did before, and if they make charts regularly, they may just want to own a copy for their reference library.

The Walking Dead Compendium 2, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard: Collecting another fifty or so issues of the indie zombie comic hit, this is a solid slab of post-apocalyptic depression literature in which horrible things happen to good people who have no choice but to become not-so-good so that bad things don’t continue to happen, at least not quite so often. This large chunk of the story allows the reader to get a feel for where Kirkman is going with his series, but sadly despite a more upbeat turn towards the end, there’s still no strong through-line beyond survival and a vague hope for the return of civilisation. As the threat of the walking dead is replaced by that of other humans, Adlard’s art remains as impressive in rendering a bleak, hopeless world as always, but it’s the details of the story that will require the strongest stomach from readers who get no humour and few rays of light to leaven the misery.

Dodger, Terry Pratchett: Not quite fantasy and not quite history, this is a tour through the grimier corners of Victorian London, in the company of another of Terry Pratchett’s sharp operators and an array of supporting characters, both historical and fictional. As he nears the end of his career, Pratchett seems determined to forge happy endings from the most unlikely material, and though as a result there’s little narrative tension here, it’s still a tale delightfully told. A lot of the appeal comes from the historical detail, and while there’s far more warmth than humour, it’s hard to imagine that there are many people who won’t find themselves smiling at least once or twice.

June Book Reviews

A slice of bookshelf, from Malory to Moore

Another month that seemed to be heading down a quiet path as far as book reading went was turned around by a lazy weekend at the parents’ place, which allowed me to polish off three titles. I guess there’s something to be said for having a few days where you attempt to merge with the couch through osmosis…


Night of Knives, Ian C. Esselmont: A stand-alone story set in the world of Steven Erikson’s “Malazan” tales, this is almost as dense in terms of detail as that series, which is to be expected coming from the setting’s co-creator. Set over the course of a single night, it provides a meaningful chunk of backstory to Erikson’s opus, and as a result is probably required reading for diehard fans of the Malazan books. However, it’s not quite as wild and baroque as the series it springs from, and in the course of a single book it cannot explain all the elements of the world that it draws upon, leaving it solely for fans, perhaps.

At Swim Two Birds, Flann O’Brien: Irish myth and folklore twist together with the bluster and verbosity of Irish pub conversation in a surreal, multi-level narrative. Telling multiple stories at various levels, vaguely centered around an author trying to wrangle his recalcitrant creations, it’s filled to the brim with poetically wordy digressions and strange depictions of the wild and the weird of the tiny green island it sprang from. Deeply erudite, constantly playful and Irish in a way that few other books are, even as it launches volley after volley of affectionate digs at the cliches of Irishness, this is a book that demands a lot of the reader but packs more than enough in to reward (if not require) multiple readings.

Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland: The title of the book is the kicking-off point for a meditation on the meaning of life, mediated through the experiences of five friends and the few others who come to share their lives as they face the banal apocalypse of adulthood. There’s a vein of weirdness running through the book that comes to overwhelm it towards the end, but the author keeps a careful eye on the point he’s making, and even amid the strangest occurrences the characters remain true to themselves, if not necessarily true to life. Some readers won’t like the overly preachy tone of the last few chapters, but this is a thoughtful book, casting a jaundiced eye over the modern world and comparing its meaningless pursuit of prosperity to a wasted maturity after the promise of childhood.

Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie: The First Law series of books comes to an end in suitably bloody, ambiguous fashion, with deaths aplenty and destiny revealed to be the inevitable result of choices made by the person affected and those who’ve treated them as pawns. Fittingly, there’s a real sense of returning to where the story began, even as all the secrets and lies laid down before are exposed, leading to results that are all the more satisfying for being unexpected. Joe Abercrombie spots the landing perfectly, even taking the time to have a dig at the fantasy genre and provide plenty of skewed humour amid the blood and gore.

Snuff, Terry Pratchett: At this stage in the author’s career and his long-running Discworld series, there’s a real comfort in revisiting a very familiar setting, but this is Pratchett, and underneath the comfort there’s the steel point of an author who still has things to say. The humour in the newest tale of Sam Vimes, policeman to the bone no matter how high he rises in society, is obvious here, cutting there, but it wouldn’t matter a damn if it weren’t as well-constructed a story as ever, populated by characters who always remain just the right side of caricature. The writing isn’t as sharp as it once was, and the Discworld series has moved far beyond its knockabout roots to warmly told tales of injustice thwarted, but so long as Pratchett keeps issuing invitations to this unique world, I for one will continue to visit.

Dry, Augusten Burroughs: The memoir of an alcoholic trying to go sober in the face of a life that seems to be doing its best to drive him to drink, this is an occasionally hilarious but mostly scouring look into the mind of an addict. An ad exec in New York, Burroughs is at his funniest before he’s forced into rehab, an experience that leads him to confront the reasons for his behaviour and learn whether or not he’s capable of going dry. The degree of self examination can be wearying at times, but there’s no self pity to be found here, just an self awareness that’s at times completely raw.