Friday, March 13, 2015

Terry Pratchett: A Rememberance

Yesterday, we lost one of literature's greatest satirists. Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the immensely popular and genuinely brilliant Discworld series, passed away. There were a few comic book adaptations of Discworld novels, but I'm breaking my rule of sticking to things directly related to comics on this blog because Sir Terry's work meant a heck of a lot to me, and I feel like I need to write about that today.

Like a lot of Americans, I first encountered the work of Terry Pratchett through Good Omens, a novel he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman (who I might have written about a bit on here at one point or another). I have strong recollections of reading Good Omens, since it was what I was reading when I left home for college. I remember sitting under a tree on campus, watching people go by, while I read it and chuckled to myself. I hadn't even finished reading Sandman at this point, but I had already fallen in love with Neil Gaiman's work, and if this was any indication of what Pratchett could do on his own, I knew he was another author whose books I needed to track down.

Unfortunately for me at the time, the first twelve novels in Pratchett's magnum opus, the Discworld series, were out of print. Thus began a years long hunt through used book stores, British imports from Borders, and eventually e-Bay to find those early books, because I had to read them in order. Naturally, by the way, the minute I had found them all, new editions started being published, because that's the way things work.

Discworld isn't so much a series as a setting. It is a flat planet that travels through space on the back of four gigantic elephants that travel on the back of an even more gigantic turtle, Great A'Tuin. It's a fantasy world, with all the typical tropes you'd expect (dwarfs, trolls, barbarians, vampires, fairies, etc.) but it's so much more than that. Pratchett was a genius writer, and each book was filled with humor and satire. The satire could be taking on literary conventions or society, but by the time of the last Discworld book he wrote, I think he touched on pretty much every topic between life and DEATH.

Rincewind and The Luggage

Within Discworld, there are four series and a whole set of more standalone novels. The novels of Rincewind, the most incompetent and cowardly wizard on all the Disc serve as a travelogue of all the places on the Disc. This is the series that starts with the first novel set on Discworld, The Colour of Magic. That and the second novel, Light Fantastic, are the only two parter in the series, and really should be read together. They are pretty much a fantasy parody, taking on a lot of the tropes of the genre. But as Rincewind's story continues, he travels all over Discworld, usually running from some horror or another. He is the Arthur Dent or Richard Mayhew of the series, that very British protagonist who is completely out of his depth in all things. Through him we get to see the workings of the Unseen University, Discworld's preeminent college of Wizardry, whose staff appear across many different series. Rincewind travels to the Counterweight Continent (Asia), Fourecks (Australia), and The Moon (the Moon), and usually finds something that is trying to kill him. Fortunately, he has The Luggage, a sentient trunk on hundreds of little feet that has infinite carrying capacity and a nasty temper, and the uncanny luck to get out of all these situations mostly unscathed, just to get into an even crazier one.

Magrat Garlick, Granny Weatherwax, and Nanny Ogg

The mountains of Lancre are a different place than the great city of Ank-Morpork, where the Unseen University is. It's more rural, naturally, and it doesn't have wizards or patricians. What it has is witches. And the first among equals is Granny Weatherwax. Granny is confident, intelligent, and will take none of what you're pushing, youngster. As powerful as she is, she rarely uses magic, instead using what she calls "headology," something that mixes psychology and folklore and remedies, because most people just need a good talking to, after all. And woe to the mystical creature, be it fairy, vampire, or fairy godmother, who endangers Lancre, because Granny will be having none of that either, and many a powerful creature has learned better than to mess with Granny Weatherwax.

While Granny appeared in the third Discworld novel, Equal Rites, which was the first to dip its toe into true social satire, Granny didn't come into her own until the next novel featuring her, Wyrd Sisters, when readers met her oldest friend, Nanny Ogg. As tall, thin, and straitlaced as Granny is, Nanny is short, round, and probably the most bawdy character in any of these books. She is nearly as powerful and tough as Granny, but goes about things differently, using a smile and a wink instead of a stern scowl when she can. And where Granny is a spinster, Nanny has a huge and boisterous family. While other witches come along and fill out the traditional trinity of maiden, mother, and crone, among the Witches of Lancre, it's the dyad of Granny and Nanny that drives the character beats of the story. While we see Magrat Garlick and Agnes Nitt grow, Granny and Nanny are more static, more set in their ways, and a perfect duo.

The Witches books serve as send ups of different literary and mythological traditions. Wyrd Sisters takes on Shakespeare, Witches Abroad skewers fairy tales, Lords and Ladies takes on fairies, and Carpe Jugulum sees vampires come to town. But as with all of Pratchett's work, it comes down to the people in these extraordinary situations, and Granny Weatherwax pitting her intelligence and strength against all comers. And winning every time.

In recent years, Pratchett spun off a young adult series from the Witches, featuring a young girl named Tiffany Aching, who starts out as planning to become a shepherdess, but soon learns that she was meant to be a witch. They're coming of age stories, showing Tiffany growing up, and gaining the air of confidence that a good witch needs. And Pratchett wrote a thirteen year old girl as realistically as he did a man of his own years because he never lost track of the fact that Tiffany was a person first and foremost.

DEATH and the Death of Rats

There are only two constants, death and taxes, said Ben Franklin, and in Discworld this is even more clear, as a whole series centers on DEATH. DEATH speaks in all caps and with no quotation marks, so I find it only appropriate that his name should be written in a similar manner. Pratchett's DEATH doesn't understand humans, but he can't help from being fascinated by them. Over time he adopts a daughter, takes on an apprentice, spends time as a farmer, and even takes over for the Hogfather (Discworld's answer to Father Christmas). I don't think he ever really gets people, no matter what he tries, but at least he keeps trying. The last few DEATH books also add Susan, DEATH's granddaughter into the mix, a stoic, tough as nails governess and teacher, who will literally look Death in the eye, and she provides a wonderfully human counterpoint to her Grandfather's confusion. He is also the only character to appear in every Discworld novel because, well, he's DEATH.

Sam Vimes

And last but not least are the stories of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork and it's intrepid officers, most notably Sam Vimes. Sam Vimes is my favorite character of Pratchett's, a wonderful mix of cynicism and idealism, a man of so many contradictions he'll make your head spin. In the introduction to a collection of Pratchett's non-fiction, Neil Gaiman said that anger fuels Pratchett's writing, and that the underlying aspect that fuels the anger is a sense of fairness. And the voice of that anger and sense of fairness is Sam Vimes. Not fair play; Vimes wold kick a bad guy in the teeth while he's down and not think twice about it. No, Sam Vimes is a man with an intense conviction that everyone needs to be treated the same way under the law and justice. In Men at Arms, the second books about the guards, Vimes thinks to himself that he's a speciesist; he thinks he doesn't like dwarfs and trolls. But as you follow Vimes through the book, you realize he is one of the few people who treats everyone the same. He's just as anti-werewolf, anti-golem, anti-goblin, and anti-human as he is anti-anyone. For Vimes, it's about whether or not you're doing the right thing.

Vimes grows more than any other character over the course of the series. He starts out as a knock down alcoholic, who lives alone and barely functions as a copper, since the various guilds of Ankh-Morpork police themselves. But over time Vimes goes from Captain to Commander. He makes the Watch as important as any other part of the city. He dries out. He marries Lady Sybil Ramkin, and they have a son, young Sam, both of whom he dotes on. He learns to open himself up to a few people. He develops as Pratchett's books do.

The Watch books double as satires of police procedurals and politics in general. There's usually a mystery of some kind involved, but as Vimes's scope of responsibility grows, so do the events he gets involved in. Pretty soon he's an ambassador stopping wars. This way he meets all sorts of diverse characters and offends or confuses most of them with being so damn forthright and actually saying what he thinks.

My favorite of all of Pratchett's books is Night Watch, a story where Vimes, lost in time, must take the place of the sergeant who trained him and train his own younger self, while also keeping events humming along as they should. It becomes a book about liberty, about self-determination, but more about identity. By this point in the series, Vimes has been made commander of the Watch, he's been dubbed Duke of Ankh, and since his marriage to Sybil, is now the richest man in the city. But he still feels like just a beat cop. And throughout the book, while in the past, who he was struggles with who he has become. It's an exciting book, about revolution, with barricades, assassin's, and conflicts, but it's really about Sam's journey and about him accepting the changes in his life.

Night Watch

While Sam is my favorite, I'd be remiss without mentioning the other Watch members. Fred Colon is the traditional beat cop, overweight and joyfully corrupt, but not cruel, and would stand by Vimes to the last. Nobby Nobbs, Fred's partner, is the same way, a kleptomaniac of seemingly indeterminate species. Captain carrot Ironfoundersson is a human raised by dwarfs to be honest, forthright, and cheerful, and might just be the lost heir to the thrown of Ankh, but all he wants to be is the best cop out there. Angua is the first policewoman in Ankh as well as it's first werewolf officer. Cheery Littlebottom is the forensics specialist, a dwarf who breaks the dwarfish rules by actively identifying as female. Detritus is the muscle of the Watch, a massive troll who starts out on the wrong side of the law but winds up one of its staunchest defenders. And those are just the primary watchmen; there are all sorts of other minor ones who pop up along the way.

It seemed Pratchett was building a fifth series towards the end of the novels, with three books being published featuring Moist von Lipwig, a former confidence man who was turned to work for the city first as postmaster, then as head of the bank, and next as city representative to the new railroad. Moist's books were about him becoming respectable (or as respectable as a banker can be), and about the city of Ankh-Morpork, the city so nice they named it... Ankh-Morpork. More than any other location, Ankh-Morpork speaks to how Discworld grew as a series. What started as a parody of fantasy cities developed into something like an Italian city state, and then into an almost Victorian London.

The City of Ankh-Morpork provides the last main cluster of major characters. While there were no books that featured this lot as leads, they all appeared in lots of different books. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler was the seller of sausage on a bun and pretty much any get rich quick scheme you could imagine. The Librarian of the Unseen University was turned into an orangutan early in the series and decided to stay that way, as prehensile feet made it easier to shelve books (he is second only to DEATH in appearances within Discworld). And there's the Patrician. The patrician is the title for ruler of the city, and while early on it's hard to tell who it is, by the beginning of the Watch books it is clearly Havelock Vetinari, who remains patrician until the end. Vetinari is second only to Vimes in my personal affections. He's a brilliant politician, ruler, and assassin, the last of which is the least despicable of his avocations. His wit is dry, and he always has more pieces in play than you could count until he's already closed them around you.

In all this writing about character and theme, I don't think I've said what is probably one of the  most important things about Pratchett's writing: It's funny as hell. So funny that if you read it in public, you will find people looking at you because you're laughing loudly in the train. Pratchett intersperses odd footnotes throughout the books, usually things that are bizarrely funny. One about the importance of spelling in Witches Abroad earned me some very odd looks indeed. Pratchett never lets the humor get in the way of the story, or vice versa; he was a master of the balancing act between plot and humor.

I could write about Pratchett all day, and still not scratch the surface of everything he has written, I didn't mention any of the stand alone novels, like Small Gods, a satire of religion, or Moving Pictures, when the movies come to Discworld. I could have spent much more time rhapsodizing about the fullness of his characters and the bizarre twists and turns of his plots. But more important than all of that is the humanity underpinning Pratchett's writing. He was a man who wrote to get people to understand themselves, ti understand the world around them. And while I can understand and see the anger Neil Gaiman talked about, it's that genuine feeling that people can learn, that there's a reason to keep writing, that fills me with real joy when I read a new Pratchett.

I hope if you've never tried to read a Discworld novel you'll give one a shot. You can start at Colour of Magic, the first Discworld book, or Guards, Guards, the first City Watch novel. Small Gods and The Truth are great stand alone novels.

I apologize if my tenses slipped throughout this writing. It's hard to address Terry Pratchett in the past tense. His writing was so vibrant, it's hard to think I won't see another novel that takes me to Discworld. But his books brought me so much happiness, that's what I'm going to focus on. I think I have some rereading to do. So I end this by simply thanking Sir Terry for all he did for me, for helping me understand people a bit better and getting plenty of good laughs. There are a legion of us who loved Discworld, and who will always hold it in a special place in our hearts.

No comments: