Normally I write up all of my obituaries at the end of the year, but today I wanted to say a special farewell to Sir Terry Pratchett in thanks for his opus of delightful fantasy novels. Born in 1948 in Buckinghamshire, the successful author died today (March 12, 2014) of complications from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors diagnosed Pratchett with the debilitating neurological disease in 2007. He subsequently donated a substantial sum of money to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, saying that he had spoken to several survivors of brain cancer, but no survivors of Alzheimer’s disease. This is an extremely worthwhile charity, as is Pratchett’s other great cause—saving the world’s last remaining orangutans. If you have lots of extra money, you should give some to Alzheimer’s researchers and orangutan conservationists. Additionally Sir Terry owned a greenhouse full of carnivorous plants and had a fossil sea turtle from the Eocene named after him. However, none of these details of his life are what make him important to his readers.
Since 1983, Sir Terry spent his years churning out Discworld novels. Discworld was a multi-racial world of beefy barbarians, doughty dwarves, incompetent wizards, operatic vampires, and naked avarice. The stories spanned across many fantastic yet strangely familiar continents, but the narrative always returned to the sprawling twin metropolis of Ankh-Morpork (which, though putatively a medieval city state, will seem instantly familiar to anyone who has set foot in London or New York).
Like Don Quixote, the Discworld novels started out making fun of fantasy and the endless follies of life before falling deeply in love with fantasy and even more deeply in love with humankind. In the Discworld books, people are presented as benighted and greedy: their unspeakably stupid schemes to defraud each other generally drive the action (in the very first scene, Ankh-Morpork burns down moments after fire insurance is introduced). Yet the defining characteristic of the novels was the humor and humanity within the the personality of the characters, many of whom were not even technically humans. Beyond the petty scheming endemic to society, individuals were revealed to be ultimately curious and compassionate: even very unlikely figures had heroic and sympathetic natures.
As I write this I realize I am saying farewell not to Terry Pratchett, a rich balding English guy whom I did not know, but to Nanny Ogg, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Gaspode the Wonder Dog, Sergeant Detritus (a hulking but kindly troll), Tiffany Aching, cruel Greebo, Ponder Stibbons, the Luggage, and stalwart Carrot of the Watch. It’s like a whole group of my friends died (along with a carnivorous sentient trunk).
Discworld was a toy theater where Pratchett presented his ideas of what makes life beautiful and worthwhile in delightfully adroit symbols. The ultimate figure in this little macrocosm was finally revealed not to be Lord Veteneri, the philosopher-king who despotically yet benignly rules Ankh-Morpork; nor Granny Weatherwax, the flinty sorceress who protects Discworld from alien incursion; nor even Samuel Vimes, a recovering alcoholic who rose from the depths of poverty to reshape the social contract. Instead Discworld was ruled by the symbolic personification of Death, forever watching the strutting, lying, primping figures below him with bemused yet avuncular affection. After spending time with this imposing seven foot tall skeleton with glowing eyes, the reader came to learn that metaphysical mystery, supernatural solemnity, and the terrors of oblivion were no match for friendship, humor, kindness, and an egg fry-up with miscellaneous crunchy bits.
Good bye Sir Terry, your world meant the world to us and we will miss you a lot.