One of my favorite writers died today at the age of sixty-six. I can’t recall exactly how I got interested in Pratchett’s work, but I think part of it was due to the fact that he occasionally referenced my favorite band, They Might Be Giants. For instance, there’s a dwarf rock band in Soul Music called We’re Certainly Dwarfs, and one of the mentally ill beggar Foul Ole Ron’s catchphrases was “Millennium hand and shrimp!” I was already into fantasy, parody, and absurd humor as well, so that didn’t hurt matters. I’ve seen Pratchett compared to Douglas Adams, and there are clearly similarities, but I don’t know how conscious any of them were. It does seem like several themes come up pretty frequently in British comedy, though. When Rincewind and Twoflower, the main protagonists in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, are compared to Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, I’m not entirely sure how it works out. Rincewind is the guide and the more knowledgeable and street-smart one, which makes him like Ford. On the other hand, he’s the hapless man taken out of his comfort zone and the one things keep happening to, so that’s more Arthur. I think it’s more just a case of similar archetypes.
At least Pratchett had a good seventeen years on Adams, and I did get to meet him once, but it sucks that my favorite still-living authors keep dying. I’m sure Pratchett’s meeting with Death, who incidentally was one of his most successful characters, was something to remember.
The first Discworld book I read was Men at Arms, which kind of relies on the reader already knowing something about the city of Ankh-Morpork, but I enjoyed it anyway and kept reading. At its most basic, Discworld is sort of a parody of human belief: the world is flat and carried on the back of a turtle, cameras work because tiny demons inside them paint pictures, a large pantheon of gods directly interferes in world affairs, and the power of stories is a genuine force that drives people’s lives. Beyond that, however, there was also a lot of exploration into and sympathy for the human condition, and characters who developed largely by questioning themselves. While the earliest books in the series tended to be direct parodies of other authors and general fantasy concepts and archetypes, the world gradually became an entity unto itself. Pratchett successfully mixed different sorts and levels of humor, working in a lot of pop culture references while still maintaining believability, sometimes by having the characters themselves not totally understand what’s going on. It did seem like the later books in the series were a bit lacking in jokes, perhaps because of Pratchett’s condition, but they did a good job at addressing the theme of fantastic beings trying to co-exist in a multicultural society. It was definitely a world that grew over time, sometimes very quickly.
I’ll admit I haven’t read all that much of Pratchett’s non-Discworld work. Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, had much of the same style of humor. Nation, geared toward a young adult audience, was largely character-driven, dealing with a tiny society trying to build itself up from destruction. And I’m still not entirely sure what to think of the Long Earth books that he did with Stephen Baxter, although they’re quite creative. I actually have the last one, The Long Mars, out from the library now.