The great man has, very sadly, been afflicted by Alzheimer’s; but he may have been hard-pressed to remember his bibliography even before that. Terry Pratchett has been compared to Dickens, presumably on the strength of the two authors’ prolific outputs, since I’m damned if I can see the similarities otherwise. Nor is his work all that similar to the Monty Python sketches, Tolkein or the adventures of Asterix the Gaul, although critics have used all three as a point of comparison (usually poo-pooing the points of comparison that other critics have made in the process). The problem is that Pratchett is both a very original writer and one whose books are a patchwork of anything and everything, from fiction and from reality; so where do we start?
Any discussion of Pratchett’s work has to centre on the Discworld series, which began as both a parody of Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy (with a few jabs at H.P. Lovecraft en route) and an actual example of it in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, with talking swords, treasure-strewn temples, and long sections without a great deal of laughs- if not his worst books, then almost certainly the worst ones to begin with, since they’re so dependent upon an understanding of the niche subject matter. Something changed- perhaps he began to realise the true comic potential of his new creation- because the parodic eye began to turn from fantasy onto reality. So the mad, murderous wizards became buffoonish university academics, the temple-robbing heroes became nostalgic geriatrics, and the Lovecraftian monsters dwindled out altogether. Pratchett, as it turned out, was a pilferer of the first order, a novelist willing to reference anything from chaos theory to Dirty Harry, without making them seem like throwaway jokes. Of these, the best example was probably Interesting Times, a spoof of China that brought in the Cultural Revolution, barbarian hordes, bureaucracy, the Red Army (for some reason), and also managed to be the author’s most effective, and properly touching, riff on the nature of a hero.
The direction the Discworld books have taken since then has been signalled by Pratchett’s increased tendency to ignore the characters who were smart counter-stereotypes- Rincewind, the hapless anti-Gandalf, Susan, Death’s pragmatic granddaughter, and his mismatched trio of witches, in favour of his straight man, Sam Vimes, a policeman who channels Marlowe, Richard Sharpe, and Clint Eastwood, but whose function is essentially that of a normal man locked in a bizarre situation. The Last Continent, which ran an entire novel’s length off a joke epilogue at the end of Interesting Times, began to show a creative strain; a spoof of Australia that referenced obvious stereotypes in the same fashion as one of those episodes of The Simpsons where the family goes abroad and encounters every existing national cliché in that country. It was very amusing, but perhaps a sign that even Pratchett could only parody as many things as exist under heaven and earth. Since then, the series has started to slowly alter from comedy to adventure-fantasy with comic touches- perhaps a side effect of creating a world with tens of thousands of fans who treat it as a real, tangible place? The Fifth Elephant had good jokes, but also characters and sequences played utterly seriously. Semaphore towers evolved, as a major plot device in several of the books, as a kind of equivalent to the telephone/Internet, but for some unknown reason, the writer refused to make jokes out of the new development. The novels continued to be enjoyable, but are indisputably less funny.
The difference between his earlier and later books for younger readers is striking; the Johnny Maxwell series were wish-fulfillment with clever undertones, pitting a young geek and his friends against conventional sci-fi obstacles and foes. When he began to write childrens’ fiction again, the rather good The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents aside, they were too abstract and a little thin, and relied, confusingly, on the premise that the younger readers would already be familiar with the characters and world of his ‘adult’ books. A Hatful of Sky is an unfortunately appropriate title; the author’s decision to run into the ground his band of indistinguishable, violent Celtic Smurfs, the Nac Mac Feegle, but it also demonstrated that Pratchett was moving away from one compelling central character to keeping the comedy alive with a larger chorus of banterers.
His other work has been varied, but always truly Pratchettian; his Trucker series, about enterprising gnomes, Good Omens, with Neil Gaiman (who’d demonstrated that he could do comic fantasy, of a rather more Dickensian kind, with his underground London of Neverwhere), a combination of comedy and non-fiction, The Science of the Discworld…he’s a geek to his very core, from his obsessive attention to detail to his constantly-worn black hat and big silver rings.
Recent years (and, undoubtedly, the onset of his illness) have led to a greater appreciation of the author by the mainstream; so while previously he had his wildly enthusiastic fan-base at the international convention every year, now he has a knighthood. We gave him a doctorate, the first of six, in 1999; ahead of the curve, perhaps. But I do find myself wondering how long he’s going to be around in the collective imagination. Several of the Discworld books deserve to be called comedy classics (and so, so cruelly snubbed from the Guardian’s comedy section of their recent ‘1000 novels everyone must read’- in favour of the dated Lucky Jim, and, inexplicably, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.) I’d go for Interesting Times, Guards! Guards!, Sourcery, and Small Gods- but getting the humour is partially dependent upon knowledge of the enormous series as a whole, as was demonstrated by the television critics who watched the adaptation of Hogfather and didn’t have a clue what was going on, and partially on references to popular culture which may not prove as long-lasting, as, say, Mr Pickwick. Some of the Douglas Fairbanks jokes in Moving Pictures, for instance, must already be passing beyond the grasp of the latest generation of young fans. But his influence among his niche is incredibly strong; Robert Rankin is clearly a huge Pratchett fan, and it’s an auspicious sign that the sci-fi fanbase have been mentioning him for a long time now in the same sentence as the Other God, Douglas Adams; hopefully his star will only continue to grow over the coming years. We may need his brand of escapist whimsy now more than ever.