A year ago today, Death came for Terry Pratchett, although on the balance of the evidence it might be said that Terry Pratchett came for Death. Pratchett, like his creations Samuel Vimes, Esmeralda Weatherwax, the Luggage, and others, happened to people.
I came to Pratchett’s books in my middle twenties, two years before he died from complications of posterior cortical atrophy. But Pratchett is the odd author who, once read, seems to have always been there, as though I’ve been losing his books under the bed for the last two decades of my life at least.
Pratchett’s stories cut to the marrow of what it means to live humanely in a universe of disorder. It’s no secret that his works have carried many people through depression, kept them from suicide, and helped them reconcile with their own mortality when the time comes.
And his books are insidious. You read them laughing in the light of morning only to realize that the darkness has come up behind you and is wielding a thick plank.
He tackled serious subjects with a light touch. The relationship between justice, mercy, and the little lies we tell children in Hogfather. Questions about belief and organized religion in Small Gods and Carpe Jugulum. The difficulty of revolution in Night Watch. The nature of freedom and liberation in Going Postal. Racism and bigotry in Men at Arms and Feet of Clay, among many others. The lives of the underclass, always present in his work, in Unseen Academicals.
And he spoke about women. At least twenty of his books feature women as major characters, and nearly all of the others feature women in vivid minor roles. Of those twenty, Monstrous Regiment makes a complex indictment of society and its relationship with women, while Wintersmith, to me, stands as perhaps his greatest tribute to women—old women, young women, women throughout history—who do hard jobs so that a thankless and oblivious society keeps functioning.
And always, he spoke about death.
Shaking Hands with Death
Death—the anthropomorphic personification, not the event—featured in 39 of Pratchett’s 41 Discworld books. Death was our most constant companion as readers and, I would argue, the single greatest theme of Pratchett’s writing.
Let us pause to recognize the significance of this: in a series of books so much about the joy and temerity of living in a world that is never on your side, in a series of books so humane and witty, we as readers were getting an education in dying well.
More than that, Pratchett showed us how to die well. His battle with Alzheimer’s was highly public, and his compassionate and passionate activism forced a conversation in the U.K. about the right to die. When he passed a year ago today, he had at least four more books in progress, having written 57 books since 1981. According to Rob Wilkins,
We will not now know how the old folk of Twilight Canyons solve the mystery of a missing treasure and defeat the rise of a Dark Lord despite their failing memories, nor the secret of the crystal cave and the carnivorous plants in The Dark Incontinent, nor how Constable Feeney solves a whodunnit amongst the congenitally decent and honest goblins, nor how the second book about Maurice as a ship’s cat might have turned out. And these are just a few of the ideas his office and family knew about.
Faced with the tyranny of death, Pratchett used writing as a mode of resistance, that he might die on his own terms. With Vimesian heroism—the unshowy sort of heroism of a human doing as best as can be done with what little is given—Pratchett modeled living for us.
A Man is Not Forgotten While His Name is Still Spoken
In his book Going Postal, Pratchett describes how workers on the semaphore towers, known as the “Clacks,” keep the names of dead comrades moving eternally up and down the line. “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken,” they say.
The code that moves the name is “GNU” (Pratchett never being above a joke involving ruminants), where “G” tells workers to send the message on, “N” tells them not to log the message, and “U” tells them to send the message back when it reaches the end of the line. And so the names of dead linesmen live “in the code.”
And now Pratchett’s name too lives in code. Many a website (such as The Guardian) has taken up the “GNU Terry Pratchett” header code, and there’s even a Chrome plugin so that you can see when a website you visit is using it.
And so the man’s name lives on. As sad as losing a such a luminary is, he is not forgotten. And despite the vehement efforts in some corners to keep a “popular” writer like Pratchett out of “high literature” (whatever that is), I suspect that he will be that rare writer who we will still be reading several centuries on. After all, he taught us how to both live and die well in our own fraught world, and that’s a solace and a joy.
‘You know they’ll never really die while the Trunk is alive,’ said Moist. It was a wild shot, but it hit something, he sensed it. He rushed on: ‘It lives while the code is shifted, and they live with it, always Going Home.”
GNU Terry Pratchett:
Death with Kitten by Paul Kidby.