Another cultural, this time literary, icon and innovator has left us, in the form of the great Terry Pratchett.
If ever there was a true literary innovator in modern times, Pratchett would fit the bill. He can be regarded as almost as influential in this time as some of the early SF writers were in more groundbreaking eras.
Even I, when writing or conceiving scenes in some of my own (as-yet-unfinished) SF novels, am often aware that my sensibilities are partly influenced by Pratchett’s style; and that’s speaking as someone who’s never even read the franchise Pratchett is most associated with, specifically the enormously popular Discworld series – the immense series of about 40 volumes. Pratchett was a prolific writer and wrote two books a year on average.
We have known that Pratchett was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease since 2007 when the author announced it. He used his own condition to bring great exposure to Alzheimer’s sufferers and to the broader issue of ‘assisted dying’, which included filming a BBC programme charting his experiences with the disease. In an article in 2009 Pratchett stated he wished to die by ‘assisted suicide’ before the disease progressed to a critical point. A year later, Pratchett was selected to deliver the 2010 BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture, entitled “Shaking Hands With Death”. In it, Mr Pratchett introduced his highly anticipated lecture on the sensitive, often divisive, topic of assisted death, but the main text was instead read out by his friend Tony Robinson (of Blackadder fame) because of the difficulties Pratchett himself had with reading aloud due to his condition. Due to that increasingly deteriorating condition, in recent years Pratchett could only continue to write either by dictating to his assistant, Rob Wilkins, or by using speech-recognition software. To the delight of his legions of worldwide fans, he did continue to write, however.
I’ve never gotten around to reading any Discworld books; partly this is because, being a writer myself and therefore spending a substantial amount of time writing or editing various endeavors, including in the sci-fi genre, I long ago limited the amount of fiction I read. This is because (1) who wants to spend their relaxing time on what they spend so much of their working time doing? and (2) because I’ve always been wary of being overly influenced by other writers or novels. That said, one of my all-time favorite books to this day is Pratchett’s Good Omens novel from 1990. I first read it when I was about 17 and I must’ve read it two or three times again in the decade-plus since then, particularly when I’ve needed cheering up.
Written in collaboration with another iconic innovator in the field, fellow Brit Neil Gaiman (of Sandman legend), Good Omens – or more accurately ‘Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter’ – is essentially a comedy-horror type story about the birth of the Anti-Christ, the coming of the ‘End Times’ and the desperate attempt by the angel ‘Aziraphale’ and the demon ‘Crowley’ to avert the prophesied end. Written and conceived by two absolute atheists and humanists, their take on apocalyptic lore and Judaeo-Christian ‘End-Times’ mania is perfectly tongue-in-cheek. The tone, humour and general likeability of that book is remarkable, especially given the subject matter; in fact, it could be recommended as a perfect counter-book to that stomach-turning, smug ‘Rapture’-obsessed sort of evangelical ‘literature’ that proliferates in the United States, such as Tim La Haye’s horrendous and bafflingly popular ‘Left Behind’ series.
Even now, having not read it for a number of years, I smile when I think about the ‘Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse’ or the fallen angel and the demon who’ve got so comfortable with their life on earth (and so fond of human pop culture) that they can’t bear to let the apocalypse unfold.
It’s strange, but there are a handful of novels I tend to go back to periodically; this being as someone who, as I said, doesn’t generally read many novels. The ones that I seem to have the most enduring affinity for – such as Pratchett’s Good Omens, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Asimov’s Foundation series, among a few others – don’t seem to have anything in common, but are generally a very disparate bunch of works. There’s just a magic thing, a magic touch, that seems to permeate some works in particular. And Good Omens is one of those things that influenced me from a relatively young age, but in a way that isn’t obvious to me until I pause to think about it.
Talk of a sequel to Good Omens has teased fans of the book for years, but never took substantial form. The proposed sequel ‘668: The Neighbour of the Beast’ will now be one of the great ‘what ifs’ of the genre, as it’s incredibly unlikely Gaiman will do it solo. A film adaptation of the book was also talked about for a long time, with Terry Gilliam planned as director. That too failed to progress, however, reportedly due to the lack of funding from studios and execs. The late Robin Williams and Johnny Depp were rumoured to be in major consideration for the lead roles of Aziraphale and Crowley respectively. Just demonstrates how off-the-mark most film studios are when it comes to creative pursuits.
At any rate, Terry Pratchett has already long since attained something most writers always dream of: a guaranteed longevity and legacy. He will be read for generations to come and his influence will continue to be present with current and future generations of writers and thinkers. That much is beyond doubt. He will almost certainly be regarded as one of the greats in decades to come, just as Asimov or Philip K. Dick are now.