I came to Terry Pratchett fairly late in life, all things considered. I was in college, taking a Sci-Fi and Fantasy Lit class. On the syllabus, sandwiched between Dostoevsky's The Double and Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, was Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic.
I was passingly familiar with the author’s name – as a big Sandman fan, I had eagerly devoured Good Omens earlier that year, trying to sate what was at the time a deep and eager thirst for more Neil Gaiman. Of course, being such a Gaiman devotee, I was quick to assume all the stuff I liked from that work could be laid at his feet – I was sure the other guy had contributed something of value, but he had nothing on my literary hero of the time. Still, I was curious and a little excited to see what this Pratchett fellow could do in a book of his own. I honestly didn't expect to find the author that would come to define my life in reading.
Like any good little bespectacled nerd in a Spider-Man t-shirt with a socially crippling acne problem, I had torn through the stories of Douglas Adams in my junior high years. Unlike a lot of my brethren, though, I didn't fall in love with his work – highly regarded it, to be sure, and laughed aloud at the better jokes, always. But his brand of satire didn't quite strike the same chords within me as they had in so many others. It was humorous science fiction that I enjoyed, but it wasn't something I would return too. I did my time with Tolkein in that same period; in high school I’d perused the worlds of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind; I’d given my heart to the titular character of Ender's Game and to Gaiman’s poetic prose. Nonetheless, I still don’t think I was truly prepared for the power of Terry Pratchett’s masterful world-building, or his precise control of the written word.
The Colour of Magic gleefully introduced me to The Discworld, an idiosyncratic place where pure fantasy holds reign – a flat world surrounded by an aura of magic, riding on the backs of four elephants, which in turn are standing on the back of an enormous turtle that flies through space. As I delved further into the series, I watched as broadly drawn parodies were refined into rich, complex characters – characters who could still land an amazing pun, and who still had a strongly satirical knowledge of how a world beyond their own could work, but characters nonetheless. I saw a world that Pratchett had once proudly declared could not be mapped – “You can’t map a sense of humour” was the quote displayed in so many of the early Discworld stories – take shape and form, solidifying its geography and by extension its geopolitical landscape. Pratchett grew the Discworld from a loosely bound collection of jokes into a living, breathing world, and he let me watch and take note as he did so.
Terry Pratchett’s work became one of the ways I communicated with the rest of the world. When social media was in its infancy, most of the friendships I made online started with conversations about which character was more fun to follow – Sam Vimes or Death (Editor's note: It's actually Rincewind! -Sam). Tiffany Aching’s Discworld-set Wee Free Men became my go-to gift for young nieces or friends’ daughters. And the first Christmas present my wife bought me was a signed copy of the British edition of Nation, which is not only my favorite Pratchett novel…it’s the best book I've ever read.
At the end of 2007, Terry Pratchett announced to the world that he had Alzheimer's. Nation was his first book published in the wake of that announcement, and it is stunning. The story of a young man, Mau, whose village – his Nation - is wiped out by a surprise tidal wave. How he copes with the loss beautifully highlights and underlines the book’s theme – when much is taken, something is returned. Reading this book, so shortly after discovering that any new story from this ridiculously talented author may be his last (and most likely not by choice), it was clear that Pratchett himself was dealing with his own mortality right there on the page. Much like Mau, he had just been dealt an incredible loss – and has to cope with that loss, because life keeps going, and people are counting on him, and giving into despair simply cannot be an option. It’s brave, powerful stuff, and I still find myself inspired by the courage and humor that Pratchett displays every time I revisit this story.
Terry Pratchett’s work is a big part of my adulthood. His words, and his world, have shown me the power of responsibility, and how to find the funny in everything. He’s helped me meet some of my closest friends (not to mention the woman who married me), and he’s been the author I keep returning to, whether I’m feeling low and need a pick-me-up, or I’m doing great and want to see someone else out there smiling as well.
It’s a Discworld – I’m just living in it.