”My name is Terry Pratchett and I am the author of a very large number of inexplicably popular fantasy novels.
Contrary to popular belief, fantasy is not about making things up. The world is stuffed full of things. It is impossible to invent any more. No, the role of fantasy as defined by G. K. Chesterton is to take what is normal and everyday and usual and unregarded, and turn it around and show it to the audience from a different direction, so that they look at it once again with new eyes.”
Most people know Terry Pratchett as “that bloke with the hat who wrote those comedy fantasy books” and, generally speaking, if they’ve ever read a Discworld book then they’ve most likely picked up one of the early ones, probably thought it was all “a bit of a wheeze” and all, but nothing really life-changing, maybe even a bit too silly and old-fashioned, said to themselves well, I’ve tried Pratchett now, so I can get on with bigger and better things
, and promptly did just that. And that’s fair enough.
But, over the years, Pratchett’s writing evolved considerably, and the Discworld expanded into something bigger and so much better. The early novels are all fairly simplistic parodies of various aspects of the fantasy genre with a little bit of real-world satire thrown in for good measure to raise a knowing smile here and there, but as the Discworld grew into it’s own fully-fledged universe with its own well-defined continents, races, cities, heroes and villains and regular, everyday folk alongside all the witches and wizards, assassins, ponginae bibliothecus
, aging barbarians, anthropomorphic personifications (oh, and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, who deserves a distinct classification of his own) and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler’s Sausage inna bun ‘meat’ products, the parody and fantasy-lite
aspects gave way almost entirely to the satire, and the Discworld - now with it’s own established history, mythology and philosophy - became a magical, often ridiculous, but pretty much always right on the money, mirrored reflection of ourselves
And this is the reason why I love, and will always love, Terry Pratchett. Yes; he wrote about trolls and dwarves and zombies and golems amongst a myriad of other fantastical things, but it was all just an elaborate and cunning ruse to write about us - from gender and racial politics, to religion, war, extremism, old age, bureaucracy, vampires*, education, immigration, science, wonder, beauty, death… you get the idea. I think Sir Terry was a true philosopher at heart: he seemed to have it all figured out, seeing the world unfiltered, as it is, and could communicate this not only in a style that was uncomplicated and (at least seemed) so effortless, but with so much humour, style and heart
. I miss him terribly already**.
And it is with this thought that I’ll (finally) come to A Slip of the Keyboard
This was a difficult read for me at times. I think I may have picked it up too soon after Sir Terry’s death, in all honesty.
The first two parts are a collection of musings, essays, newspaper articles, lectures and speeches that Pratchett wrote for various occasions on a wide-ranging number of topics. Most are prefaced with a very brief comment by the author himself explaining the when’s/where’s/why’s of each piece. The vast majority are Classic Pratchett - by which I mean interesting, informative and (usually) rather amusing. Topics include: Sir Terry’s original childhood inspirations for becoming a fantasy writer; a defense of science fiction and fantasy; a diary of a signing tour in Australia; conventions; a piece about Neil Gaiman; hats!
; home life; fans; writing; Discworld; several acceptance speeches, plus a great deal more. There are some truly wonderful pieces, and you do get a real sense of the man behind the word processor. My only niggling complaint here is that there is some overlap between the contents of some of the speeches at times, which makes reading too many in one go become a wee bit of a déjà vu-like experience. It’s less a complaint about the contents of the pieces themselves and more of the way in which they’ve been ordered, I suppose.
The final part, entitled Days of Rage
, is of an entirely different tone. Here, we see another side to Pratchett - a collection of pieces written on topics that the author feels passionate enough about to give voice to his dissent in public: the state of the education system; the slow, lingering death of the National Health Service; the plight of the Orangutan in the face of the mass-deforestation of Borneo. But by far the hardest hitting pieces here are the ones written after Sir Terry was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease, in which he describes, often in painful detail, his increasing difficulties with everyday life. One piece moved me so profoundly that, after finishing it, I put the book down and couldn’t bring myself to pick it back up for about a week. Pratchett is very open about his experiences, from the frustration and humiliation of no longer being able to get underpants on the right way round on the first try, to the despair associated with the realisation that his ability to continue writing is severely impacted without external help. There’s no sense of self-pity, though: these pieces are fueled entirely by anger - anger aimed squarely at the disease - the disease which he so famously referred to as “the Embuggerance” on many occasions. Here in Britain, Sir Terry used that anger over the last few years of his life to campaign for increased awareness for sufferers of Alzheimer’s, along with providing his support for the Right to Die campaign for the terminally ill. The last two pieces of the book describe his visit to one of the Dignitas ‘assisted suicide’ facilities in Switzerland whilst making a documentary for the BBC, his experiences there meeting people undergoing the ‘treatment’, and a brief summary of the reactions of the public and press once the documentary aired.
A book of polar opposites, then: both fun and entertaining, yet also serious and deeply moving.
I can’t possibly conceive giving this book any less than five stars. A must-read for Terry Pratchett fans.
* Quite possibly not a real-world issue, but The National Enquirer
** There’s one finished book left to come, The Shepherd’s Crown
, which is a Tiffany Aching novel (arguably part of the best arc on the Disc), this September. I still don’t know if this news makes me deliriously happy or just really, really sad, knowing that it’s truly the very last one ever. /sadface