Terry Pratchett and common humanity

Terry Pratchett, dead at 66, was a humanist, in the best and widest sense. It is impossible to read him without getting a sense of his huge compassion, a deep understanding and acceptance of people in all their flaws, petty and huge. I think it may be this that made his passing a source of active grief to so many. People wept. I wept. I sat on the bed with Reaper Man, and read the scene where Death begs a little more time for Miss Flitwick, and cried big, snotty, ugly tears, because I didn’t want him to be gone. (Or, more specifically, because I wanted him not to have had Alzheimer’s, not to have had his mind taken from him so cruelly early, to be alive and well.)

‘Compassion’ is one of those words. Terry Pratchett was not a twinkly jolly kindly uncle, nor was he a flaccid liberal. The body count in his books is high. There is retribution. Death comes with a sword as well as a scythe. It’s fantasy, and the heroes kill monsters, but the monsters are not dragons and trolls; they are us. He loathed the idea of meaningless forgiveness and the ‘can’t we all just get along?’ school of argument. Hogfather, his great attack on shallow sentimentality (“Real children do not go hoppity skip unless they are on drugs”), skewers this perfectly, with its well-meaning department store display of Dolls of All Nations playing the song ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Everyone Was Nice’.

Pratchett’s compassion was not sentimental: it was fierce, and angry, and uncompromising. But it was still compassion, and not the ‘compassion’ offered by some religions which entails torturing people for their own good. (Small Gods is a roar of rage against that.) He offered a clear-sighted look at humanity, and an intense belief in our capacity for good as well as evil. This line from Reaper Man says everything. (Death speaks in capitals, incidentally, and without quotation marks.)

THERE IS NO HOPE BUT US. THERE IS NO MERCY BUT US. THERE IS NO JUSTICE. THERE IS JUST US.

That is humanism: accepting the moral responsibility for ourselves because there’s nobody else to give it to us, and knowing that if we don’t take that responsibility, if we don’t provide the hope and mercy, and the justice as well, our night will be long and dark indeed.

I believe in freedom. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.

(Going Postal)

I grew up reading Pratchett, from his early fantasy parodies, watching him mature into not just a deeply wise thinker, but a superb stylist. As a genre writer, I am prickly about the dismissiveness with which genre is treated, the relentless belittling of I don’t read that stuff and Why would you write that rubbish. Pratchett is one of the great writers who show precisely what genre can do, that it can be as well written and say as much as any kind of writing. It took a very long time for him to get critical as well as popular recognition for his skill, in part because he wrote not just fantasy but comic fantasy, of all the low-status things. (Some people apparently don’t understand that any half-arser can throw in terrible human suffering to give their book Deep Meaning, whereas it’s actually hard to write a good joke.)

He used his world of swords and sorcery, silly names and funny gods, to say so much, as well as so cleverly. He filled his books with so many good jokes that you’re still spotting new ones on the tenth reading. (There are two rival clans in his fantasy city, the Selachii and the Venturi. Look up selachii. Know that ‘venturi’ is an air flow, or jet. Kick yourself.) At his best he wrote with magnificent wit and precision, with his narrative description as compelling as his action scenes. He was passionately committed to the value of laughter and the value of imagination.

HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

(Hogfather)

We have lost a great man and a great writer. Yesterday his legacy was visible: so many people exchanging quotes, naming favourite books, glorying in his work. Tomorrow I hope his legacy will be every genre writer writing with pride, as well as she possibly can, and every one of the millions who read his books remembering what he had to say about imagination, and laughter, and compassion. And, most of all, about facing up to our duties to one another, not just to ourselves.

As it happens, this week in romance was distinguished by some fairly crappy stuff. An article in the official publication of Romance Writers of America recommended that authors could avoid losing sales by remaining ‘neutral’ on ‘polarising’ subjects such as equal rights for LGBT people and racist police brutality. (Not in those words, needless to say. Summary here.) This was along with a particularly disgusting business of authors making 50 Shades jokes about the rape of a 14-year-old black slave, and a flurry of defence in which people literally tried to explain away the problems inherent in turning the actual life of an enslaved woman into either a romance or a BSDM fantasy, for God’s sake, what the hell is wrong with you?

Well, Terry Pratchett knew what the hell was wrong with you, and here it is, in a comic fantasy about vampires, during a conversation between people with silly names.

” […] sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that–”

“No it ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things.”

(Carpe Jugulum)

Rest in peace, Terry Pratchett. I leave you with a quote from Sourcery that means everything to me, as romance author:

“And what would humans be without love?”

RARE, said Death.

______________________________

If you have not read Terry Pratchett, don’t start from the beginning. Go for Reaper Man, Hogfather, Thief of Time, The Truth or Going Postal, all of which work standalone. Then go back and start the Guards sequence from Guards, Guards! and the Witches sequence from Wyrd Sisters. Then read all the other ones.

Comments about Terry Pratchett, shared quotes and memories and requests for recommendations, are very welcome.

Comments defending the slave book, or any other aspects of the associated row, will get you kicked off here so hard you’ll bounce.

______________________________

KJ Charles is a freelance editor and writer. Her most recent release is Jackdaw, published by Samhain. Think of England  won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

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28 thoughts on “Terry Pratchett and common humanity

  1. One of my son’s friends was lucky enough to have an aunt who took a book to be signed by Sir Terry. When told it was for the teenage boy’s birthday, he thought a second and wrote, ‘Happy Bloody Birthday!’

    Luggage, The Librarian, & Scraps have all brightened my days but Sam Vimes and Esme Weatherwax said things to live by. I had a weep too about losing their creator.

    Thanks for putting into words a lot of what I felt yesterday…..and the Esme Weatherwax quote which should be blazoned outside the House of Commons.

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  2. When I got the post in my facebook feed that he had died, I got a strange, hollow feeling in my chest. A few hours later, I was browsing all his brilliant quotes and crying.

    Thank you for this wonderful post, that hits the nail on so many points that I would never have been able to formulate. Pratchett’s books are a gift, a wonderful well of wisdom and laughter and humanity. And all the quotes!

    Small Gods used to be my favourite, but I haven’t read it in a while, and then I love the books about the Watch. But really, there is no Discworld book that I don’t like.

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  3. Nice piece. Though isn’t it ‘Vetinari’ (or maybe Vetinari as well. Just don’t recall Venturi). Either way I’ve always equated it with ‘veterinary’, i.e. dealing with the (human variety of ) animals.

    FWIW I would give pretty much the whole of Barnes, McEwan et al for one line of Nightwatch.

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    • Vetinari is the Patrician, who keeps the animals healthy, yes. 🙂 The Venturi are the family, just a minor background thing, and actually I wondered for years why Pratchett had used two such similar names because it seemed unusually clumsy. And then I got it.

      Couldn’t agree more on Barnes and the rest.

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  4. So many of my books are packed away at the moment so I’m just roughly remembering how in Reaperman Death reaps the corn one stalk at a time, and in Nation that paragraph at the end of the first chapter about water and stars. Also Greebo because I’m shallow.

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  5. That quote about sin has stuck with me ever since I read it. I passed it on to my mother who passed it on to her parish priest, and he, I believe, made a Sunday sermon about it. Pratchett was a gem. Philosopher, humanist, and excellent at slicing right to the heart of matters in a few pithy sentences. Thank you for this column!

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  6. When I was younger, Discworld literally (heh) saved my life. I’m bipolar. When I get really bad, I self-medicate with books. (It’s harder to hurt yourself while you’re holding a book, and if the book is good it covers your own thoughts over with something less toxic. It’s also hard to make it to classes and whatnot when you are reading 20 hours a day, but at least you aren’t dead.)

    I couldn’t afford that many books, so I was so, so lucky to stumble into Discworld. I re-read them constantly, in a constant chain – finish one and start another, finish the series as it stood then and start over. It was, as you described, that underlying compassion that I needed. Not fluffy goodness, not the lie of nice, but messy, complicated humanity … and compassion.

    Crap. I’m crying again.

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  7. Thank you for that lovely post. It’s wonderful how there is so much discussion and so much celebration. There are so many books, so many moments and so many quotes I love but for this moment, I think Elin Gregory’s on her fb status was the one that hit me. All the little angels rise up, rise up. All the little angels rise up high. And I’m sure he’s rising up, and is probably going to be stirring things up on the other side very soon.

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  8. Compassionate is definitely one of the words that most fits him. He was a satirist, but a gentle one, who was forgiving of the fact that humans are weak and scared. He was hardest on the people who deserve the hardest scrutiny. The Truth is one of my favourites, and it’s a great examination of privilege both examined and unexamined. With a talking dog.

    Reply
      • “That nobody is ‘right’ everyone’s position is flawed.” Wise word indeed!

        And what a lovely tribute to a great writer and humanist! I remember crying my eyes when the news broke that Terry Pratchett had been stricken with the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Probably because my Mum-in-law was nearing the end of her 12 year battle with this horrible disease. RIP Mr. Pratchett.

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  9. A joke I think he would laugh at: for an avowed atheist he shaped a lot if my spiritual practice. I learned as much about witchcraft and parenting (they’re kind of the same) from Prachett as I ever did from Starhawk and other pagan writers.

    I had the great privilege to meet him at a convention. I poured him rum punch, he congratulated me on my first book (which is what the party with the punch was for). And he recognized me the next morning as I was taking down the posters. When I told him security had shut us down, he confided that the measure of a successful con party was how quickly security shut it down. Made my convention.

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  10. Haha, just came across this post and it made me feel sad all over again. Terry Pratchett was the author of my teenage years – I read so many books by him in high school. It’s so sad that he had to go like that.

    I’m still in the middle of Raising Steam, and it’s a depressing book to read. His voice comes through so clearly and so recognizably at times, and then it falters and doesn’t sound like him at all. 😦

    Reply
    • It really is. It’s so…obvious, so basic in the plotting. Lumpen. I just reread Wyrd Sisters and marvelled all over again at the ingenuity and sparkle of it. But with the last books, Unseen Academicals onward, it’s bitterly sad.

      Reply

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