Reaper Man – Seeing Life Through Death’s Eyes

One of the great joys of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels has always been how life-affirming they are. Pratchett loved to remind readers of how amazing it is to be alive and encouraged us to make the most of it. That theme is at its strongest in Reaper Man.

Death Takes a Break

Reaper Man starts with a very Pratchett premise. The character of Death, the anthropomorphic embodiment of how all things pass, has been changing. He’s becoming more of a person. The powers that be are unsettled by this and so fire him. It’s a comical mix of grand fantasy and mundane bureaucracy.

Removed from office and given a limited lifespan of his own, Death goes to find a place for himself in the world. He settles down on a farm, takes up work as a field labourer, and makes friends with his employer and neighbours. The very thing he was fired for – becoming more human – becomes the focus of his existence.

Meanwhile, across the world, people are failing to die. Life energy is sloshing around, causing chaos. Nowhere is this more true than in the ever-chaotic city of Ankh-Morpork.

Finding His Humanity

The most emotionally engaging strand of this story is the one that most clearly hammers home Pratchett’s central theme – Death’s new life. While living on the farm, Death gets in touch with his humanity. He learns about the little routines that make up people’s lives. The work, the meals, the jokes, the rounds in the pub, even the pleasure of sleep.

Seeing the world through Death’s eyes, these things are made new and strange. The odd quirks of humanity come to the forefront and are revealed again with fresh eyes. Death gives us, as readers, the gift of seeing our lives anew, noticing how odd, beautiful, and joyful they can be.

He gives us a fresh perspective on ourselves.

Stopping for the Small Things

Death’s life also gives us reason to re-examine the way we live.

As he spends his suddenly limited time in the world, Death doesn’t just rush from one task to the next. Because everything is new and wonderful, he takes the time to enjoy it. We see him pausing over the little things, enjoying the moment even if it’s mundane.

It’s something we’re far better at valuing in principle than in practice. How often do you actually stop to enjoy a sunset, to gaze out at the countryside, to just take a deep breath and smell the coffee or the roses? It’s easy to feel as though, because life is limited, we should be making more use of that time, cramming more activity into every second. But when you do that, do you really get to experience the small pleasures? Or are you distracted by the fifty-seven other things you’re doing at once and the long list of tasks you feel you should do next?

Death can be an example to us, a reminder that it’s just as valid to stop and enjoy these moments. Life won’t fly away any faster for it, and in stopping for that moment, we get to truly appreciate what we’ve got.

The Glorious Variety of Human Life

Once you focus on that theme of enjoying life for what it is, the rest of the story gives us a different angle. The characters we meet in Ankh-Morpork are a reminder that humanity isn’t perfect, but that isn’t a reason not to appreciate it. From the bullish Mustrum Ridcully to the increasingly nervous Bursar to the eccentric medium Mrs. Cake, each contains a mixture of brilliant and exasperating characteristics. They are both flawed and wonderful. They’re fun to spend time around as a reader, and that’s a reminder that the people in our lives work the same way. None are perfect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop and appreciate the time we have with them.

Coming back to Reaper Man after Pratchett’s death, there’s an inevitable extra sadness to the story. But there’s a joy to it as well. The story reminds us to make the most of life and the people we share it with. If Pratchett lived the way his books call upon us to do, then it was a life well lived, his death the final full stop on a beautifully written story.

Let’s hope that Reaper Man can remind us to live the same way.

Not Every Fiction Should Be Immersive

Not the real me.

Returning to live roleplay (LRP) has me thinking about immersion in fiction.

Immersiveness hs been a hot issue in British LRP in recent years. Profound Decisions have focused on creating rich, well-executed worlds for players to lose themselves in. The results are spectacular, beautiful, sometimes powerful. Players really get away from reality for a while. New Pathways in Lycanthropy was a fantastic smaller game in this tradition.

The contrast with the Lorien Trust, who run Britain’s long-running festival system, is striking. In and out of character elements are mixed together everywhere, from plastic tents next to in character ones through to the highly visible burger vans at the in character marketplace. The ritual magic system, intentionally or not, encourages jokes that punch through the fourth wall.

Conversations about this focus on quality and effort. Even as someone who’s chosen LT over PD, I see PD’s games as of higher quality. The thought put into them is greater, the effort better directed. This inspires the creativity of their players, creating a rich collaboration. Just the look of the game is a cut above its rivals.

But there’s a related thing that I haven’t seen discussed. These games have very different relationships with reality. PD’s leading game, Empire, isn’t just better at escaping reality. It’s a game built around doing that. The designers have gone to great lengths to create something that doesn’t directly engage with our world.*

The Gathering, the LT’s game, is very different. It’s full of deliberate references to our world, rich with in-jokes at the expense of reality and of other works of fiction. It’s a messy referential free-for-all.

Once I noticed this, I couldn’t help notice parallels with other works of fiction. Terry Pratchett’s early books are full of direct digs at our world, not to mention footnotes that pull you out of the story. Later books focus on immersion, on living within the Discworld and making the comparisons once you step back.

This isn’t an on/off thing. There’s a spectrum of engagement between fictions and reality. Levels of immersion can result from this aesthetic choice as much as from the quality of the work.

At the moment, I’m still mulling this over. In as far as I’ve drawn any conclusion, it’s this – how deeply you’re immersed in a world isn’t just down to the skill with which it’s been created. A story can be skillfully woven and still have you dropping out of its world all the time if it’s deliberately reminding you of reality, referring back to it as part of the text. Of course, this often happens by accident rather than design. There may even be a correlation between these causes of lack of immersion. I haven’t thought about it that deeply yet. But there are two different things at play here.

What do you guys think? Do you object to being pushed out of a world by the way the story’s told? Do you like your texts self-referential? Are good works always immersive? Let me know what you think.



* Of course, on some level, all art reflects upon reality. You could get a lot from thinking about parallels between Empire and our world. But that’s a conversation for another day.

The Good Guy Hero

It’s not easy creating a straight up good hero. We like our heroes that bit more flawed and broken, a reminder of what it is to be truly human. A straight-up good hero usually comes across as unconvincing, cheesy and old-fashioned.

But on the rare occasions when they’re done right, these are some of the most likable characters out there. Think of Captain America. Think of Carrot in Terry Pratchett’s City Watch novels. They aren’t perfect, but their imperfections have an innocence about them. We don’t love them because they have a dark streak. We love them because even their faults are endearing.

The rarity with which this is done right shows just how hard such characters are to write. But they’re something worth looking for as a reader and worth striving towards as a writer. They lighten up even the darkest corners of our lives. They show that we can be flawed, as all humans are, without having to let the darkness in.

Out Now – In Memory: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett

“Words can change the world.” – Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters

If any one person proved to me just how powerful words can be, it was Sir Terry Pratchett. His stories have entertained and inspired me for decades. He shaped my moral view of the universe, and the way I tell stories. Right up to the end, he proved that you can live with both humour and serious purpose at the same time.

In Memory: A Tribute to Terry Pratchett is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy stories written to remember Pratchett, to celebrate his life and to raise funds for Alzheimer’s Research UK. If there could be a more fitting tribute to the man then I don’t know what it is. I’m delighted to live in a world where this is how people react to the tragedy of a beloved creator’s death.

I’m doubly delighted because my brother, Peter Knighton, has a story in the book. His ‘How Fell the Towers Three’ is a story about stories, memory and silly knights throwing food at each other. I enjoyed it a great deal, and it’s awesome to see another Knighton in print.

In Memory is out now on Amazon and Createspace. You can find all the links you need, along with more information about this fabulous project, through the book’s website. So if you like fantasy, humour, or just helping a good cause, please go give it a look.

Why is Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters Such an Enduring Favourite?

Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

Borrowing from Shakespeare – Sons of Anarchy and Wyrd Sisters

I don’t know if William Shakespeare really is the most influential writer in literary history. As someone who grew up Britain, it feels like it. And within my cultural experience, he’s certainly the writer that others lean on the most, borrowing openly from his work to make connections with an audience.

As both a reader and a writer, I find it interesting to look at two different ways in which creators approach this – by adopting the structure of Shakespeare’s plots, or by dressing up in their trappings.

Hamlet on Motorbikes – Sons of Anarchy

On its surface, the TV show Sons of Anarchy has a very modern plot. Its tale of a biker gang struggling against the unstoppable tide of change, full of drug deals, arms shipments and roaring engines, is as 21st century as you can get. But you don’t have to dig deep to see something older in there.

Especially in its early seasons, Sons of Anarchy was a full-on tribute to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in for good measure. The protagonist Jax is the son of the deceased John Teller, founding leader of the Sons of Anarchy motorbike gang, a gang who rule their local community in a thoroughly medieval manner. His mother Gemma is married to the current leader of the gang, who was responsible for John’s death, while John’s diaries fill in the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The Macbeth angle comes from Gemma, egging her husband on to ever darker deeds in the name of ambition.

Using these familiar roles and conflicts gives the show a sense of depth and darkness. Hamlet and Macbeth are both classics for a reason – they presented characters who were deeply troubling and yet deeply convincing. They turned familiar relationships, particularly family relationship, on their head. This is unsettling and yet fascinating to watch. How will Hamlet/Jax tackle the contradiction between familial love and a quest for vengeance? Will Lady Macbeth/Gemma ever face the consequences of her own ruinous actions?

Sons of Anarchy borrows its structure from Shakespeare, and makes some open nods to that source, but it doesn’t wear the outward trappings of the bard’s plays. For that, we can look at a very different story.

Macbeth Made Funny – Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters was one of Pratchett’s early Discworld books – not the first few unrefined works, but the ones where he was getting into his stride as a humourist, a humanist and a storyteller. It’s the story of three witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – as they come into conflict with a king who has, Macbeth-style, murdered his predecessor to take the throne. Where Sons of Anarchy is dark and brooding, Wyrd Sisters is funny and often light-hearted, though with a serious sense of justice at its core.

Again, the two main Shakespearean influences on display are Hamlet and Macbeth. We get the royal usurpers, one of whom can’t get the blood from his hands; the victim’s ghost seeking justice, as in both plays; the witches of Macbeth‘s most-quoted scene; the use of a play to bring out the truth as in Hamlet; and many more little references. But the underlying plot twists and inverts Shakespeare rather than following his beats. The references are there to provide humour rather than depth, and to let Pratchett make a point about who we see as heroes.

Different Approaches, Different Uses

These different ways of borrowing from Shakespeare clearly have different uses. The Sons of Anarchy approach works whether or not your audience know the plays. In fact not knowing them may help – a friend of mine was put off by the show’s knowing winks toward its sources. While Wyrd Sisters works as a story whether or not you know your Shakespeare, the references to the bard have no value if you don’t. They are jokes about Shakespeare, rather than a drama told using his tools.

So if you’re thinking of using Shakespeare in your writing, which approach will work best? That depends on what effect you’re after.

Borrowing the trappings Pratchett-style lets you share jokes with readers who know Shakespeare – which is probably most readers, to some extent at least. It creates a bond between you and those readers, lets them feel smart for being in on the jokes, but can disruptive immersion in the story by reminding you that it is a story in a long line of stories. It works best for humour.

Borrowing the plot Sons of Anarchy-style lets you borrow the darkness that oozes from Shakespeare’s dramatic works. It can help to create something thoroughly immersive, though it creates a risk that the audience will realise the connection partway through, again disrupting the experience.

Borrowing from any source has its uses and its risks. But when the source is as good as Shakespeare, his popularity adds to the potential for triumph or disaster.

Do you have any opinions on who has borrowed well or badly from Shakespeare, or from other sources? Have you tried it in your own writing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Fond Memories and Forgotten Ideals – Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

With the sad passing last week of Terry Pratchett, I felt an overpowering urge to re-read one of his books, both for comfort and as an act of remembrance. I chose a book that is not among his most celebrated works, but is one of my personal favourites. And in it, I found a reminder of what made Pratchett so great.

Only You Can Save Mankind

Only You Can Save Mankind is the first of Pratchett’s novels about Johnny Maxwell, a relatively ordinary twelve-year-old living in a rather ordinary English town. Johnny’s life is a mundane one of hanging out with his friends and playing computer games, given a deep vein of sadness by the ongoing collapse of his parents’ marriage.

Things change one day when the ScreeWee, the alien enemies in his computer game, ask to surrender to him. They want to go home in peace, and only Johnny will listen to them. With other players still frantically trying to kill the ScreeWee, it’s up to Johnny to save the aliens. Or, as the ship’s translator would have it, to save mankind.

A Subtle Sadness

Despite its silly central concept, the pervading tone of Only You Can Save Mankind is one of sadness. Johnny’s home life is falling apart, leaving him neglected. The ScreeWee, forced into endless warfare, just want to return home in peace. Johnny and his small group of friends are socially ostracised, brought together in part by the loneliness each feels within their own family setting. Bigmac in particular is shown to be a product of Britain’s neglected urban estates and a family that doesn’t know how to care.

All of this is depicted with deftness and subtlety. Though it’s clear from early in the book that Johnny’s parents’ marriage is falling apart, and that this is taking a huge emotional toll on Johnny, we aren’t told this directly. In as far as he understands his circumstances he is also trying to not address them directly, to avoid that disruption and sorrow. But the things we are shown about his life make all this clear without Johnny having to understand it. It is simply and beautiful written.

Humanism and Pacifism

This sadness, like so much else in the book, is a demonstration of Pratchett’s humanism and his incredible ability to explore the human experience. In Only You Can Save Mankind, that humanist eye is turned upon the experience of war and the ‘them and us’ mentality that allows it to take place.

Johnny’s own experience with the ScreeWee war is paralleled by the First Gulf War, portrayed in the news in the background of the story. It leads Johnny to raise such innocent yet insightful questions as ‘how can we be the good guys if we’re dropping smart bombs down people’s chimneys?’ Like much of Pratchett’s work, the book doesn’t say that there are easy answers, and by the end of the book Johnny’s non-violent ideals are tested to the limit. But it’s a book that challenges the value and righteousness of military action, that suggests that violence might not really be the solution to any problem.

What This Book Means to Me

One of the reasons I chose to re-read this book is that it’s one of my very few books signed by an author. The copy sat in my lap as I type this is a copy once handled by the great Pratchett himself, given to me by my aunt and uncle for Christmas 1992, the year the book was released. In the front, beneath the title Only You Can Save Mankind, is written in the author’s own hand: ‘To Andrew, If not you, who else? T Pratchett’.

That signed page is not only my strongest physical connection to one of my favourite authors. It is also an intellectual and emotional connection, a reminder of why Pratchett has long been such an inspiring figure to me. Even in a book filled with sadness, the fundamental message is an optimistic one. We can make our own fates. Humanity can save itself, and it is worth saving. We have responsibility for our own lives, and the opportunity to use them well. All of this, themes Pratchett raised again and again in his fiction, is expressed in that pairing of the book’s title and a quote from within it.

Only you can save mankind. If not you, who else?

This book also hit me in a very personal way. Like Johnny, I was twelve years old at the time of the First Gulf War, and saw it play out on the news. I faced the same challenges as him in making sense of what was going on, feeling that these distant, terrible events and the attitude many people took to them weren’t right. People were dying in an inglorious war over oil and ego, while news media turned it into a computer game-style pageant.

In retrospect, I had more in common with Johnny than I realised. It would be ten more years before my parents separated, but by the time I read this book their marriage had fallen into silence and the slow death of love. It’s no wonder that Johnny’s ‘trying times’ hit me so hard, even if I couldn’t recognise their relevance.

Over time, I lost the idealism that the book displayed, the belief that I could and should take control of my own destiny. Though I’ve found that again, it’s been a rough ride, and re-reading this book was a reminder of that.

Even without that personal relationship, this would be a book worth reading. It’s simply and beautifully told, with a message of hope in humanity despite its cynicism about our baser instincts. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading it.

So thank you, Sir Terry, for this and many other inspiring books. Your body may have stopped, but the wonder and inspiration of your stories live on.

All Good Wizards Go To College

Universities have lots of potential as settings and sources of characters for stories. Anybody who’s spent time in one and seen the range of fascinating people in academia will vouch for that point. And this week I wrote a guest post for fellow writer JH Mae on this subject…

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university
Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

All Good Wizards Go To College

Given how many authors have been through university, and how many geeky interests are fostered by social networks there, it’s hardly surprising that universities turn up in science fiction and fantasy. They’re a great source of characters, who then provide the drive for plot, but could we be doing more with them?

The Faculty

Let’s start with university staff, in particular the academics. I could write a whole other post on the staff who are missing from fiction but keep a university running – the cleaners, administrators, technicians, etc. But let’s focus on what we’ve got, and that’s academics.

Fictional academics seem to fall into two types, which are sometimes combined.

First there are the wild exaggerations, as seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Who doesn’t love the PE-teacher-esque hunting and shooting stereotype of Unseen University’s Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully? Or the quietly erratic Bursar? Or the over-enthusiastic Ponder Stibbons? These caricatures of scholarship and of attitudes to learning provide humour and conflict.

Then there are academics as experts. Where the exaggerated academics are prone to causing the problems, the expert academics provide solutions, and sometimes info-dumps. Between lectures and answering questions, they can give heroes and audiences the answers they need to face the big bad. And when the academics are the protagonists, as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, their competence in their field makes them likeable, interesting and able to make a difference…


For the full article please hop over to JH Mae’s blog. If you come back on Tuesday then you can read a post from JH, on the subject of fiction and the weird. And if you’re after some academically inclined fantasy then my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus features an academic hunting knowledge in a most unusual library and is available through Amazon and Smashwords, still just 99c until the end of this weekend.

Everything you need to know about Britain, as taught by sf+f

Britain’s a funny old place. Lets face it, guidebooks can never quite capture the essence of a nation that gave us both Bilbo Baggins and the Rolling Stones. Fortunately our rich tradition of making stuff up, aka science fiction and fantasy, can help out.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall‘s daughter will be learning about Britain first hand later this year when she travels to Swansea, a town some of my readers are very familiar with. So to help her out here are a few valuable lessons on Britain, as shown by science fiction and fantasy.

Queueing matters

I know that in some other countries getting what you want is a mad scrum to get to the front. She who shouts loudest or pushes hardest gets her way.

Yes United States, I’m looking at you. Don’t try to hide behind Canada, even if they’re too polite to give you away.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back - these chaps know how to behave.
No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back – these chaps know how to behave.

In this country we are far too polite for that (sidenote: studies from the Centre for Made Up Statistics show that 63% of British politeness is just a cover for repression – more on that later). The cybermen may be brutal villains hell bent on destroying humanity, but at least they know how to wait their turn in line. Get out of line around cybermen and they will destroy you. Real Britains will politely dream about it, and then provide you with poor service and a look of disdain. Don’t take that chance.

Food = happiness

Sam cookingIs there any more British hero than Sam from Lord of the Rings? Diligent, home-loving, unsure of himself. And what does Sam do whenever he wants to cheer people up? He cooks.

The British love of a cuppa is well known, but it goes beyond that. Look at our traditional national cuisine – Yorkshire puddings, teacakes, milky tea, boiled potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. Some people might call it joyless and unexciting, but it’s really the opposite – it’s a sign of how much we love our food, that we can find comfort in it no matter what. That’s what makes Sam such a big damn hero – halfway up Mount Doom he’s still putting on the kettle and reaching for the breadknife.

Scepticism is not just healthy, it’s compulsory

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?
How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

We may be polite but that doesn’t mean we blankly accept whatever we’re told. Remember, we chopped our king’s head off long before other countries got in on the act.

That’s right revolutionary France, I see you jumping on our bandwagon.

Scepticism is the bedrock of the British mindset. It can be about authority, about ideas, even about whether this nice weather will last (it won’t, this is Britain). And it’s embodied in the works of one of finest fantasy authors, the amazing Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s characters and the plots of his books challenge accepted ideas and authorities. They show that scepticism of which we’re so proud.

Though we do look askance at anyone who gets too proud.

Repression is so last century

Not as polite as they look.
Not as polite as they look.

All of this might leave you thinking that Britain is still the stiff upper lipped land of the Victorian age. But if you want to see modern Britain, and just how foul-mouthed and sneering that upper lip has become, then you should check out Misfits. The show about young people who develop super powers while on community service is full of imaginatively foul language and the worst sort of behaviour. Because after years of repression Britain is finally pulling out of the nineteenth century and the results are… lets call them messy.

Modern Britain has learned that it can get away with swearing in public, consuming drugs other than a nice cup of Assam, and loudly screaming its scepticism in the face of authority. We’re changing, which is not all good and not all bad, and as always science fiction and fantasy are there to show the world what it means to be British.

So anyway, that’s my guide to Britain, as shown by our science fiction and fantasy. Fellow Brits, add your opinions in the comments – what lessons have I missed? And those of you further afield, what have you learned about Britain from our national nerd culture? Or what would you like the rest of us to explain?

Reading Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam

Reading Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, has been a surprisingly emotional experience. Setting aside the quality of the book, which I’ll come to in a moment, it made me realise how much of a hero Pratchett is to me, and how hard it is to have mixed feelings about our real life heroes.

Raising Steam

Raising Steam is the 40th of Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Like several recent Discworld stories, it’s about characters facing the march of progress. Steam trains are coming to the Discworld, just as modernity is sending ripples through the ancient culture of the dwarfs. One of these changes leads to excitement and delight, the other to resistance and civil conflict. But Moist Von Lipwig, sometime conman and now a big mover in the city of Ankh-Morpork, has the task of managing these changes, or at least their practicalities. It’s either that or back to the hangman’s noose…

The march of progress

Progress might seem impersonal at times, but the reactions of the Discworld characters are very personal. Dark clerk Drumknot becomes a train enthusiast. Lord Vetinari sees a problem to solve and a tool to achieve it. The conservative dwarf grags see their traditions being undermined by outsiders. Simnel just sees the thing he is building.

In a similar way, our reactions to Pratchett’s ever-evolving writing style are very personal. I suspect that they’re primarily shaped by which of his books we started with.

I started reading Discworld when there were less than a dozen books. My attention was grabbed by Pyramids, Guards! Guards! and Small Gods. As this world grew deeper and richer, and Pratchett’s philosophising more central, I was absolutely sucked in. But somewhere after the twentieth book he started drifting away from the things that I’d loved. There were less laugh-out-loud moments, more direct focus on adventure and social commentary. Those were good things but the balance wasn’t what I wanted any more.

The stories that once made me laugh out loud now made me think, and as a British lefty who had now grown past his teens, the thoughts weren’t terribly new. I know people who’ve come to  his work later and consider his recent works the height of Pratchett brilliance. But me, I seem to be turning into something of a grag, and for a while I’ve been dwelling on the flaws in the Discworld.

Raising problems

Now we come to Raising Steam, and it’s not just age that is shaping my view. I have experience as a writer that I didn’t before, a knowledge of plot and structure that colours the way I read, that allows me to dissect the things I find problematic. Because readable as it is – Pratchett’s prose is still light and easy to absorb without becoming completely weightless – there are a lot of problems with this book.

I don’t want to dwell too long on any of this, because it breaks my heart to say it, but the plot is a damp squib. The characters are never really challenged, overcoming their problems too easily and without any risk of consequence. The initial promise, of a story about the development of the railroad, leads to a payoff that’s actually about the politics of the dwarfs. While the two have thematic connections, this still means that the book’s end doesn’t match its initial promise, which is deeply unsatisfying. Progress happens because its time has come, not through human effort and struggle, and this sort of pre-destined progress really gets my back up, robbing characters of their agency.

There’s also a problem with the dialogue, and it’s not just Simnel’s Yorkshire accent. Many characters have many great lines of dialogue. The problem is that they’ll deliver six of these great lines at once, turning snappy one-liners into speeches, becoming repetitive, slowing the pace and sucking the sense of action from a scene. It’s a real lesson in less is more – on their own these lines would have been classic quotable Pratchett, bundled together they’re a weight dragging the story down.

Keep reading Pratchett!

As I said, I’ve been finding this post hard to write. Pratchett is a huge hero of mine. An inspiring writer of dozens of books who has helped to popularise fantasy. A campaigner for the safety of orangutans, one of the most distinctive of the apes I so love. A man who is publicly battling to live in dignity as his mind gives way, risking public exposure to raise awareness of mental health issues. The man is an absolute legend. If the fantasy community can have national treasures then he is one.

And just as change has, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, affected both Pratchett and his Discworld, so I’ve changed as a reader. I can now do what I couldn’t a decade ago. I can live with the mixed feelings I have, not needing to hold the writer and his works up on a pedestal or to cast them aside.

Please, go out and read something from Pratchett’s Discworld. Read Wyrd Sisters or Pyramids or Guards! Guards!, or anything from about book six through to book 20. If you like those then read the rest. Even on an off day, Pratchett’s usually one of the better writers out there. He is worth your time and worth your admiration.

Just save Raising Steam until last. And when you get there remember that you’re reading for what’s come before, not for this story. Because progress is inevitable, and it can be great, but it isn’t always kind.

This book may not be great, but Terry Pratchett is. Sir Terry, I salute you!