Yesterday Michaeline wrote about the death of Sir Terry Pratchett. Like Micki, I’ve been a fan of his books for a very long time (more than thirty years), and I wasn’t ready to change the subject. We took time yesterday to say goodbye to the man, so today I’d like to celebrate his legacy and try to pinpoint why I’ll be reading his books until it’s my turn to type The End.
I saw the sad news last Thursday night. I was at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, stretching my legs during the interval of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Kurt Weill’s political and satirical opera with libretto by Bertolt Brecht. I was playing with my phone because the alternative was to ruminate on the piece’s dispiriting worldview about the ugliness of human nature when let loose in an unbridled capitalist society. Even as I read Sir Terry’s brilliant three-tweet farewell and wiped my eyes, I gave thanks for the seventy-something wonderful books he left us and most of all for the renewed sense of optimism about our stupid, screwed-up world that I feel every time I read one.
In the early days, I enjoyed the intelligence and humor of the Discworld books, but I thought of them simply as a fun read with engaging characters, lots of great jokes and read-aloud lines. I kept buying them, and as the stories got more thought-provoking, with some very sharp observations about the idiocies committed by our species wrapped in a sparkling coat of funny, I was dazzled and hooked. Michaeline said yesterday that the big ideas in Small Gods blew her away and changed her world. For me, the book that dug its hooks deep in me was Guards! Guards!, the eighth Discworld novel, and the first about the Anhk-Morpork City Watch.
I’m not sure whether Guards! Guards! is my favorite Discworld book; I have a dozen favorites, maybe more. What I am sure about is that Sam Vimes, the captain in charge of the Night Watch, is my absolute favorite Pratchett character. Vimes is hard-drinking, one step short of washed-up, an almost-but-not-quite disillusioned idealist who knows and loves every inch of his hilariously dysfunctional city. He’s in charge of a classic pair of ineffectual coppers, one cynical, the other corrupt, and his force is a standing joke until the arrival of new recruit Carrot, a human raised by dwarves, changes everything. Carrot is heroically built, breathtakingly naïve, an innocent abroad whose unshakeable, near-suicidal belief in the rule of law inspires Vimes to put the bottle down and turn his motley crew into a real force for good.
I care about Vimes because he cares so much. He’s jaded and down-trodden. He has an attitude problem; a chip on his shoulder that makes him perfectly unsuited to deal with the political games played by the power-brokers and blue-bloods of the city. Vimes cares about the little people, and injustice makes him very, very angry. His inability to do anything about the injustice he sees burns him to the soul, but as his ramshackle team improbably starts to make a difference, he walks taller. One of the deep joys of the Discworld series for me has been watching the rise and rise of Vimes, much against his own will and to the horror of Ankh-Morpork high society.
Vimes epitomizes the quality I love most about Terry Pratchett’s books. I’m always dazzled by the world-building, the brilliant examination of everything from university life, city politics, class structure, business, economics, religion, you name it, but the reason I come back again and again to these stories – and always will – is because they are stories about the triumph of ordinary, flawed individuals who try to do the right thing and keep on trying despite living in a world that doesn’t seem to value or reward their effort.
To tell this kind of uplifting story with wit and intelligence without ever descending into theme-mongering, and always with a generosity of spirit – there’s no sniping or meanness, never a cheap shot – is awe-inspiring. To sustain it over more than thirty years is the work of genius.
Sir Terry is no longer with us, but I hope with all my heart that his books continue to be read for a very, very long time.
If it’s not Guards! Guards!, my usual go-to choices are Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Thief of Time, Night Watch, and Going Postal. This year, I plan to re-read the entire Discworld series to see what other great stuff I’ve forgotten.
Are you a Pratchett fan? What’s your story?