tirsdag 28. april 2015

Death meets his maker

Today is Creator's day, the birthday of Terry Pratchett, who would have turned 67, had Death not led him away on March 12. It seems like a good time to republish the English translation of my obituary, originally written for Fri tanke, the web magazine of my employer.  

Death meets his maker
In memory of Sir Terry Pratchett

A quarter of a century ago a friend introduced me to a fantastic and fascinating world. He also recruited me to take over his job in the Norwegian skeptics organization. Which meant that I got to work in the same house as the Norwegian Humanist Association. And in ways that still amaze me, I stumbled into the job as editor of their membership magazine – the start of a life as a professional humanist.

The fantastic and fascinating world I have in mind isn’t the hallways of the Humanist House, though. It is one where I met a librarian that by accident became an orangutan – and refuses to become human again. (It is quite practical to be able to climb all the way up to the top shelf. And it’s rather nice to have traded the existential dread of humans for a craving for bananas.) And I met Rincewind, the world’s most useless wizard; who in spite of that (or perhaps because of it), ends up solving problems created by far more competent wizards. And Lord Vetinari, whose pragmatic approach to power and its uses doesn’t quite live up to our democratic ideals. But who still, somehow, makes Ankh Morpork, the biggest city on the Discworld, work.

This is the literary world of Terry Pratchett. It is disc shaped, and travels through space on the back of four elephants standing of the back of the giant turtle A'tuin. (Sex still uncertain.)

A core of steel

The first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1983, and is first and foremost a good hearted parody of fantasy literature. When Pratchett died a week ago at the age of sixty six, the counter stood at forty. The forty-first, The Shepherd’s Crown, is due this summer. With other books, collaborations and spin-offs included, the number is somewhere around seventy.

Over the years the books moved away from the parodic, towards novels standing securely on their own narrative feet. Though still with a large serving of the humorous – Pratchett rarely let a chance for a bad pun get away. He had an endless supply of the fantastic. His book are full to the brim of ideas, witticisms and absurdities.

But despite their humorous and fantastical exterior, the books have a core of cold and sometimes merciless steel. Because more than anything, Pratchett was a man that saw the human animal in all its remarkable foolishness. It could have gone wrong. He was at times dangerously close to misanthropy; though a merry misanthropy, where humans are more ridiculous than despicable. What saved him was the same thing that over the years made him a better and better depicter of the humanity of humans: His humanism.

Stories about us

For a couple of decades Pratchett was a dedicated member of the British Humanist Association, who in 2013 named him Humanist of the year. He was a keen promoter of humanism in schools and a profiled campaigner for the right to die. For the last years of his life this went hand in hand with spreading knowledge about and promoting research into the disease that finally took his life: Alzheimer’s.

Pratchett wrote unashamed fantasy books – populated to the brim with vampires, werewolves, dwarves, trolls, golems, witches and wizards. The magic flows through his universe – it even has its own colour: octarine. But everything he wrote is at heart about us, about humans; about our weaknesses, our problems, our vanity and our self-deception. The heart of Pratchett’s humanism was that he saw all this, and still liked us. He appreciated our humanity, not in spite of our weaknesses, but because of them.

Strength, courage, shrewdness and wisdom are great stuff, but they are exceptions, rather than the rule. And that is OK. We are strange, storytelling animals, who continuously create stories to make sense of the maelstrom of impressions that is the world. It has to be like that. It is what it is to be human.

The astonishing fantasy

Pratchett’s books differ fundamentally from many of the cornerstones of fantasy literature, in that the logic of his stories is rooted in our oh, so human world. In 2001 he was awarded the prestigious Carnegie medal for The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, a children’s book that culminates in a tribute to the long-winded democratic strife, with people (and rats) that work together, day by day, to make the world a slightly better place.

In his acceptance speech he declared, with a fairly obvious reference to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

«Fantasy is more than wizards. For instance, this book is about rats that are intelligent. But it is also about the even more fantastic idea that humans are capable of intelligence as well. Far more beguiling than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that evil can be defused by talking. The fantasy of justice is more interesting that the fantasy of fairies, and more truly fantastic. In the book the rats go to war, which is, I hope, gripping. But then they make peace, which is astonishing.»

We’re only humans, Pratchett told us, fallible, silly and self-absorbed. But we have no-one else to help us out. There are gods in his universe, but they are so hopeless, incompetent and volatile (they are, after all, created in our image) that you can’t leave things to them. If anything is to be done, it’s up to us. As scary as that thought may be.

A serious humorist

Pratchett was a humorous writer, in the tradition from PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. He used humour as a literary device, but also took pleasure in being funny simply for the fun of it. (“Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life.”) We have a tendency to belittle humorous writers as simply humorous, as we have a tendency to belittle fantasy literature as simply a game. As Pratchett said in his Carnegie speech:

«The problem is that we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. In fact, as GK Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious is not serious. Benny Hill was funny and not serious; Rory Bremner is funny and serious; most politicians are serious but, unfortunately, not funny. Humour has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole while seriousness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge.»

Meeting Death

From the time he got his diagnosis back in 2007, Pratchett was open about what it was and where it was going. But then again he never was one to suppress death. Death – Death that is, with a capital D – is the character that shows up in the most Discworld books. He is a nice, thorough and quite meticulous gentleman, with as stiff a smile as is to be expected from a skeleton. He likes cats, and has a strong wish to make his realm cozy, with flowers and knick-knacks.

He doesn’t quite make it work. He is, for instance, not that good at colours, so it’s all in black and white. But he tries. He might not be human, but he is something that was just at important for Pratchett. He is humane.

Pratchett’s Death spoke in capital letters. And he had the honour of being the one to announce the death of his maker. The three last tweets on Pratchett’s Twitter account was a literary farewell to the master. And a story in itself.


Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.»


Thanks to Oda, Nina and James for help with the translation. The turtle moves forever.

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