Monday, January 07, 2008

[Author Spotlight] Terry Pratchett

In mid-December, Terry Pratchett announced that he has a rare form of Alzheimer’s. He's staying optimistic that he will be able to fulfill his public appearances and book obligations for several more years and in typical Pratchett style, reminded his readers that he would like to keep things positive and that he's "not dead."

Pratchett is one of my favorite authors. I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet him last March at Mid-South Con, the local science-fiction and fantasy convention. He does not often get to attend fan gatherings in the United States since he lives in England. He was very friendly and quick to smile, autograph a book, or pose for a picture with fans. At a panel, he mentioned that health issues may restrict his ability to travel in the future, but he was very hopeful to continue writing.

His long-running Discworld series has over 35 titles and counting. The series began as a satirical look at the fantasy genre and over the years has morphed into something much larger. Pratchett uses his saber-sharp wit to poke at a variety of real-world issues and institutions which he satirizes in his books. Some of Pratchett's targets include academia, various works of literature, Hollywood, war, shopping malls, the press, the post office and even the birth of rock music, or rather "music with rocks in."

In addition to ordinary humans, Pratchett's Discworld is populated with dwarves, trolls and many other mythological races which are a staple in the fantasy genre. While many of his stories feature heroes, wizards or witches, many of them are also populated by cowards, beggars, and misfits. Sometimes a character falls into more than one category, such as the wizard Rincewind, who has never successfully cast a spell and whose only strategy when faced with an obstacle is to run away from it as fast and as long as possible.

Some of Pratchett's most memorable characters are the anthropomorphic personifications, which are creatures that exist because everyone knows that they exist, like Death. The Death of the Discworld looks exactly like what most people would expect him to and his voice is so deep that he talks in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Like most things Discworld, there is more to Death than appearances. Despite his looks, he shows curiosity and kindness towards all living beings at the point when they cease to be living things. At one point, he explains to his apprentice Mort "THERE IS NO JUSTICE, JUST US."

The setting of the Discworld novels is as important to the books as the characters are. The world is a flat disc, which is supported on the back of four massive elephants that are in turn supported by the shell of Great A'tuin, the world turtle.

Many of the books are set in the city Ankh-Morpork, which is the great metropolis of the Discworld. Ankh-Morpork lies on the river Ankh which is more mud than water, but still fluid enough to call a river. Over the centuries Ankh-Morporkians have built on top of older structures when they could no longer build out, so it's often said that Ankh-Morpork is built on Ankh-Morpork.

Ankh-Morpork is a melting pot of many of the different races of the Discworld and home to the wizards of Unseen University. The city is ruled by the Patrician, Lord Havelock Vetinari, a master politician who has legalized crime simply because it makes it easier to regulate. Thieves, assassins, beggars and ladies-of-negotiable affection all have their own guilds. The city is teeming with unwashed masses and there are numerous bars and opportunities for fools to be separated from their money. As the series progresses, Ankh-Morpork becomes more modern and develops conveniences such as a post office, daily newspaper and even a crude telegraph system composed of semaphore towers.

Most of the books featuring the witches take place in Lancre, which is a small kingdom in the mountains. Other places of interest in Discworld geography include Uberwald (like Eastern Europe with vampires, werewolves, and Igors), the great cabbage fields of Sto Lat, Klatch (similar to Africa), Fourecks (kind of like Australia), and the Counterweight Continent (vaguely Asian).

Although you could read nearly any of the Discworld books as a stand-alone title, many of the characters and places seem to develop over time. There are several sub-series which revolve around different sets of characters. There are the wizards of Unseen University, the witches of Lancre, the Nightwatch of Ankh-Morpork as well as other characters who appear less frequently. Characters from different sequences do occasionally pop up in other stories, however, so readers who read the books sequentially may have a better understanding of some characters.

A lot of Pratchett's appeal comes from his use of satire, humor and puns. His books are almost cartoonish caricatures of many of the subjects of his books. It's rare that I go more than a page or two without having to stop and laugh. Another element of his appeal is his ability to take genre conventions and turn them inside-out and upside-down so that fantasy elements that many readers may already know seem fresh and often produce unexpected twists on familiar stories.

The Discworld books make up the majority of Pratchett's work, and have inspired games, BBC films, companion books, and a host of fan websites. Pratchett has also collaborated with Neil Gaiman on a book titled Good Omens and has written several children's books including the Johnny Maxwell trilogy.

Visit Terry Pratchett's official website:

Read Terry's post about diagnosis on Discworld illustrator Paul Kidby's website:

Read the story from CNN:

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