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Living On in L-Space

Novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, NY ComicCon 2012I was working on an entirely different speculative fiction blog entry when I got the news that Sir Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld universe, had died at the age of 66.  If you would rather have read about imaginary books today, my apologies.  (Don't worry, I'm sure you'll see that blog entry eventually.)  Instead, I'm going to talk about an author who's been on my personal "top five" list since high school, whose books I first discovered on the shelves of this very library.

Sir Terry Pratchett was never a darling of the literary critics (and the feeling was mutual), but he's long been considered one of the greats of speculative fiction.  His works have been nominated for the World Fantasy, Nebula, and British Fantasy Society Awards.  In 2001, he won the Carnegie Medal for his first child-oriented Discworld title (The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents).  In 2009, he was knighted for his services to literature (to go with the title, he forged himself a sword out of local iron and a bit of meteorite), and in 2010 he received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement.  In the U.K., the only British author ever to outsell him is J. K. Rowling. (Amusingly, Pratchett retains the title of most shoplifted author in Britain.)

If you'd never heard Terry Pratchett's name before news of his death broke yesterday, you've got a bit of reading to catch up on-- about 70 novels' worth.  The Discworld series alone (for which he's best known) reached 40 titles last year, not including the related non-fiction, graphic novels, dramatic adaptations, and picture books (yes, picture books: Where's My Cow? and The World of Poo are also part of the Discworld universe).  The final Discword novel, The Shepherd's Crown (part of the Tiffany Aching series), is due out in September. 

The realm of Discworld is a (mostly) flat planet balanced on the back of four elephants, which stand on the shell of a great space-faring turtle named A'Tuin.  (Which, when you think about it, is about as sensible a cosmology as twirling balls of rock and fiery gasses connected by invisible lines of force and dark matter.)  Magic is the foundation of all Discworld's energy and matter.  Forward-thinking wizards at Unseen University postulate that the basic magical unit (known as the "thaum"), defined as the amount of magic needed to create a white pigeon or three billiard balls, might theoretically be composed of smaller particles called "resons," which are themselves made up of at least five "flavours" (up, down, sideways, sex appeal, and peppermint).  (By now, you're probably getting an inkling of how Pratchett's sense of humor operates.)  Discworld is, in essence, our world, canted a bit sideways and a whole lot funnier.

There's a lot to love in Pratchett's writing.  Discworld began as a lampoon of fantasy tropes, but it turned, over the years, into a sharp-yet-sympathetic satire of humanity in all its messy beauty.  Sir Terry had a keen sense of justice, and used the blade of his humor to expose the underlying ridiculousness of society's most pernicious "isms"-- racism, sexism, jingoism, classism, elitism, and so on (and yes, capitalism at its hard-line, cutthroat worst was definitely on his list, too).  But his satire was never cruel or degrading.  Pratchett had the uncanny ability to skewer without wounding, to prick the balloons of society's self-importance while maintaining empathy for the fallible humans they held up.  He understood people, and he helped us to understand them as well.

The character of Death (instantly recognizable, as HE SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS) is a great example.  Far from cold or frightening, Death is perhaps the most compassionate of Pratchett's characters.  Death frequently finds himself in opposition to the ominous Auditors, supernatural accountant-types who seek to create perfect order to the universe by eliminating all the messy, unpredictable bits (things like humanity, imagination, love, life itself... nothing really important.)  While it may seem ironic for Death to side with the living in this conflict, Death knows that his job wouldn't exist if we didn't.  To better carry out his duty (reaping souls), Death frequently "practices" at being alive, in an attempt to understand mortality.  As Death is neither mortal nor, truth be told, bound by the laws of physics, the results are often comical.  But they're just as frequently poignant-- Death is unable to understand life's innate unfairnesses, because he is, himself, the final word in "fair."  Appropriately, Death made an appearance for Sir Terry's passing:
screencap of Terry Pratchett's last tweet

Pratchett's fans have known for some years that we were going to lose him sooner than we hoped.  In 2007, he was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease (he referred to it as his "embuggerance").  Alzheimer's can take a long time to kill a body, but Pratchett's work came entirely out of his head, and we all knew the diagnosis might mean a rapid end to his writing.  On top of that, Sir Terry was a vehement campaigner for assisted dying; he very much wished to die on his own terms before the disease took his mind away.

Although Alzheimer's eventually stole his ability to type, modern technology and an assistant thankfully allowed his writing to continue to his last illness.  In the end, he died naturally, with his family around him and his cat sleeping on the end of his bed.  Knowing his death was coming hasn't made it any less of a shock, and a small pile of wet tissues beside me right now attests to how poorly I've taken his loss.  I'm not alone; even Neil Gaiman, Pratchett's collaborator on the book Good Omens, was at a loss for words on hearing of the death of his long-time friend. His brief blog entry pointed to an article he'd written about Pratchett last fall, and ended with the words, "I'm not up to writing anything yet. Maybe one day."

My favorite invention of Pratchett's is making his loss a little easier to bear, for me.  It's something called "L-space," a timeless, infinitely large dimension hidden behind the bookshelves, through which all libraries are connected.  (After all, books are knowledge, and knowledge is power, and power is mass times distance squared over time cubed.)  Only senior librarians are taught the secrets of accessing L-space, as well as how to deal with its dangers-- "harmless kickstool crabs, large and heavy wandering thesauri, the .303 Bookworm and the dreaded cliches, which must be avoided at all costs." (Guards, Guards)

L-space is Pratchett's elegant way of reminding us that no book exists in a vacuum.  Every book is an exchange of ideas, a conversation between the reader and author, between the author and all the authors and books that influenced him-- and those conversations can occur without regard for time, distance, or culture.  A cozy chat with any author in history is no further away than your nearest library bookshelf.  Books, Pratchett shows us, are a powerful magic in themselves.

I can't imagine a world without Terry Pratchett's sharp wit and humor in it... but thankfully, I don't have to.  Sir Terry will forever live on in L-space.  And the dozens of unpublished books that he never had time to write?  I feel certain they're somewhere in L-space, too... probably just miscatalogued.

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If you'd like to read some (or all) of Pratchett's work, Fantastic Fiction has a full series listing.  If you'd like to learn more about him, the L-Space wiki (no, really, that's the domain name!) is a good place to start.  The BBC has put together a page of BBC Programmes on Sir Terry Pratchett

And just for fun, the Telegraph has put together a list of their top 50 favorite quotes by Sir Terry.  In no particular order, here are a few of my personal favorites:

"Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom."

"It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it."

"Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one."

"I say science fiction is like an exercise bicycle for the mind. Maybe it won't take you anywhere, but it will tone up the mental muscles that will." (from an interview with Amazon.com staff)

"My job is to make things up, and the best way to make things up is to make them out of real things."
(I Shall Wear Midnight)

"A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read." (Guards, Guards)

"Most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, but by people being fundamentally people." (Good Omens)

"Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom?" (Hogfather)

"They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance." (Equal Rites)

"There isn't a way things should be. There's just what happens, and what we do." (A Hat Full of Sky)

"Ook." -The Librarian


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