Sex, Death and Nature: For More Than 40 Years, Terry Pratchett Has Used Science Fiction and Fantasy to Craft Subtle Satires. but the Onset of Alzheimer's Has Forced Him to Confront a Stark Question-What Will Happen When He Is No Longer Able to Write?

By Penny, Laurie | New Statesman (1996), November 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sex, Death and Nature: For More Than 40 Years, Terry Pratchett Has Used Science Fiction and Fantasy to Craft Subtle Satires. but the Onset of Alzheimer's Has Forced Him to Confront a Stark Question-What Will Happen When He Is No Longer Able to Write?


Penny, Laurie, New Statesman (1996)


I'm sitting in a cafe on Salisbury high street and a frail old man in a big black hat has just told me that he is going to die. "No medicine can prevent it," says Sir Terry Pratchett, 64, national treasure, author of 54 books and counting, campaigner for assisted dying and professional morbid bastard. "Knowing that you are going to die is, I suspect, the beginning of wisdom," he explains.

This is a story about death. Not Death with a capital "D", that bony guy with the scythe and the sparkling blue eyes who shows up in nearly every one of Pratchett's 30-plus novels in the Discworld series, swearing and smiling ineffably and being kind to cats. This is a story about death with a small "d"--the inconvenient little fact, the "embuggerance" that has been an implicit feature of Pratchett's life and work since the author was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's, in 2007.

Pratchett's writing career spans 45 years. He is Britain's second-best-read author, having sold more than 8o million books worldwide. His Discworld series began as a pure comic fantasy with The Colour of Magic in 1983. It is the story of a lacklustre wizard tearing haplessly around a flat world that travels through space on the back of a giant turtle. The books that followed have proved to be something more complicated, something deeper. A terse and bitingly moral satirical voice developed over the series. Most science-fiction and fantasy authors who become successful must confront their own politics sooner or later, because inventing a universe from scratch and inviting millions of readers to join you there demands a certain moral responsibility. Writers from Ursula K Le Guin and Robert Heinlein to China Mieville have used the fantastic as an explicitly political space, imagining other worlds where humanity might organise itself differently.

Pratchett went in precisely the opposite direction. He began to write like a man who knows that the most fascinating place in the known and imagined universe is this one, right here. Pratchett uses nerdy fantasy and slapstick comedy as tools to tell stories about racism and religious hatred, war and the nature of bigotry, love and sin and sex and death, always death, knotted into the ersatz adventures of talking dogs, zombie revolutionaries, crime-fighting werewolves, tooth fairies, crocodile gods and funny little men who sell suspicious sausages on street corners.

The stranger his books become, the more they look and sound like Britain in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: girls meet boys meet gender-bending dwarves; decent people are destroyed by their own cowardice; priests tell lies and, blood-sucking lawyers run everything, although in the Discworld they truly are vampires.

"Terry is just really good at human beings," says the author Neil Gaiman, a collaborator and close friend of Pratchett's. The two co-wrote the 1990 bestseller Good Omens. "He's good at genuine human emotions, in the tradition of English humour writing.

"You can point to classic PG Wodehouse, you can point to Alan Coren--these people who define the style of English humorous writing--and Terry is a master of it. He also understands all of the tropes of various different genres and can deploy them. When Terry began, people pointed to Douglas Adams, because he also wrote stuff set on different worlds, but Wode-house is the closest person out there--although Terry's range is wider."

Like many friends of Pratchett's, Gaiman finds it difficult to discuss his illness, so much so, that he agrees to speak about it only over Skype, email being too cold and stark. "I love the fact that Terry fucking embraced his Alzheimer's," Gaiman says. "I love that he took it and used it to raise the profile of the 'dignity in dying' campaign."

Alzheimer's is always cruel, but the form of the disease with which Pratchett has been diagnosed has a peculiarly savage irony. …

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