On death and Death

I don’t tend to write many personal posts, but this seemed worth putting pen to paper for.

Terry Pratchett died on the 12th. A lot has been said about it. People like Neil Gaiman, this blogger and this artist have said it far better than I can.

I’m no good at this sort of thing.  I don’t do eulogies and obituaries. Anything I say or write tends to sound hopelessly trite; I’m far better with characters than people. So instead, I’ll try talking about Death – yes, the one with a capital D.

It was odd – coincidentally,  I’d been talking to a friend about Discworld that day. My friend admired Vimes for his morals and his cynicism; he found the character relateable.

Now, my favourite character has always been Death. It took me a long time to understand why. Partly it’s because he gets all the best lines (this is not an opinion, this is fact, and I will argue with anyone who says otherwise). Partly, I think, it’s because he embodies what I love most about Pratchett’s work. He looks at humanity, and he’s more than a little confused by them; they’re petty, and tiny, and often relentlessly, frustratingly stupid. Yet he finds them fascinating. He walks with them, he watches them and he wonders about them. He, dare I say, likes them.

By offering us an outsider’s perspective – we see through the, er, eye sockets of a very alien character – Pratchett pokes fun at us: our vices, our virtues, and most often our flaws. He makes us consider what’s in the mirror all over again. But the conclusions we come to are far less bleak than they could be. Death shows us that we’re flawed and cruel, but he also shows us that we are funny, creative, kind. We screw up and we fall, but we are something worth saving. A powerful, universal force is fascinated by us and chooses to associate with us.

That’s my favourite thing about Pratchett’s work. So many people have talked about how funny he was – and believe me, I agree – but fewer have talked about how humanist his work was. I wrote in an earlier post about how the best books give us not just a good story, but an insight into their author. I felt like that about Discworld. I’m probably wrong (after all, I didn’t know the man) but I always got the sense that, a bit like Death, Pratchett thought we were idiots but believed we could do better – and that just sometimes, we did.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of sci-fi and fantasy. Pratchett was a favourite of my dad’s, and so I grew up surrounded by his work. The philosophy I found in his books is part of what made me who I am. His work was one of the main reasons I started writing. But I will say this – on the bad days, it’s very easy to lose faith in humanity. Pratchett’s books showed a sad, scared kid that perhaps things weren’t as bad as all that.

And then that kid grew up, started jotting down her own pretentious scribblings, and started a blog. So here we are. That’s why he’s my favourite author, and has been since I was knee-high.

R.I.P. The world has lost one of its best.

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Why read?

Rambly, personal piece.

1. Because there’s nothing quite like the feeling of a new book: those tentative first few pages, testing the waters to see if they appeal, and the decision to settle – to be static and let the words wash over you.

2. Watching an old favourite movie is like visiting a friend. Reading an old favourite book is like coming home.

3. Sometimes the best people you meet only exist on a page. Give a child a book and you give them ordinary people in extraordinary situations, or vice versa. You give them charming sarcasm, strong friendships.

4. Knowledge is power. A man who has words in his head, who has opinions and arguments and assesses them all, has power over his morals, his decisions and his personal politics.

5. Books give you tools at your disposal; they’re naturally useful. If you want a young girl to be able to spell words like “maintenance” and “chaotic” before she’s six, give her a book when she’s four. Tell her that asking what a word means, needing a dictionary now and again, is a good thing. It is.

6. Stories, even when they were words from mouths rather than on paper, existed – and still exist – for a reason. Reading makes a person wonder who else they know that has a story, what that story is. Be in a character’s head and you’ll want to be in other people’s. Give a child a book and you give them compassion.

7. People argue that reading is something that belongs to the upper-classes, to snobbery and private schools. In this era, that is almost entirely a lie. Make it an utter lie. Access to knowledge is a basic human right – exercise it.

8. A woman who uses good words, bright words, right words, can’t have them used against her. It is much, much harder to lie to a good reader.

The “genre” curse: in defence of science-fiction and fantasy

Anything, if put in the right context, can be described as “genre fiction” – anything, in fact, with a genre: romance fiction, kitchen sink fiction… Here, however, I use it in the sense of its most common definition, science fiction and fantasy.

It’s easy enough to sneer at genre fiction, to assume that it’s all aliens with ridiculous names, pouting women atop dragons in chainmail bikinis, the fulfilling of schoolboy fantasies… and it can be, if you like that sort of thing (and I write as someone who mostly doesn’t), but “genre” fiction – usually a sneering, derisive term – has a range and a depth which is still overlooked and unaccepted. Writers, afraid that they won’t be taken seriously simply because of the genre of their work, give sci-fi such watered-down names as “speculative fiction” in order to try and fly under critics’ radar. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, a complicated yet exceptionally-written piece of sci-fi, received in its time such gloriously backhanded compliments as “… [Clarke] is in the very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophic ideas.”

On the contrary – to suggest that this group is small is a fallacy. Critics prize fiction that holds a black mirror up to society, attempts to tell us something about the human condition, yet still don’t regard science-fiction and fantasy in this way. Stories that show us “a slice of life”, that analyse ordinary events and people, are praised by critics in a way that genre fiction isn’t, inserted instantly and comfortably into the category of “true literature”, and there are reasons for this; it takes ability and astuteness to show the importance and the substance of everyday life, to show the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

A common opinion seems to be that these skills and an ability to world-build in genre fiction are, as writing tools, mutually exclusive. This is absolutely incorrect. Both genres are, in fact, some of the best environments to analyse our humanity: having had taken away the real, the ordinary and the stable, we then rely on a writer’s knowledge of how people work to convince us to step into their world. One brilliant example of this is Terry Pratchett’s novels – he writes a world where gnomes and magic are commonplace, yet his characters are so very human that it is all, somehow, believable. By changing our world, authors can show what stays constant in us, as humans, in our consciences, our beliefs.

Authors known for non-genre fiction write science-fiction and fantasy also; bad writing in these genres is not universal. Several works of “genre” fiction have been praised for their prose and structure.

Then there is the fantastical element of such fiction. Do we truly want to read about everyday life? Ask a child – or indeed, many adults – why they read, and a large proportion will answer that it allows them to escape where and who they are, to imagine things impossible. As much as fiction that holds a mirror to fact is praised, regarded as something “grown-up”, the whole point of fiction is imagination and escapism. Maybe genre fiction, the thing so derided by popular critics, is our way of admitting that, no matter how many responsibilities and depressing certainties we may acquire in normal life, we still secretly want to believe that we can build – or be – things that transcend the ordinary, meet other species from distant and strange planets, ride dragons.

Maybe some of just still want to believe in magic.