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.

Books That I Have Loved: Good Omens

20141214_224559-1With the radio adaptation so soon to air, I found myself digging out my copy of Good Omens.

In an article on his fellow author, Terry Pratchett said that Gaiman “really, really likes it if you ask him to sign your battered, treasured copy of Good Omens that has been dropped in the tub once and  is now held together with very old, yellowing transparent tape.”

This is that copy.

It’s older than I am. The pages have yellowed, and they’re more than a little crinkly from the time the book was carried to school in a bag I thought was waterproof. (It wasn’t, unfortunately for both me and the book.) There isn’t any sellotape involved, but the binding’s only holding together by some sort of miracle, or maybe satanic magic. It’s been brandished with a cry of, “This is my favourite book!” far too many times for other people’s sanity. It got me through one interminable detention years ago when a teacher assumed that I “must be doing homework, since [I was] reading” and left me be. It’s so well-thumbed that I’m surprised it hasn’t developed thumbs.

It’s still my favourite book. No, really. Don’t expect an unbiased or impartial view; I doubt I could offer one even if I tried, and since this is entitled “Books That I Have Loved” rather than “Books I Will Review Professionally and Fairly,” I’m not going to try.

I owe this book a lot. It sealed my love of Terry Pratchett’s work, introduced me to Neil Gaiman (and so later The Sandman) and taught me what happens when you don’t look after books (they get water-logged and you get yelled at).

Picture the scene: awkward, incredibly bookish six-year-old “with a reading age of about nineteen” (quoth the father) gets her hands on a book. It’s by that bloke who wrote the Discworld books she’s been reading, and it has a really awesome cover. Hmm. Interesting. From there begins a journey that has been more dramatic than some love affairs.

Well, I say the book’s mine. That’s a lie couched in only a little truth. It used to be my father’s – his second copy, actually. He’d lost the first copy after “some bastard ran off with it and never came back.” It had been given to him by a friend. Maybe it’s just that sort of book: it gets passed on, like some weird tradition or ancient curse. It was secondhand from the beginning.

Good Omens takes place in a world that’s probably our own – or at least, a lot like it. An angel and a demon have been adversaries for so long that they’re, well, sort of friends. The shine of the Eternal War wears off a bit when it really has been going on forever. However, it’s now time to bring about the Apocalypse. The thing is, they rather like Earth, really. They’re not entirely sure they want to destroy it…

Essentially, this is how two lackeys of Heaven and Hell end up saving the planet in a way that’s sort-of accidental. Well, them and “a cast of thousands,” as the Dramatis Personae would have it.

The plot sounds simple. It’s anything but. The book ping-pongs between different groups of characters and even across centuries. It’s idiosyncratic and it takes a couple of hundred pages to make complete sense. There are a huge variety of continuing gags, like one character’s theory that any cassette, if left in a car stereo long enough, will inexplicably morph into a Best of Queen tape. (Yes, cassette. The book came out in 1990, and it can be forgiven for showing its age now and again.)

It’s also very good, though, and that seems like the most important thing. It’s dark in places, but never cruel – though Crowley, the demon in question, admires humanity’s propensity for hurting one another and committing new sins, he also marvels at the acts of good he’s seen. Aziraphale, though technically an angel, isn’t all good, and Crowley, considering he’s a demon, is actually a frighteningly decent bloke. That’s the point of the book, I suppose: it seems to posit that humanity isn’t perfectly good or perfectly evil. It shows the importance of free will – it tells us that we should all be able to stick a finger up at destiny and pick our own path. Most of all, it says that humanity, in all its cruelty, complexity and utter weirdness, is something worth saving. I think that’s dearly worth remembering.

That, and it’s bloody funny.