For my money, Sir Terry Pratchett is the greatest fantasy author ever. That includes Tolkien, Verne, Wells, Burroughs, and Howard. (Martin isn’t even in this conversation to my mind, but then neither is Lucas.) Pratchett’s work has incredible social relevance. His keen sense of people, his deft hand with humor, and his ability to weave a rich, textured story as engaging as it is fantastic, gives his work a substance that sticks to the soul.
A recurring theme in Pratchett is the power — and the reality — of belief. Is Superman real? Or Sherlock Holmes? If millions believe in them, if so many stories are told about them, how can they not be real? One might say the same of all the gods we worship.
There’s also the bit about the frogs.
Those familiar with Terry Pratchett know that he passed away last March after a long journey down early-onset Alzheimer’s. Fans mourned the loss of such a wonderful voice. Many bloggers (myself included) expressed the joy of knowing his work and the pain and sorrow of his passing.
I reread his Discworld novels every few years or so. They’re rich enough for that. Almost like poetry or music (or the Bible for many): there is so much there that it never gets old. Not unlike how visiting a favorite place never gets old.
Normally it would be another year or so before I repeated that wonderful journey, but his death seemed to call for a full memorial reading — a process I’ve just begun. This time, the road began on the outskirts beyond the borders of Discworld, in the suburbs of his other work.
The path actually began with a good friend of his, Neil Gaiman, and it started in kind of a funny way. A bit more than a year ago an artist-blogger I follow did a post about Gaiman’s American Gods. I like Gaiman’s work a lot, and I’ve been meaning to get and read that one, so I saved the post as a reminder.
Then, last month, I’m starting some spring cleaning and, lo and behold, I discover I already own the book (and obviously must have read it). Reading sounded a lot more interesting than spring cleaning (but almost anything does), so I curled up on the couch with it and dug in.
American Gods is a modern-day mythological romp through a landscape where all the gods we humans invent actually do exist. As humans, in various ages, and from various directions, came to America they brought with them the older, elder gods — the terrible blood sacrifice gods from our dim past.
They’re here, all of them, but these gods have lost power — lost belief — in these modern times, and new gods grow strong as we worship technology, commerce, and media.
American Gods is a tale of belief and worship and a war between the old and the new. It concerns a man, called Shadow, a pair of gods, named Odin and Loki, a large multi-cultural pantheon of other gods old and new, and a dead wife who keeps turning up just when most needed. There’s also a secret plot just to keep things really interesting.
If you love Pratchett’s work, you’ll love American Gods (and, I would think, Gaiman’s work in general — the authors share a kinship of sensibility). The novel won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, and is — in a word — outstanding.
Gaiman’s novel (which I enjoyed so thoroughly that I plan to re-read it very soon in more analytical fashion and perhaps do a full post on someday) led naturally to the idea of re-reading a delightful work Pratchett and Gaiman wrote together.
That’s the title, although most just call it Good Omens.
It’s a comedy about the end of the world — The Apocalypse — the final battle between the forces of Heaven and the forces of Hell. It’s about the anti-Christ, who is an eleven-year-old boy, named Adam, and his small gang of three friends and his hell-hound (a small friendly mutt, named Dog).
It’s about an angel and a demon who have been friends since the beginning of time on Earth (that is: 4004 BC). It’s about how humans are so fiendishly ingenious they give Hell ideas rather than the other way around.
It’s about Anathema Device, a distant descendent of Agnes Nutter (a witch), one of the only seers in history whose prophecies were all 100% nice and accurate. (It’s about how “nice” used to mean “precise.”) It’s about what it’s like to know all the important things about your future before they happen (and that the world will end very soon), and what it’s like to not have that burden any longer.
It’s about the four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse (although they ride motorcycles now), secret Tibetan tunnels, the rising of Atlantis, visiting aliens with beneficent messages for mankind, what remains of the ancient profession of Witch Hunter, and why — in the end — neither side can be allowed to win.
And it is about the power of belief. And what we believe in.
Good Omens was a perfect segue into Pratchett’s world. For one thing, one of his best characters, DEATH, appears in the novel (as HIMSELF). It’s also an interesting contrast to American Gods where the gods are created through the agency of human belief.
In Good Omens, Heaven and Hell follow the more traditional model of being supernatural agencies, albeit as seen through the ironic, humor-filled eyes of Gaiman and Pratchett. It’s a deeply delightful and satisfying book!
The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy is not a trilogy in the sense of being a single tale told in three novel-sized acts. It’s three thematically distinct stories involving the same character, Johnny Maxwell, his gang of three friends, and a power of imagination (that is: belief) so strong it carries the world along in its wake.
These come from Pratchett’s “young adult” work, although (as with all his stories) there is much on an adult level.
In the first tale, Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny is playing a shoot-em up alien space invaders computer game when he gets a message from the invaders: “We wish to talk.”
It turns out that the aliens are tired of dying and invading and only wish to return home. They beg Johnny for safe passage; they say only he can save mankind and return them to Earth. (It turns out all races call their home planet “Earth,” their home star “The Sun,” and refer to themselves as “mankind.”)
As Johnny eventually accepts the role of Savior of Mankind and leads the fleet away towards the Border of Game Space, the attacking aliens vanish from that video game throughout the world. Players are greeted with only empty space filled with stars.
(In point of fact, space is not filled with stars. It’s mostly filled with Nothing.)
In Johnny and the Dead, Johnny discovers that life continues after death (but they’re not “ghosts”). The dead, who’ve been waiting patiently (or not) for Judgement Day discover they don’t have to stay docilely where they were planted, but have freedoms and powers undreamed of.
The plot tension in this one comes from the small cemetery in Johnny’s small town being sold in order to develop a large office building, so Johnny and his friends attempt to save it.
Lastly, Johnny and the Bomb (not “The Bomb” so much as “a bomb”) is a time-travel story complete with killing your grandfather and ending up down the wrong leg of the “trousers of time.”
It’s a time travel story as only Terry Pratchett could write it, and in some ways it’s the gem of the three. Which isn’t to say the other two don’t shine brightly; all three are delightful reads, even (perhaps even especially) for adults.
An underlying theme in these is the question of what’s really going on. Is this all in Johnny’s head, does his imagination create reality, is this all in his head, or does he lack the filters most people have that prevent us from seeing the wonder that’s really there? According the Pratchett, the answer to those questions is yes.
The last stop today is another trilogy that, while again containing distinct stories, also has an overall arc. The three stories comprise a larger story. The third volume, in particular, explains the ending of the second volume by following characters who leave on a quest in that middle story. The first story, to some extent, stands alone, although it does leave some threads dangling.
The Bromeliad Trilogy (known in the UK as The Nome Trilogy) is about a race of four-inch tall beings — the Nomes.
The first novel, Truckers, starts with a small band of Nomes who’ve been trying to survive in the English countryside on what they can hunt and forage. Badgers, foxes, cats, weather and starvation have reduced their numbers to a size too small for the band to continue, so they sneak aboard a truck hoping to find a better place.
They end up in The Store, Arnold Bros. (est. 1905), where they meet a group of thousands of Nomes who’ve been living very successfully beneath the floorboards, and in the walls, of a large old-fashioned goods store. These Nomes don’t even really believe Outside exists, so the arrival of outsiders is rather a shock.
It turns out that Arnold Bros. (est. 1905) is about to be demolished. “Everything Must Go!” Some of the forward-thinking Nomes decide the only hope is to steal and drive a truck to some place they can live and be safe. (As an aside, these stories appear to take place in the same part of England as the Johnny Maxwell stories.)
The second novel, Diggers, continues the story and — unlike most trilogy second acts — gets to the ending. The third one, Wings, as I mentioned, follows the adventures of a small band of Nomes who effect the ending of the second book.
Despite Terry Pratchett being the greatest fantasy writer ever, these stores aren’t what you’d call fantasy. The Nomes turn out to be a race of aliens who were stranded here eons ago when their landing craft failed. Their mother spaceship patiently waits, buried on the moon. For 15,000 years.
Their ultimate goal is to return to the stars, and the trilogy is really a work of straight science fiction, not fantasy. And as with most good fiction, let alone science fiction, it’s really about us.
What about the frogs? If you’re a fan of Randall Munroe’s outstanding xkcd web comic, you may already know about the frogs. In the xkcd comic commemorating Pratchett’s death, Munroe quoted the bit about the frogs.
You see, the bit about the frogs is really what Pratchett is all about. He dares and encourages and teases us to look outside our little safe flower, whether that safe flower be our minds or our places in the universe. Pratchett was a frog who saw beyond the petals.
Here’s the bit:
“I read about them in a book,” she said. “There’s this place, you see. Called South America. And there are these hills where it’s hot and rains all the time, and in the rain forests there are these very tall trees and right in the top branches of the trees there are these, like, great big flowers called bromeliads and water gets into the flowers and makes little pools and there’s a type of frog that lays eggs in the pools and tadpoles hatch and grow into new frogs that lays eggs in the pools and tadpoles hatch and grow into new frogs and these little frogs live their whole lives in the flowers right at the top of the trees and don’t even know about the ground and the world is full of things like that and now I know about them and I’m never ever going to be able to see them, and then you,” she gulped for breath, “want me to come and live with you in a hole and wash your socks!”
The world outside the flower. It’s in the Nome stories; it’s in the Johnny stories; it’s everywhere in Pratchett’s work. It’s his enduring gift to us. A gift rich in humor and keen observation.
The best fantasy (or call it fantastic Truth) there ever was.
Stay fantastic, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.