Posts Tagged ‘Terry Pratchett’

Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

I don’t know if William Shakespeare really is the most influential writer in literary history. As someone who grew up Britain, it feels like it. And within my cultural experience, he’s certainly the writer that others lean on the most, borrowing openly from his work to make connections with an audience.

As both a reader and a writer, I find it interesting to look at two different ways in which creators approach this – by adopting the structure of Shakespeare’s plots, or by dressing up in their trappings.

Hamlet on Motorbikes – Sons of Anarchy

On its surface, the TV show Sons of Anarchy has a very modern plot. Its tale of a biker gang struggling against the unstoppable tide of change, full of drug deals, arms shipments and roaring engines, is as 21st century as you can get. But you don’t have to dig deep to see something older in there.

Especially in its early seasons, Sons of Anarchy was a full-on tribute to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in for good measure. The protagonist Jax is the son of the deceased John Teller, founding leader of the Sons of Anarchy motorbike gang, a gang who rule their local community in a thoroughly medieval manner. His mother Gemma is married to the current leader of the gang, who was responsible for John’s death, while John’s diaries fill in the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The Macbeth angle comes from Gemma, egging her husband on to ever darker deeds in the name of ambition.

Using these familiar roles and conflicts gives the show a sense of depth and darkness. Hamlet and Macbeth are both classics for a reason – they presented characters who were deeply troubling and yet deeply convincing. They turned familiar relationships, particularly family relationship, on their head. This is unsettling and yet fascinating to watch. How will Hamlet/Jax tackle the contradiction between familial love and a quest for vengeance? Will Lady Macbeth/Gemma ever face the consequences of her own ruinous actions?

Sons of Anarchy borrows its structure from Shakespeare, and makes some open nods to that source, but it doesn’t wear the outward trappings of the bard’s plays. For that, we can look at a very different story.

Macbeth Made Funny – Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters was one of Pratchett’s early Discworld books – not the first few unrefined works, but the ones where he was getting into his stride as a humourist, a humanist and a storyteller. It’s the story of three witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – as they come into conflict with a king who has, Macbeth-style, murdered his predecessor to take the throne. Where Sons of Anarchy is dark and brooding, Wyrd Sisters is funny and often light-hearted, though with a serious sense of justice at its core.

Again, the two main Shakespearean influences on display are Hamlet and Macbeth. We get the royal usurpers, one of whom can’t get the blood from his hands; the victim’s ghost seeking justice, as in both plays; the witches of Macbeth‘s most-quoted scene; the use of a play to bring out the truth as in Hamlet; and many more little references. But the underlying plot twists and inverts Shakespeare rather than following his beats. The references are there to provide humour rather than depth, and to let Pratchett make a point about who we see as heroes.

Different Approaches, Different Uses

These different ways of borrowing from Shakespeare clearly have different uses. The Sons of Anarchy approach works whether or not your audience know the plays. In fact not knowing them may help – a friend of mine was put off by the show’s knowing winks toward its sources. While Wyrd Sisters works as a story whether or not you know your Shakespeare, the references to the bard have no value if you don’t. They are jokes about Shakespeare, rather than a drama told using his tools.

So if you’re thinking of using Shakespeare in your writing, which approach will work best? That depends on what effect you’re after.

Borrowing the trappings Pratchett-style lets you share jokes with readers who know Shakespeare – which is probably most readers, to some extent at least. It creates a bond between you and those readers, lets them feel smart for being in on the jokes, but can disruptive immersion in the story by reminding you that it is a story in a long line of stories. It works best for humour.

Borrowing the plot Sons of Anarchy-style lets you borrow the darkness that oozes from Shakespeare’s dramatic works. It can help to create something thoroughly immersive, though it creates a risk that the audience will realise the connection partway through, again disrupting the experience.

Borrowing from any source has its uses and its risks. But when the source is as good as Shakespeare, his popularity adds to the potential for triumph or disaster.

Do you have any opinions on who has borrowed well or badly from Shakespeare, or from other sources? Have you tried it in your own writing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

With the sad passing last week of Terry Pratchett, I felt an overpowering urge to re-read one of his books, both for comfort and as an act of remembrance. I chose a book that is not among his most celebrated works, but is one of my personal favourites. And in it, I found a reminder of what made Pratchett so great.

Only You Can Save Mankind

Only You Can Save Mankind is the first of Pratchett’s novels about Johnny Maxwell, a relatively ordinary twelve-year-old living in a rather ordinary English town. Johnny’s life is a mundane one of hanging out with his friends and playing computer games, given a deep vein of sadness by the ongoing collapse of his parents’ marriage.

Things change one day when the ScreeWee, the alien enemies in his computer game, ask to surrender to him. They want to go home in peace, and only Johnny will listen to them. With other players still frantically trying to kill the ScreeWee, it’s up to Johnny to save the aliens. Or, as the ship’s translator would have it, to save mankind.

A Subtle Sadness

Despite its silly central concept, the pervading tone of Only You Can Save Mankind is one of sadness. Johnny’s home life is falling apart, leaving him neglected. The ScreeWee, forced into endless warfare, just want to return home in peace. Johnny and his small group of friends are socially ostracised, brought together in part by the loneliness each feels within their own family setting. Bigmac in particular is shown to be a product of Britain’s neglected urban estates and a family that doesn’t know how to care.

All of this is depicted with deftness and subtlety. Though it’s clear from early in the book that Johnny’s parents’ marriage is falling apart, and that this is taking a huge emotional toll on Johnny, we aren’t told this directly. In as far as he understands his circumstances he is also trying to not address them directly, to avoid that disruption and sorrow. But the things we are shown about his life make all this clear without Johnny having to understand it. It is simply and beautiful written.

Humanism and Pacifism

This sadness, like so much else in the book, is a demonstration of Pratchett’s humanism and his incredible ability to explore the human experience. In Only You Can Save Mankind, that humanist eye is turned upon the experience of war and the ‘them and us’ mentality that allows it to take place.

Johnny’s own experience with the ScreeWee war is paralleled by the First Gulf War, portrayed in the news in the background of the story. It leads Johnny to raise such innocent yet insightful questions as ‘how can we be the good guys if we’re dropping smart bombs down people’s chimneys?’ Like much of Pratchett’s work, the book doesn’t say that there are easy answers, and by the end of the book Johnny’s non-violent ideals are tested to the limit. But it’s a book that challenges the value and righteousness of military action, that suggests that violence might not really be the solution to any problem.

What This Book Means to Me

One of the reasons I chose to re-read this book is that it’s one of my very few books signed by an author. The copy sat in my lap as I type this is a copy once handled by the great Pratchett himself, given to me by my aunt and uncle for Christmas 1992, the year the book was released. In the front, beneath the title Only You Can Save Mankind, is written in the author’s own hand: ‘To Andrew, If not you, who else? T Pratchett’.

That signed page is not only my strongest physical connection to one of my favourite authors. It is also an intellectual and emotional connection, a reminder of why Pratchett has long been such an inspiring figure to me. Even in a book filled with sadness, the fundamental message is an optimistic one. We can make our own fates. Humanity can save itself, and it is worth saving. We have responsibility for our own lives, and the opportunity to use them well. All of this, themes Pratchett raised again and again in his fiction, is expressed in that pairing of the book’s title and a quote from within it.

Only you can save mankind. If not you, who else?

This book also hit me in a very personal way. Like Johnny, I was twelve years old at the time of the First Gulf War, and saw it play out on the news. I faced the same challenges as him in making sense of what was going on, feeling that these distant, terrible events and the attitude many people took to them weren’t right. People were dying in an inglorious war over oil and ego, while news media turned it into a computer game-style pageant.

In retrospect, I had more in common with Johnny than I realised. It would be ten more years before my parents separated, but by the time I read this book their marriage had fallen into silence and the slow death of love. It’s no wonder that Johnny’s ‘trying times’ hit me so hard, even if I couldn’t recognise their relevance.

Over time, I lost the idealism that the book displayed, the belief that I could and should take control of my own destiny. Though I’ve found that again, it’s been a rough ride, and re-reading this book was a reminder of that.

Even without that personal relationship, this would be a book worth reading. It’s simply and beautifully told, with a message of hope in humanity despite its cynicism about our baser instincts. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading it.

So thank you, Sir Terry, for this and many other inspiring books. Your body may have stopped, but the wonder and inspiration of your stories live on.

Universities have lots of potential as settings and sources of characters for stories. Anybody who’s spent time in one and seen the range of fascinating people in academia will vouch for that point. And this week I wrote a guest post for fellow writer JH Mae on this subject…

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

Terry Pratchett, creator of my favourite fictional university

All Good Wizards Go To College

Given how many authors have been through university, and how many geeky interests are fostered by social networks there, it’s hardly surprising that universities turn up in science fiction and fantasy. They’re a great source of characters, who then provide the drive for plot, but could we be doing more with them?

The Faculty

Let’s start with university staff, in particular the academics. I could write a whole other post on the staff who are missing from fiction but keep a university running – the cleaners, administrators, technicians, etc. But let’s focus on what we’ve got, and that’s academics.

Fictional academics seem to fall into two types, which are sometimes combined.

First there are the wild exaggerations, as seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Who doesn’t love the PE-teacher-esque hunting and shooting stereotype of Unseen University’s Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully? Or the quietly erratic Bursar? Or the over-enthusiastic Ponder Stibbons? These caricatures of scholarship and of attitudes to learning provide humour and conflict.

Then there are academics as experts. Where the exaggerated academics are prone to causing the problems, the expert academics provide solutions, and sometimes info-dumps. Between lectures and answering questions, they can give heroes and audiences the answers they need to face the big bad. And when the academics are the protagonists, as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, their competence in their field makes them likeable, interesting and able to make a difference…

 

For the full article please hop over to JH Mae’s blog. If you come back on Tuesday then you can read a post from JH, on the subject of fiction and the weird. And if you’re after some academically inclined fantasy then my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus features an academic hunting knowledge in a most unusual library and is available through Amazon and Smashwords, still just 99c until the end of this weekend.

Britain’s a funny old place. Lets face it, guidebooks can never quite capture the essence of a nation that gave us both Bilbo Baggins and the Rolling Stones. Fortunately our rich tradition of making stuff up, aka science fiction and fantasy, can help out.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall‘s daughter will be learning about Britain first hand later this year when she travels to Swansea, a town some of my readers are very familiar with. So to help her out here are a few valuable lessons on Britain, as shown by science fiction and fantasy.

Queueing matters

I know that in some other countries getting what you want is a mad scrum to get to the front. She who shouts loudest or pushes hardest gets her way.

Yes United States, I’m looking at you. Don’t try to hide behind Canada, even if they’re too polite to give you away.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back - these chaps know how to behave.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back – these chaps know how to behave.

In this country we are far too polite for that (sidenote: studies from the Centre for Made Up Statistics show that 63% of British politeness is just a cover for repression – more on that later). The cybermen may be brutal villains hell bent on destroying humanity, but at least they know how to wait their turn in line. Get out of line around cybermen and they will destroy you. Real Britains will politely dream about it, and then provide you with poor service and a look of disdain. Don’t take that chance.

Food = happiness

Sam cookingIs there any more British hero than Sam from Lord of the Rings? Diligent, home-loving, unsure of himself. And what does Sam do whenever he wants to cheer people up? He cooks.

The British love of a cuppa is well known, but it goes beyond that. Look at our traditional national cuisine – Yorkshire puddings, teacakes, milky tea, boiled potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. Some people might call it joyless and unexciting, but it’s really the opposite – it’s a sign of how much we love our food, that we can find comfort in it no matter what. That’s what makes Sam such a big damn hero – halfway up Mount Doom he’s still putting on the kettle and reaching for the breadknife.

Scepticism is not just healthy, it’s compulsory

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

We may be polite but that doesn’t mean we blankly accept whatever we’re told. Remember, we chopped our king’s head off long before other countries got in on the act.

That’s right revolutionary France, I see you jumping on our bandwagon.

Scepticism is the bedrock of the British mindset. It can be about authority, about ideas, even about whether this nice weather will last (it won’t, this is Britain). And it’s embodied in the works of one of finest fantasy authors, the amazing Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s characters and the plots of his books challenge accepted ideas and authorities. They show that scepticism of which we’re so proud.

Though we do look askance at anyone who gets too proud.

Repression is so last century

Not as polite as they look.

Not as polite as they look.

All of this might leave you thinking that Britain is still the stiff upper lipped land of the Victorian age. But if you want to see modern Britain, and just how foul-mouthed and sneering that upper lip has become, then you should check out Misfits. The show about young people who develop super powers while on community service is full of imaginatively foul language and the worst sort of behaviour. Because after years of repression Britain is finally pulling out of the nineteenth century and the results are… lets call them messy.

Modern Britain has learned that it can get away with swearing in public, consuming drugs other than a nice cup of Assam, and loudly screaming its scepticism in the face of authority. We’re changing, which is not all good and not all bad, and as always science fiction and fantasy are there to show the world what it means to be British.

So anyway, that’s my guide to Britain, as shown by our science fiction and fantasy. Fellow Brits, add your opinions in the comments – what lessons have I missed? And those of you further afield, what have you learned about Britain from our national nerd culture? Or what would you like the rest of us to explain?

Reading Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, has been a surprisingly emotional experience. Setting aside the quality of the book, which I’ll come to in a moment, it made me realise how much of a hero Pratchett is to me, and how hard it is to have mixed feelings about our real life heroes.

Raising Steam

Raising Steam is the 40th of Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Like several recent Discworld stories, it’s about characters facing the march of progress. Steam trains are coming to the Discworld, just as modernity is sending ripples through the ancient culture of the dwarfs. One of these changes leads to excitement and delight, the other to resistance and civil conflict. But Moist Von Lipwig, sometime conman and now a big mover in the city of Ankh-Morpork, has the task of managing these changes, or at least their practicalities. It’s either that or back to the hangman’s noose…

The march of progress

Progress might seem impersonal at times, but the reactions of the Discworld characters are very personal. Dark clerk Drumknot becomes a train enthusiast. Lord Vetinari sees a problem to solve and a tool to achieve it. The conservative dwarf grags see their traditions being undermined by outsiders. Simnel just sees the thing he is building.

In a similar way, our reactions to Pratchett’s ever-evolving writing style are very personal. I suspect that they’re primarily shaped by which of his books we started with.

I started reading Discworld when there were less than a dozen books. My attention was grabbed by Pyramids, Guards! Guards! and Small Gods. As this world grew deeper and richer, and Pratchett’s philosophising more central, I was absolutely sucked in. But somewhere after the twentieth book he started drifting away from the things that I’d loved. There were less laugh-out-loud moments, more direct focus on adventure and social commentary. Those were good things but the balance wasn’t what I wanted any more.

The stories that once made me laugh out loud now made me think, and as a British lefty who had now grown past his teens, the thoughts weren’t terribly new. I know people who’ve come to  his work later and consider his recent works the height of Pratchett brilliance. But me, I seem to be turning into something of a grag, and for a while I’ve been dwelling on the flaws in the Discworld.

Raising problems

Now we come to Raising Steam, and it’s not just age that is shaping my view. I have experience as a writer that I didn’t before, a knowledge of plot and structure that colours the way I read, that allows me to dissect the things I find problematic. Because readable as it is – Pratchett’s prose is still light and easy to absorb without becoming completely weightless – there are a lot of problems with this book.

I don’t want to dwell too long on any of this, because it breaks my heart to say it, but the plot is a damp squib. The characters are never really challenged, overcoming their problems too easily and without any risk of consequence. The initial promise, of a story about the development of the railroad, leads to a payoff that’s actually about the politics of the dwarfs. While the two have thematic connections, this still means that the book’s end doesn’t match its initial promise, which is deeply unsatisfying. Progress happens because its time has come, not through human effort and struggle, and this sort of pre-destined progress really gets my back up, robbing characters of their agency.

There’s also a problem with the dialogue, and it’s not just Simnel’s Yorkshire accent. Many characters have many great lines of dialogue. The problem is that they’ll deliver six of these great lines at once, turning snappy one-liners into speeches, becoming repetitive, slowing the pace and sucking the sense of action from a scene. It’s a real lesson in less is more – on their own these lines would have been classic quotable Pratchett, bundled together they’re a weight dragging the story down.

Keep reading Pratchett!

As I said, I’ve been finding this post hard to write. Pratchett is a huge hero of mine. An inspiring writer of dozens of books who has helped to popularise fantasy. A campaigner for the safety of orangutans, one of the most distinctive of the apes I so love. A man who is publicly battling to live in dignity as his mind gives way, risking public exposure to raise awareness of mental health issues. The man is an absolute legend. If the fantasy community can have national treasures then he is one.

And just as change has, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, affected both Pratchett and his Discworld, so I’ve changed as a reader. I can now do what I couldn’t a decade ago. I can live with the mixed feelings I have, not needing to hold the writer and his works up on a pedestal or to cast them aside.

Please, go out and read something from Pratchett’s Discworld. Read Wyrd Sisters or Pyramids or Guards! Guards!, or anything from about book six through to book 20. If you like those then read the rest. Even on an off day, Pratchett’s usually one of the better writers out there. He is worth your time and worth your admiration.

Just save Raising Steam until last. And when you get there remember that you’re reading for what’s come before, not for this story. Because progress is inevitable, and it can be great, but it isn’t always kind.

This book may not be great, but Terry Pratchett is. Sir Terry, I salute you!

I love monkeys. Not in the bad way, like those ancient folks who bred with horses and gave us the centaur menace. In a clean, wholesome, childish fascination kind of way. Because monkeys are awesome.

I should clarify that I don’t just mean monkeys, I mean all apes. But ‘monkey’ is a far better word to say. Just role it around in your mouth for a moment. Monkey. Then ape. It’s like deciding between trousers and pants. Let me tell you, Americans and other linguistic heathens, you are missing out by abandoning the trouser.

Monkeys know how to live

Monkeys know how to live

It was a trip to the zoo on my way back from holiday seven years ago that cemented apes among my favourite creatures. I watched the gibbons going nuts in their cages, swinging around, screeching, rattling the bars, flashing their teeth and everything else at passers by. And I thought to myself, that looks like fun. Those guys know how to live.

But what’s even better than a monkey? A science fiction or fantasy monkey of course. So here are some of my favourites.

The Librarian

You’re civilised folks, so I’m going to assume that you’ve read some Terry Pratchett. And while those books are full of great characters, by far my favourite is the librarian.

The librarian is basically the part of my brain that wants to be a gibbon. Transformed into an orangutan, he not only accepts his change of state but relishes it. It’s pure wish fulfilment, staying smart enough to read but dumb enough to communicate in ‘ook’s, swinging through the rafters by your toes, eating bananas and screeching at idiots.

And lets face it, what bookish nerd hasn’t wanted the strength and social licence to beat their mockers senseless?

Toy Story 3

I never watched Toy Story 3 before last night. I know, shame on me. It’s a beautiful work of children’s fantasy, full of noble ideals and talking toys. But what’s even better than a beautiful children’s fantasy?

A beautiful children’s fantasy with apes.

Honestly, they had me three minutes in with the line ‘death by monkeys’. But it was the monkey watching the security screens that really did it for me. A cute animal was made sinister by his bared teeth and the washed-out glow of those monitors. The juxtaposition with his happy clapping cymbals just made him all the more menacing.

Because that’s the thing about apes. Like people, they’re not just smart, funny and adorable. They can also be sinister and downright dangerous, like the baboons that invade isolated South African commuter townships, or the Mediterranean apes that raid cafés for booze. These are monkeys as mad villains or outsider antiheroes. I love those monkeys too, though I wouldn’t want to stand between them and a whiskey.

Ack-Ack Macaque

A gun wielding, cigar chomping, pulp action pilot ape. If that sentence doesn’t make you want to read a book then you’re lost to me.

I haven’t got round to reading Ack-Ack Macaque yet, but it’s been on my list since I read this review. I love the wild spectacle of old pulp stories, before people had such fixed ideas about what was possible and what fitted in each genre. You got space rockets to planets full of purple people. You got mole men beneath the earth. You got hidden temples, alien invaders and two-fisted heroes, probably all in the same book. And a cigar-chomping ape pilot seems the perfect embodiment of that.

Gibboning it up

How much do I love apes in fantasy settings? I have spent a whole weekend being one. Inspired by my visit to the zoo, I decided to play one in a live roleplay game.

What I actually played was a demonic imp called Gibbon, who ate monkey nuts, threw the shells at passers by and only spoke in ooks. I walked the monkey walk, screeched at people I didn’t like, generally aped it up. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had, and though I only did it twice in fifteen years at that game, it’s still one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done. Years later, people I didn’t know at the time would say to me ‘wait, you were that guy?’.

I love monkeys, but how about you? What apes have I missed? Or is there another beast you prefer in your fiction?

Picture by Ian (cr03) via Flickr creative commons