Those were the words that grabbed me: the two-word description of Great A’tuin, the Star Turtle on the back of my dad’s copy of The Colour of Magic. “Hold on,” my nine-year-old self thought. “You created a world that is flying through space on the back of four elephants, themselves perched on the back of a giant astral chelonian—a world populated by wizards who don’t do magic, gods who play tabletop games with mortals and a sentient wooden trunk on legs—and the question you’re raising on the back is ‘what sex is the turtle’?”
The clever bugger even put it in brackets. Like he was writing for a science journal.
That was when I realised I had to read on and find out if the characters ever find out what damn sex the turtle was.
That was the genius of Terry Pratchett: it wasn’t that his world was absurd that made it work, it was that it was constructed. Deliberate. This was a man who could take the sex of a space-turtle, make a joke about it, and then turn it into a plot point.
I started reading my dad’s Discworld books because they were naughty and had words like “sod” in them, which seemed extremely clever to my nine-year-old brain. It turned into something my dad and I could share: it gave us our own little in-jokes and secret code. We associated real people we knew with the characters. My mum was syncretised with Granny Weatherwax: practical, intimidating and Absolutely Not To Be Crossed. My sister reminded my dad of Susan: precocious and mature despite her age, but had he lived he’d probably have found she had more in common with Tiffany Aching, the girl who took on the Queen of the Fairies with a frying pan. Sisters are like that. They don’t take shit from people.
When my father died, Pratchett was my link back to him. In grammar school, whenever a grown-up asked me what sort of thing I was into and I didn’t feel like I could really say “video games and Mongolian history”, I would say “reading.” And when they asked what I read, the first thing I answered with was “Discworld.” When my English teacher told me to read something else, I read the rulebook Vampire: The Masquerade, just to piss him off. Discworld wasn’t the first fantasy series that I read, but it was the first fantasy world that I loved.
Which, when you think about it, is the wrong way round. By the time I was a moody teenager playing Warhammer and Baldur’s Gate and reading Lord of the Rings, I was more familiar with the parody than the source material. He introduced me to the classics before I even knew they existed. Redheads in chainmail bikinis. Talking swords. Unspeakable Things That Man Was Not Meant To Know. These are the sacred cows that Pratchett roasted in his first book. Once I knew exactly what Pratchett was making fun of, he’d already moved on to Shakespeare and pop culture. Once I’d read those, he was sticking the boot into racism and nationalism. When I’d finally caught up, he was onto digging into the really evil, noxious stuff, like newspapers and the post office. I always told myself that one day I’d find the time to catch up, before he shook hands with Death. I’m sad to say I never managed it.
Pratchett taught me a lot, when I wasn’t too dumb to listen: woman’s magic is different from man’s magic, but is certainly not weaker; psychology fixes more problems than witchcraft; old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill; the existence of God(s) doesn’t mean we have to believe in them; we should all be nice to orang-utans. I never did learn the sex of the turtle, but I did learn that Death wasn’t something to be scared of. Pratchett’s Death can be ominous and imposing, but more often than not he’s just a dude you want to hang out with, who likes cats and curries and camomile tea, who plays a mean guitar solo and who’s prepared to take over for Santa Claus and save the world when necessary. And people don’t react to him with fear, or even regret: Pratchett’s post-mortals are always given a chance to air their grievances with The Grave of All Hope before he encourages to dust themselves down and move on. Or not. It’s there choice, really. Pratchett’s Death isn’t fair, or kind, or particularly nice. And he doesn’t care if you’re good or bad, rich or poor, old or young. But he isn’t cruel: just terribly, terribly good at his job and what matters most when you meet him isn’t what you’ve done in life, but how you react to it when it ends.
Terry Pratchett made Death cool. Let’s hope that Death has returned the favour.