My book buying budget has been tight of late, so I just recently had the chance to sit down with Terry Pratchett’s most recent Discworld books. Before I begin discussing them, let me just say that I do believe Terry Pratchett to be the finest writer I have ever had the privilege of reading. This is no small compliment; I have read great authors from Austen to Hemingway and playwrights from Shakespeare to Miller, and Pratchett is consistently sharp, clever, witty, endlessly readable and re-readable…and more than that, he is filled with a deep and incisive understanding of what makes human beings people. Reading his biting and yet tremendously loving satire has given me, I think, a deeper understanding of human nature, both the good and the bad of it, and I would recommend his works to anyone and everyone.
And perhaps that’s why it has been such a bittersweet experience, reading his latest work. Anyone who cares even a little about Pratchett is already aware of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and it’s hard not to read his latest books (one in the ‘Young Adult’ line of Discworld novels, one in the main line, although honestly Pratchett never writes down to kids and never writes too inaccessibly for adults, meaning that the distinction seems mainly to be where they’re filed in the bookstore) without feeling like Pratchett is all too aware of it as well. Not that it’s affected his writing; I heard one or two people tell me that they felt like ‘Unseen Academicals’ was a little less sharp than his other books, but I didn’t feel that at all when I read it. Lord knows that if the man is feeling the effects of Alzheimer’s in his writing, there are a lot of writers out there (myself included) who should feel tremendously humbled that he still writes circles around us.
But it is clear that Pratchett knows that there won’t be that many Discworld novels. Having written for decades in an open-ended universe of his own creation with no particular destination in mind, it finally feels as if Pratchett is saying, “Time to wrap things up, I think.” That’s not to say he’s planning a ‘last’ Discworld novel; it’s more that he’s keenly aware that each Discworld novel now could be the last, and he’s writing them as though he won’t get to say anything more on the topic.
And so, in ‘Unseen Academicals’, we get something of a summation of the theme he’s been working on for quite some time; overtly, since ‘The Truth’, but on many levels he’s been heading there ever since ‘The Colour of Magic’. This is about the transformation of Ankh-Morpork (and by extension the entire Disc) from a medieval “fantasy kingdom” straight out of the cod-Tolkien Dark Ages that every third goddamned fantasy universe seems to exist in, through to a modern city with rules and laws and what we laughingly refer to as “civilization”. (“Because Ankh-Morpork cares deeply about the right of all oppressed peoples to govern themselves! Oh, it must be the way I tell them.”) Pratchett stopped hitting the “it was all evil magic and the hero has stopped it and things are back to normal” reset button a long time ago, and in ‘Unseen Academicals’, we finally get the ultimate logical extension of his grand theme; who’s to say that even a creature created by dark magic specifically to be evil can’t be good if given the chance? Pratchett finally makes the break with Tolkien clear and clean. Our problems will not be solved with the return of the king, the orcs are not genetically imprinted with the sins of their ancestors, and wizards don’t always know better than everyone else. Your future is what you make it. So make it something worth being proud of when it’s your past.
Over in ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’, meanwhile, he’s summing up the journey of Tiffany Aching from girl to woman and from apprentice to witch. Tiffany long ago took over the role of “principal witch” in the Discworld books, primarily because Granny Weatherwax had become so absurdly powerful and dangerous that she practically had to fade into the background and become a wise old mentor just to keep the book going beyond thirty pages. (Anyone planning to burn Granny Weatherwax as a witch would wind up having the first mob in history that went home after a sharp scolding.) So here we get a novel that could stand quite serviceably as the culmination of that journey, even if we wind up hearing more about her as an adult, and we also get old-home guest appearances from just about every witch to appear in the books before (including one I was very surprised by. Although I admit to wishing Magrat had gotten more to do.)
The books are excellent as always, and of course I recommend them; anyone who’s not reading Terry Pratchett should be, because otherwise you’re missing out on some excellent writing. But these are a little bid sad, I think, because they feel like they could be the last.