In Honor of Terry Pratchett

I should have mentioned this story much earlier, but better late than never.

If you’re an atheist and a regular reader of sci-fi and fantasy, you probably know the name Terry Pratchett – and if you don’t, you should. He’s the award-winning and much-loved author of Discworld, a series of fantasy novels set in a flat, circular world that’s carried through space on the back of a giant tortoise. Discworld began as a straight-up parody of other fantasy novels, but it’s moved on to parodying all different aspects of our culture, and doing so in the midst of surprisingly deep and affecting storytelling. Pratchett is also an atheist, and many of the Discworld books (including my personal favorite, Small Gods) show the virtues of atheism and humanism – no small feat in a riotous fantasy world where, as the author puts it, “the gods had a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows”.

And if you’re a fan of Pratchett, you may also know that in December 2007, he announced he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – a grim prognosis, since the early-onset form of the disease tends to be the fastest-developing, and treatment options tend to do no more than delay the spread. As Pratchett himself said, “I know three people who have successfully survived brain tumors but no one who has beaten Alzheimer’s.”

Although he’s still writing and still cheerful, Pratchett has said in recent weeks that he does not believe in “a duty to suffer the worst ravages of terminal illness”, and that when the time comes when he faces an irreversible disintegration of self, he would rather end his life on his own terms:

Now, however, I live in hope – hope that before the disease in my brain finally wipes it clean, I can jump before I am pushed and drag my evil Nemesis to its doom, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in combat as they go over the waterfall.

…I am enjoying my life to the full, and hope to continue for quite some time. But I also intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod – the latter because Thomas’s music could lift even an atheist a little bit closer to Heaven – and perhaps a second brandy if there is time.

Oh, and since this is England I had better add: ‘If wet, in the library.’

In recent weeks, he’s also spoken out against assisted-suicide guidelines which appear to leave open the possibility that citizens of the U.K. could be prosecuted for murder for helping a terminally ill loved one take their own life.

Of course, I hope Terry Pratchett, despite the diagnosis, has many more years of happy and productive life ahead of him (and not just for my own selfish reason of wanting to read more of his books!). I hope with all my might that a cure for Alzheimer’s will be found in time. But when my time comes, as it will for all of us, I hope to face the inevitable even half as well as he has this far: with good humor and courage, a fearless self-determination to take my destiny into my own hands, and a hope that some greater good can come about from individual tragedy.

And I’m encouraged to believe that comfort and acceptance in the face of mortality may not be as hard to come by as people think (or as religious proselytizers would like us to believe). There have been many freethinkers who exited life in peace and dignity, such as Edward and Joan Downes, whose story I mentioned this past July. It’s likely that the more high-profile examples there are of atheists peacefully coming to terms with the inevitable, the more common and accepted it will be, and the easier it will become for all of us.

New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Steve Bowen

    Serendipity!I was looking for an opportunity to suggest Terry Pratchett’s “Nation” which I’ve just read. Not a discworld novel but an alt-earth fantasy with some brilliant philosophical insights and a clear atheist perspective… and yes Ebon I share your hope that he can, against the odds, beat Alzheimer’s and continue to write.

  • Steve Bowen

    In recent weeks, he’s also spoken out against assisted-suicide guidelines which appear to leave open the possibility that citizens of the U.K. could be prosecuted for murder for helping a terminally ill loved one take their own life.

    Oh and you always could get prosecuted for murder or manslaughter in the U.K for assisting a suicide if you administer drugs etc. Helping people indirectly (by leaving drugs within reach, or transporting them to Dignitas in Switzerland) is a criminal offence, punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. However, the DPP (Dept Public Prosecution) has discretion over whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. The guidlines came about after the law lords backed an appeal by U.K citizen Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, to clarify under what circumstances people would be prosecuted for helping someone kill themselves. As always when you ask for clarification some times the answer is not what you hope it to be.

  • Matt M

    Can’t pass up this chance to post one of my favourite Pratchett quotes:

    There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.

  • keddaw

    The decision to leave the prosecution open to discretion means that there will inevitably be some people charged for reasons more to do with their politics than their acts.

    However, Pratchett is a wonderful author, holding up a mirror to show us what a world where superstition is real would really be like. He also gives wonderful insights into the human condition and highlights the all-too-common foibles even the most rational people have.

  • Steven

    I recall finding out that much to my surprise Terry Pratchett is just as funny in person as in his novels when he made a personal appearance at the University of Toronto. I’ve read all of his books (many of them more than once)and I love the way he gets his point across while still making me laugh out loud. Having seen more than one elderly relative suffer from Alzheimer’s (and worried that I’ll face the same fate in 40 years or so)I hope a cure will be found sooner rather than later. I can’t help but wonder if less opposition to stem-cell research over the past few decades might have made a difference.

  • Steve Bowen

    The decision to leave the prosecution open to discretion means that there will inevitably be some people charged for reasons more to do with their politics than their acts.

    Possibly but it takes a degree of paranoia to think this will happen in practise. A lot of the dissapointment around these guidelines is that many in the pro-euthanasia camp were hoping for a favourable change in the law rather than a clarification (the press are partly responsible for this) but that was not what the DPP were obliged by the ruling to do.

  • 1minion

    Yeah, he’s been at the top of my favourite author list for at least 20 years. He rarely disappoints. I adore Small Gods as well. I read Hogfather every Christmas. I don’t care that someone walked off with my hardcover copy of Night Watch, because he or she must surely have been an impoverished fan in need.

    I want to buy a Thud board, and I long to play Cripple Mr. Onion with the big boys.

  • Demonhype

    Straight up parody? I’m definitely looking for Discworld now.

    I used to be a pretty avid reader of fantasy, if not sci-fi, from about seventeen to twenty or so, when I kind of grew out of it. It got to a point where every author seemed to really want to be JRR Tolkein, and the bits of individual variation were just not enough to make it interesting anymore. Re-read much of it over again after I’d outgrown it and after I had become officially atheistic, and was again turned off by the irritating god-bothering stupidity and occasional atheist strawman knockdowns that seem so common in the genre. It’s true that you don’t often notice bigotry until it hits you. I’m still being told that I’m “just looking for reasons to be pissed off” when I notice a blatant anti-atheist insult in something. Yes, and a black guy is just looking for reasons to be pissed off when someone says “I’m not racist, but (insert carefully-worded racist comment)”. And punctuates that with an insistence that he does, indeed, have many black friends.

    I think the most recent thing I read was Exile from the Dark Elf Trilogy because I’d heard that the trilogy was pretty big in fantasy and also I’d read the Cleric quintet and wondered if Salvatore’s obnoxious and sanctimonious attitude and style could have been a later shift (which does happen at times). Liked it, but was hesitant, because I know the guy can start with a somewhat appealing character and I was waiting for the hero to run into some even more direct authorial insert and learn how ginormous his dick really was and how he, being the hero, can do whatever he likes because anyone he “needs” to kill had it coming. I liked Drizzt all the way from Exile to almost the end of Sojourn. He started his turn when he met the ranger, who imparted Salvatore’s extremely simple “wisdom” upon him, and began his change into an obnoxious self-satisfied prick. The change was complete in the next book, Steams of Silver started to directly insult a lot of poorly constructed strawman atheists and scientists in the little mid-section “blog posts” from our hero, and I stopped hoping at all at the end of The Halfling’s Gem. Never bothered to go any further. It’s over.

    I think Salvatore pisses me off the most because he feels the need to pontificate his simplistic values to the reader, as if a magic world wherein good and evil are inherent and plainly visible racial traits and evil people are invariably ugly and/or unappealing and right and wrong can be easily assigned not by actions but by those simple discriminations, could possibly have values relevant to readers who live in a morally ambiguous world. It’s one thing to write something with those values–I can just bump that aside even if I dont’ read any more of your books–but add in a running heroes’ commentary lecturing the reader on those values and that sets me off.

    I could write a whole book on the subject, but Salvatore was my last damn straw, and he killed any lingering desire for the genre that I might have still had left. He has become my own personal poster child for everything that is wrong with the genre.

    I go on and on with that, because I want to impart exactly how dedicated I am to hunting out Discworld if it began as a straight parody of the fantasy genre. Nobody has ever really described it the way you have on this blog, and so I want you to know you’re directly responsible for another potential fan of this author! I’ve heard the name and the fact that he’s atheist interested me, but too often the atheist sensibilities are just too veiled while the uber-Jesus influences are gleefully ground into your face and seeing as how in my neck of the woods it’s hard to obtain many books without actually buying them, it wasn’t a priority. Most of my own work is in answer to things I find infuriating or disgusting about fantasy novels, and I would love to find some inspriation in a good parody of the genre, even more so if it is parody-ing direct examples! Perhaps Pratchett will become my poster-child for the other end of the spectrum!

    How were the parodies? Was this a kind of subtle thing, or was it a no-holds-barred all-out nothing-sacred kind of thing?

  • Valhar2000

    Demonhype, the parodies that Terry Prattchett makes are not in any way subtle, though that does not mean that they lack depth, charm or intricacy; this becomes particularly noticeable as the series of books progresses and the Discworld itself acquires complexity.

    Eventually, you notice that the backdrop to all the stories, the Discworld, is much like our world, an enormous and complicated place where millions of little stories are happening at the same time all over, and the author just concentrates on telling you one of them in each book.

    If that does nto appeal to you, there is always Prattchetts way with words: I had a dime for every time I have burst our laughing at one of his jokes…

  • Snoof

    Woo, Discworld, a topic about which I can speak authoritatively. (By the fnords, I’m such a geek.)

    The first book, The Colour of Magic, is a pretty much straight up parody of the fantasy genre. There’s specific takes on Anne McCaffrey, H P Lovecraft, Fritz Lieber and Robert E Howard off the top of my head, among others. Overall, the parodies were pretty subtle (I enjoyed the book _before_ reading most of those authors, for example), and it’s no Bored of the Rings. On the other hand, it’s generally considered one of the weaker books.

    Other books typically focus on a specific area to parody – for example, Guards Guards is a fairly standard look at a city being menaced by a dragon, except the protagonists are, rather than square-jawed musclemen, the Night Watch, i.e. the nameless mooks who in other books get killed off in the first chapter to show how awesome said musclemen are[1]. There’s also parodies of real world phenomena – Moving Pictures is what happens when cinema comes to the Disc, and Soul Music does the same for rock and roll.

    Later books (after, say, the fifteenth or so) tend to be more philosophical, less about the gags and more about pointing out the inherent humour in various fantasy (and real world) tropes. One of the things I particularly like about the series is the world works; Terry takes the time to think about how real people would react to living in a fantasy world. The Discworld’s also a departure from the D&D model of fantasy – one of the concepts which crops up from time to time is that “heroing” as done by Conan the Barbarian would be classified by a civilised society as “theft and murder”. There’s also been accusations of the last few (particularly Going Postal and Making Money) being a bit preachy, but considering they’re basically about business and economics (and yes, humour), but I didn’t find it that noticeable. YMMV.

    Let’s see… an excellent place to start is Mort, the fourth book. The basic plot: Death takes an apprentice. After that, if you want to read others, reading the books in order is probably the best idea since many of the books build on events in previous ones. There’s also a number of “subseries” in the books, that is, sets of books featuring the same set of characters as protagonists, which can also work to guide reading order. For example, if you liked the Watch, they appear as protagonists in Guards, Guards, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch and Thud. More info on those (and practically everything else Discworld) can be found on the Discworld & Pratchett wiki. Be warned, spoilers abound.

    [1] Okay, yes, there’s Carrot, but he’s hardly your typical fantasy hero.

  • marty

    He’s also got a new book out now, or at least, out now in Australia. Unseen Academicals. Haven’t read it as yet, it appears to be another in the sub-series of Unseen University stories[1]

    [1] Which may or may not include Rincewind[2]
    [2] “Hero” of the first two novels and a few others later on

  • Yahzi

    Demonhype – I had never noticed anti-atheist messages in fantasy before. But then, I never read Salvatore. My favorite authors are the old school Vance and Le Guin, who are pretty clearly atheists. In the modern tongue, Dave Duncan and Eragon’s Palini (as he makes clear in the 2nd book) are also humanistic.

    I’m terribly interested to know what you think of my book (Sword of the Bright Lady, available from Amazon). Interested, but a little nervous – that’s a first class rant you’ve fired off there. :D

  • D

    By the stars that died to make us, it’s such a shame that so marvellous a mind should find its brain ravaged by so terrible a disease. I hope he dies satisfied with the course of his life, all the way up to the very last moment.

  • Valhar2000

    D wrote:

    I hope he dies satisfied with the course of his life, all the way up to the very last moment.

    Anyone who can write something like “Interesting Times” in one lifetime can die satisfied; Terry Prattchett did much more than that.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yahzi, I always saw Gandalf as a Christ figure. Not just because of the resurrection, either.

  • Elizabeth

    I attended the first North American Discworld convention this past September, and he did briefly mention the way he wants to go, and everyone cheered. He’s still so sharp and funny I was privileged to be in his presence!
    He is saying that the symptoms he is currently experiencing are more spacial than verbal / memory at the moment.
    I have to admit reading The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic isn’t really the way to introduce someone to his books. They did start out as straight parody but the world and storylines have become so rich and complex that it’s almost like those first few books don’t belong to it anymore.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Wow. I’m really inspired. I haven’t read any of his stuff, but now I can’t wait. Thanks for introducing me to him.

  • Danikajaye

    Can anybody suggest the best place to start with a Terry Pratchett book? I note above that some people don’t think the earlier books are the best. Is it advisable to start from the beginning or is it easy to pick up the thread anywhere along the line? Do the books follow on from one another? I quite like the look of Small Gods and Hogfather.

  • Snoof

    Danikajaye: Mort is an excellent place to start. Small Gods is good too, as it doesn’t rely heavily on other novels. Hogfather… it helps to have read Mort and Soul Music. Pyramids also works; once again it’s light on continuity and is pretty funny. Starting at the first books in the various subseries can help, too – that’s Guards, Guards for the Watch series, Wyrd Sisters for the Witches[1] and The Colour of Magic for Rincewind, and once again, Mort for the Death series. If you’re into movies, especially the golden age of cinema, Moving Pictures might be worth a look, too.

    [1] Yes, I realise Granny Weatherwax makes her first appearance in Equal Rites. However, the series really starts (IMO) in Wyrd Sisters, and it’s a great book, too.

  • Nes

    With notice that I have only read the first three (The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites) and the ones labeled here as Young Adult, this chart might be a good starting point. Anyone more familiar with them care to comment on that chart?

    Regardless, I intend to read them in publication order. (Not counting the young adult ones, obviously. That was a bit of a fluke; I got them as a gift.)

  • Ebonmuse

    That chart is accurate, as far as I know (I blush to admit, I haven’t read some of the things on it!), although it hasn’t been updated for the last few books.

    If you want to read the Discworld books in a strict chronology, that chart is a good guide, although I think it makes the series look much more monolithic and intimidating than it is. Really, the key point is that Discworld is actually several different sub-series, each of which focuses on a different recurring character or set of recurring characters (the Rincewind books, the Death books, the City Watch books, and the Granny Weatherwax books, mainly, although the latest ones have started introducing other new characters).

    Reading the books in the order of publication is the best way to get into the series, but I don’t think it’s essential – I wouldn’t say there’s any Discworld book that’s so dense with backstory that you can’t start off with it. Most of the books stand fairly well on their own, in terms of plot; reading the earlier books is more of a way to get insight into who the characters are and how they behave.

  • Chris Swanson

    Pratchett is, hands down, my favorite author. I wasn’t able to make it to the North American Discworld Convention held here in Phoenix last month, but I was at least able to see him during a speaking engagement later. He’s a great writer and a hell of a guy!

  • Demonhype


    I’ll check that out and get back to you (saved your website on my favorites)! >;) Thank you for calling it a first-class rant though (I’m assuming that was a compliment)–that’s actually only a small sample. I’ve been told I should go into the critic business more than once! :D

    Sorry I didn’t get in here sooner, but I’ve had a lot going on and didn’t have time for any potential back-and-forth regarding Salvatore. I’ve read the positive fan comments on Amazon, and I suspect it would be as distracting, tiring and ultimately futile as arguing with a fundementalist!

  • Lurch

    Just a brief comment, re Mr Pratchett.

    Don’t just read his Discworld books. For instance, one of – if not actually his first – was Good Omens.. the book which introduced the author to my library.

    So far, in 50+ years, Mr Pratchett is the ONLY author who can regularly make me laugh out loud as I read.

    (oh – the chart is not up to date. At the very least, it lacks “Making Money”, a direct sequel to “Going Postal”)