Friday, March 13, 2015

Death comes for Pratchett

It's with absolute sadness I've just read this morning of the death of Terry Pratchett.

I was introduced to his writing through my brother.  That in itself was a minor miracle, as my brother wasn't really a big reader.  And yet he devoured Terry's books with an eager hunger.

To those who are unfamiliar with his work, it must seem a little odd.  Terry wrote mainly about fantasy - most are set on his Discworld, a flat world which is carried through space on the back of a giant turtle (although some people occasionally believe it to the spherical).

Certainly if you read the books in order, the first few feel more like your standard fantasy romp - with wizards and barbarian warriors.  But the more he wrote, but sharper his satire got, and the more the Discworld seemed to mirror our own culture in subtle ways.

An example of this is the Ankh-Morpork Fire Service which is mentioned several times.  Together with a warning about what happens when you pay people a rate according to the number of fires they put out.  With a reward system based upon "the more that burns, the more you earns", the Fire Service is said to have become filled with arsonists.

Another favourite is the "democracy" of Ankh Morpork which is "one man, one vote".  The dictator known as the Patrician alone is "the man" and he gets the only vote.

Key themes in his book have included

  • Cross cultural integration - many stories are told in the metropolis of Ankh Morpork, where humans are trying to live in relative harmony with dwarves and trolls.  Hint - it's considered suicide to talk into a dwarf bar and ask for a short.
  • Mob thinking - much like our world, people seem ready to follow like sheep pretty much anyone.  Especially if they have a glittering sword.  They're convinced that if a King returns, they'll make everything right.  Here "everything right" extends from sorting out the post office to stopping their husband snoring, according to who you ask.
  • Technology/magic gone amok - although a magical world, there is a certain logic to the Discworld.  As the books have progressed, they've introduced technology such as the Clacks.  Which is a kind of mobile phone technology using semaphore (people stand on street corners with a couple of paddles to send messages).  Often this has an impact on the world, in unexpected ways.

To me then, his writing has really encouraged a level of critical thinking about the world.  Much like the I, Robot series of Isaac Asimov - where there are 3 laws or robotics which can both remain true, but according to context bring out some weird behaviour in robots - I think some of his books are a must read for any tester just to challenge them, and to expand their minds.  Indeed, I have a new graduate on my team who is an avid fan, and not surprisingly they're shaping up to have the makings of a great tester.

Beyond just his writing though - I met him almost 21 years ago at a book signing in Birmingham with my brother.  It was actually quite quiet, and so we got to chat a bit with him.  I always fear meeting people I admire, because you're worried that in person they won't measure up.  But in fact in person he seemed wittier and had more charm about him than I'd imagined.

When he was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2007 it just seemed too cruel.  He was such a sharp mind, and to know he faced losing that vital trait seemed doubly sad.  Having watched Alzheimers "dissolve" the personality of my beloved grandmother, it's a condition I would not wish on anyone or their family.  And yet, he used his remaining years to really champion about the condition, and talk about it in a series of documentaries as a taboo we'd rather not think about until it happens to us or someone we love.

The doom of his body living on whilst his mind had long since departed terrified him.  And he spoke openly about choosing euthanasia before his mind failed like that.

Ironically one of Terry's most famous characters was that of Death, who appeared in every book of his.  Described as an "anthropomorphic personification", it's a character who has a lot of charm.  He often comes into the real world to try and experience life (and has a horse named Binky), so he can better understand and get rapport with those he ferries to the afterlife.

Sadly, today Terry got to meet the real thing ...

Death trying to cover for the Discworlds Hogfather/Santa Claus - a fellow "anthropomorphic personification"

Sometimes there is that one picture which gets the mood of a story like this - and here it is.  Artist unknown.

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