LARB Blog: Pratchett Memorial

I was invited to do an appreciation of Terry Pratchett for the Los Angeles Review of Books blog:  Death and the Author: A Brief Commemoration of Terry Pratchett“.

(Thanks to sister Kelly Butler for additional proof reading.) 

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“We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us”

From “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels’, The Lion and the Unicorn (2004), 28(2): pp. 171-185

[This article in part draws on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that the self has to respond to the other’s right to be and to aid the other, even at expense to the self. This philosopher was central to my PhD. The other three novels were Gillian Rubinstein’s Space Demons (1986), Robert Westall’s Gulf (1992) and Gloria
Skurzynski’s
Virtual War (1997)]

There is a moment in Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind (first published 1992) when the hero Johnny Maxwell watches some television: “There was a film on the News showing some missiles streaking over some city. It was quite good” (22). By comments in subsequent chapters it becomes clear that the military action being shown is the Gulf War of 1991, a war which Jean Baudrillard has argued did not take place, and which for the children who are central to Only You Can Save Mankind has taken on the shape of a video game; indeed, they hear that the bombers have grown up playing such games:

“There was a man on the box saying that the bomb-aimers were so good because they all grew up playing computer games,” said Wobbler.
“See?” said Johnny. “That’s what I mean. Games look real. Real things look like games.” (116)

The virtual Gulf War is counterpointed with the computer game Only
You Can Save Mankind, which Johnny has started playing and indeed
entered into.

Continue reading →

Terry Pratchett (1948–2015)

It must have been somewhere around 1984 or 1985, and it must have been in Kevin’s bedroom, one lunch time or after school, that there was an advert in a computer magazine for The Colour of Magic (1983). Maybe it was a bit later and it was The Light Fantastic (1985). At some point I bought both — I suspect at a long-lost sf and gaming shop in the Broadmarsh Centre — and read and enjoyed, although I preferred the novel to what was effectively a few novellas. I bought each paperback as it came out and, in 1989 in Leeds at a convention, had the slightly embarrassing experience of queueing up to get an already-signed copy of Mort (1987) signed by Pratchett. I had found copies of The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981) in the local library and read them — indeed I bought the latter when the library sold it.

At some point in the early 1990s I went to a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Sheffield, and sat there wondering why no one was talking about Pratchett and Death. Eventually, this turned into an article for Foundation (“Terry Pratchett and the Comedic Bildungsroman” (1996)), which I was never quite sure whether was a parody of an academic or serious. As if there’s a difference. In time, Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and I edited a collection of essays on Pratchett for FoundationGuilty of Literature (2001), which was nominated for a best-related book Hugo, and when I started writing books for Pocket Essentials it was one of the ideas I pitched. That was a fun summer or autumn, reading the novels one by one, made weirder by receiving a missive from Colin Smythe.

It had come to someone’s attention that I was writing a biography of Pratchett and people were somewhat aghast that I hadn’t spoken to anyone more than remotely connected to Pratchett. I pointed out that this was a work of criticism — which wasn’t actually reassuring to all parties, but it was hoped that it would be better than the one that three people had edited a couple of years earlier. Coughs quietly. And indeed, I was led to believe that a biography might not be objected to — although I presumed that most of it would be about someone sat at a keyboard. I was invited to visit Colin Smythe and picked up from the station by a large expensive car, and was lent a copy of the book that was going to come out just as we went to press.

At that point I had OD’ed on the novels. At some point I wrote a piece on Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) in relation to other virtual reality war novels — “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels” (The Lion and the Unicorn (2004) 28(2)) — and I was commissioned to edited a book on Pratchett for Greenwood Press, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2008), which damn near killed me. Certainly I could have done without an all-night proof read of the galleys putting right the errors introduced into the manuscript. And I learned — as I had with the Pocket Essentials — that some of Pratchett’s readers don’t like anything other than absolute praise. OK, sobeit: He was the finest comic writer of the last thirty years. But sometimes he nodded.

This is going to go on, but here are two parts of the intro to the Greenwood volume. I’m not sure I ever read Making Money, but I will and no doubt will be lured back to read him. Just because you love a writer’s work, doesn’t mean that it can’t be criticised. Continue reading →