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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)

Science fiction and fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, best known as the creator of the Discworld series of novels, died on Thursday, 12 March 2015, at the age of 66. In 2007, he had been initially mis-diagnosed as having had a stroke; it was only four months later that he announced that he was suffering a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, or "the embuggerance" as Pratchett called it.

Many of his 70 fantasy novels were set on the Discworld, a flat disc supported on the backs of four elephants who stood upon a giant turtle. This vast world allowed Pratchett the scope to explore endlessly and in whatever direction he cared to take. Over the course of 40 titles, Pratchett was able to satirize everything from Shakespeare to the movie industry. The light, lively tone of the novels disguised Pratchett's treatment of many wide-ranging historical and philosophical subjects. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes:
Of particular sf interest is Pratchett's development of Discworld's chief City, Ankh-Morpork – initially perhaps no more than a nod to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar – into an intricately sleazy metropolis with all the bustle and stench of Victorian London. This city is subjected to gradual industrial revolution under the watchful eye of its ruthless and Machiavellian yet oddly sympathetic dictator, Lord Vetinari the Patrician. The Ankh-Morpork City Watch police-procedurals confront Captain Vimes of the Watch – an instinctive socialist and anti-Patrician – with threats that move steadily away from fantasy (a dragon in Guards! Guards!) to the high-velocity rifle of Men at Arms; an elaborate poisoning plot complicated by robot-like Golems in Feet of Clay; a highly popular and potentially disastrous war in Jingo (also featuring a voyage under the sea in another new Invention, the submarine); all too familiar problems with restive immigrant communities, here dwarfs and trolls, in The Fifth Elephant and Thud!; and even the dynamics of an internal city revolution in Night Watch, albeit thirty years in the past and visited by timeslip. Irreversible-seeming Disaster afflicts Discworld in Thief of Time, when a mad scientist based in Ankh-Morpork creates the ultimate Time-measuring device and thus brings about the end of time. The Watch becomes sidelined by the invention of the printing press and hence of investigative journalism in The Truth, and recedes into the background as a new ex-conman hero is recruited by the Patrician to tackle huge financial frauds involving the continent-wide "clacks" semaphore system (featuring knowingly Internet-like protocols and "c-mail" addresses) and the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork in, respectively, Going Postal and Making Money. Pratchett's serio-comic rephrasing of hard political questions in the Discworld context is highly effective; Night Watch won the Prometheus Award for Libertarian SF.
The Discworld series was made up of a number of intersecting novels and characters, beginning with Rincewind (a wizard with almost no magical talent), the Witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick), the members of the night shift of the City Watch led by Samuel Vimes, Death and his apprentice, Mort, and, in a recent series of young adult novels, 11-year-old witch Tiffany Aching. Pratchett won the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, the first of his younger Discworld novels.

In 1994 he received the British Book Awards' Fantasy and Science Fiction Author of the Year award. His novel Pyramids won the British Science Fiction Award in 1989. He had fifteen novels in the top 200 compiled by the BBC's The Big Read poll in 2003 to identify the nation's best-loved novels, more than any other author. Five (Mort, Good Omens, Guards! Guards!, Night Watch and The Colour of Magic) were in the top 100, an achievement only matched by Charles Dickens.

Pratchett also received the NESFA Skylark Award in 2009 and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010. His contributions to young adult literature were recognised by the American Library Association he awarded him the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2011 and I Shall Wear Midnight won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2010.

Pratchett received numerous honorary doctorates from universities and was awarded an OBE in 1998 and a knighthood in 2009, both for services to literature.

Outside of writing, he became a frequent and eloquent speaker on subjects such as the future survival of the orangutan in Borneo—he was a trustee for the Orangutan Foundation UK—and assisted dying, on which subject he lectured (a BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture read by Tony Robinson and  broadcast in February 2010) and made a well-received TV documentary, Terry Pratchett Choosing To Die, broadcast in 2011, which won the Scottish BAFTA for Best Documentary. The Terry Pratchett First Novel Award was established as a biennial award for unpublished science fiction novelists and first awarded in 2011.

Terence David John Pratchett was born in 28 April 1948 in the village of Penn, near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, the only child of David Pratchett (1921-2006), an engineer, and his wife Eileen Florence (nee Kearns), who had married in 1942. Pratchett passed his 11+ and began attending Wycombe Technical High School, although did not complete his A-Levels and considered Beaconsfield Public Library the main source of his education.

His first story, 'The Hades Business', was one of a number published in the school magazine and later became his first professional sale when it was bought by Ted Carnell for Science-Fantasy in 1963. At 17 he became a trainee reporter on the local Bucks Free Press (where he contributed 247 episodes to the 'Children's Circle' section under the name Uncle Jim between 1965-70) and later continued his career as a journalist with the Western Daily Press in 1970 and, after briefly returning to the Bucks Free Press in 1972, the Bath Chronicle in 1973 He sold a further story to New Worlds ('Night Dweller', Nov 1965) and also wrote his first novel, The Carpet People, drawing on one of his earlier Uncle Jim stories. During an interview with publisher Peter Bander van Duren in 1968, he mentioned that he had written a book and it was subsequently published with illustrations by Pratchett by Van Duren and his business partner Colin Smythe in 1971.

Pratchett's association with Colin Smythe was the turning point of his career. He went on to produce illustrations for 17 issues of the journal Psychic Researcher whilst writing his second novel, The Dark of the Sun (1976). His third novel, Strata (1981), introduced an earlier version of the flat earth that was to become Discworld in his next novel The Colour of Magic (1983). A paperback edition of the latter was published by Corgi Books in 1985 and by 1987, when The Light Fantastic (1986) was published by Corgi, Pratchett's sales began to boom. Colin Smythe quickly realised that Pratchett would be better served by a larger publisher and instead became his agent. The third Discworld novel, Equal Rites (1987), was published by Gollancz, who offered him a three-book deal.

In 1980, Pratchett had begun working as a publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) but was able to take up writing full time in 1987. Over the next three decades, Pratchett wrote some 70 books, amongst them novels for young children, including the Nome trilogy, beginning with Truckers (1988) and a trio of novels featuring Johnny Maxwell starting with Only You Can Save Mankind (1992); he collaborated with Gray Jolliffe on The Unadulterated Cat (1989) and Neil Gaiman on Good Omens (1990), which was recently adapted by Radio 4 (2014). He also almost collaborated with Larry Niven, creator of the Ringworld (and one of the authors Strata parodied) but the novel Rainbow Mars (1999) was later completed by Niven alone, with acknowledgment to Pratchett.

Over the years there have been numerous adaptations of Pratchett's work, including numerous radio plays and stage plays, the latter adapted by Stephen Briggs. Nation was adapted by the National Theatre in 2009-10, including a performance broadcast to cinemas in January 2010. In 1992, Cosgrove Hall Films made a stop motion animated version of Truckers, followed by cartoon sereis based on Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music in 1996. Live action adaptations of Johnny and the Dead (1996) and Johnny and the Bomb (2006) were produced for ITV and BBC1 respectively.

A number of live action Discworld adaptations were broadcast by Sky from 2006, including Hogfather (2006), The Colour of Magic (2008), The Light Fantastic (2008) and Going Postal (2010).

Discworld has inspired four comic book adaptations, although three (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Guards! Guards!) were adapted by other hands. Mort (Gollancz, 1994) was adapted by Pratchett himself, with artwork by Graham Higgins.

The first dedicated Discworld convention was held in 1996 in Manchester with Pratchett as Guest of Honour. Pratchett was also well-known for his signing tours. He was forced to curtail many of his activities following his diagnosis with posterior cortical atrophy, a variant of Alzheimer's disease. He donated $1 million to the Alzheimer's Research Trust in 2008 after discovering how little funding  research into Alzheimer's received compared to cancer research. He also made Terry Pratchett: Living With Alzheimer's, broadcast in February 2009, to raise awareness of the illness.

Pratchett continued to write prolifically during his later years, learning to dictate rather than type at his bank of computer screens. Doubleday, his UK publishers in hardcover since 1998, noted that Snuff (2011) was Britain's third fastest selling novel since records began, selling 55,000 copies in three days.

Pratchett also began collaborating on a series of parallel world novels with Stephen Baxter, three of which were published: The Long Earth (2012), The Long War (2013) and Long Mars (2014). Planned to run to five volumes, the fourth, The Long Utopia, will be published in June 2015.

The author completed his 41st Discworld novel, The Shepherd's Crown, in the summer of 2014. It will be the fourth to feature (now teenage) witch Tiffany Aching. It will be published in the autumn, illustrated by his long-time collaborator, Paul Kidby.

Pratchett was married to Lyn Purves in October 1968. They moved to Rowberrow, Somerset, in 1970, where daughter Rhianna was born in 1976. In 1993 the Pratchetts moved to Broad Chalke, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Pratchett died at home of natural causes, survived by his wife and daughter, an asteroid (127005 Pratchett) and a fossil sea-turtle (Psephophorus terrypratchetti). A triptych of posts appeared on Pratchett's twitter account:
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death's arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
The End.
The announcement of his death  spread quickly around the world; fans responded in a variety of ways, with Reddit users designing a piece of code which could be embedded into any website to create a header reading "GNU Terry Pratchett"—a reference to Pratchett's Going Postal novel. A JustGiving page set up by Pratchett's publicist Lynsey Dalladay has raised over £40,000 for the Research Institute for the Care of Older People.

(* Photo: Luigi Novi; Discworld artwork by Josh Kirby.)

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