Pratchett, Terry. Once More, with Footnotes.

Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 2004.

Terry Pratchett was Guest of Honor at the 2004 World Fantasy Convention and the organizers had a great idea: This sort of odds-and-sods collection of all (well, much of) the small stuff Sir Terry has written over the past twenty years, which most of us probably have never seen. Introductions to books, fantasy con banquet speeches, talks to learned societies that don’t take themselves too seriously (though “Imaginary Worlds, Real Stories” is both serious and seriously funny), short newspaper and magazine articles, a book-signing tour report (quietly hilarious, really), and an assortment of short stories, both Discworld-related and not. Early in his literary career, he paid the bills as a journalist and civil service press officer, and much of this volume comes from that phase of his life. So these brief pieces are largely (theoretically) “forgettable” — but he says himself that “when you’re a journalist you’re writing for tomorrow. Or possibly Friday. You’re not writing for forever.” Still, they give a sense of history and completeness, and there’s a leavening of the dry wit that I don’t think he’s capable of omitting from anything he writes.

The Hades Business” was Pratchett’s first real story, written at age thirteen and published in the school magazine. He resisted the urge to completely rewrite it for this volume, which makes it useful as a bit of archaeology — and it’s actually not a bad piece of work for an adolescent first-timer. “Final Reward,” about what might happen when you kill off your fictional barbarian hero, also is an early effort, and a pretty good one. “Troll Bridge” is about Cohen the Barbarian (Discworld is never mentioned) trying to live down his reputation in the bright new world he fought to establish. “Hollywood Chickens,” another pre-Discworld yarn, and a very funny one, was perhaps the first of Pratchett’s stories to become a classic. “Theatre of Cruelty” is a Discworld story in the “Night Watch” series — a minor piece, but with something to say. “The Sea and Little Fishes” (maybe the best thing in the book) is in the “Witches” sub-series, about what happens when Mistress Granny Weatherwax decides there might be a useful purpose in being nice, just for awhile. The story “Turntables of the Night,” on the other hand, is sort of a side-note to Discworld, concerning the Ultimate Collector. And there’s “# ifdefDEBUG + ‘world/enough’ + ‘time’” (I wonder how you would alphabetize that?), a nice little story about the stolidly unimaginative maintenance guys who keep virtual reality running. And “Once and Future,” a rather good Arthurian time travel story. Or maybe that should be “Arthurette.” (Nah.)

Pratchett is known to have strong opinions about fantasy, the “ur-literature,” as evidenced in the short but very good “Roots of Fantasy.” Likewise, “Elves Were Bastards.” “Whose Fantasy Are You?” makes the case for all writers being fantasy authors. “Let There Be Dragons” is a resoundingly sane discussion of the proper place of fantasy in children’s literature. And “Magic Kingdoms” addresses the puzzle of why the English are so dedicated to writing fantasy. “Cult Classic” is a sharp, well-deserved attack on critics who decry the popularity of Tolkien (by far the most popular author in Britain) because LOTR is merely a “cult” novel — defined as “inexplicably popular but unworthy.” He also believes a special circle in Hell is reserved for any schoolteacher who condemns the fantasy her students would rather be reading as “escapist rubbish.” Terry also has some interesting and perceptive things to say about folklore and traditional observances, which are part and parcel of fantasy. Robin Hood, for instance, was successful not because he had a longbow but because he had minstrel Alan à Dale. “Weapons will only keep you alive but a good ballad can make you immortal.”

Of course, Pratchett has his passions, especially the plight of orangutans, who are very close relatives of ours and whose habitat is in extreme peril. In “The Orangutans Are Dying,” he says the decision to make the Librarian of Unseen University an ape took all of fifteen seconds, but it led to a continuing interest in the subject — and a justifiably growing anger.

Some of these pieces are extremely short. “The Choice Word” is only a couple of paragraphs about Pratchett’s favorite word, which is “susurration” — and it sounds like just what it means. “It’s the noise,” he says, “made just after the sword is withdrawn from the stone and just before the cheering starts.” And lines like that are exactly why I have such unbridled admiration for Terry Pratchett. Actually, I think the best way to approach such a miscellaneous and diverse volume as this is to pretend you’ve run into The Man Himself at WorldCon and he’s invited you up to his suite for banana daiquiris and an evening of good conversation about everything. (Now, there’s an appealing fantasy!)

Published in: on 23 February 2011 at 6:52 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] is the original post: Pratchett, Terry. Once More, with Footnotes. « BookSmith Related Posts:Terry Pratchett Trivia « 'Homecoming' Blog Often the most delightful […]

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