Only In Our Dreams Are We Free: RIP, Sir Terry

Sir Terry PratchettI finally feel at least somewhat ready to post a few words about the man who was, until recently, my favorite living writer. (The full quote, by the way, from Wyrd Sisters, is “Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.”)

Most of the time while reading Terry Prachett’s novels, I felt that I was sharing some amazing dreams with him. His clever use of words, fully fleshed and unique characters, and wonderful sense of place would pull me into the stories — occasionally shedding a tear, sometimes nodding my head in agreement, and often chuckling or outright laughing.

Sir Terry’s writing was enough to make me enjoy his books, but I think maybe our similarities in world views (with his perhaps just a tad more optimistic than mine) clinched the deal. I’ve read all 40 or so Discworld novels at least once, all except the last few at least twice, and many of them several times — and of course I lost count somewhere along the way for Good Omens (co-authored with some hack you may have heard of named Neil Gaiman).

Not only were his books immensely enjoyable, but for me they were even therapeutic. While dealing with a number of deaths in my family over the past few years, I often turned to his books not just as an escape, but as a way to reaffirm my belief in the good things about life and the human condition, yet never in a way that just whitewashed over the bad parts.

“And what would humans be without love?”
RARE, said Death.
~ Sourcery

Somehow I imagine Sir Terry is still having a friendly debate with Death about the meaning of life, smoking a pipe and enjoying a sherry, ensconced in a comfy chair in Death’s manse in the place beyond time.

Is the Magic Gone?

I recently finished Terry Pratchett‘s Raising Steam, the latest installment in his [fifth-]elephant-sized Discworld series, and I fear the magic may be disappearing in a couple ways.

Story-wise, there are only a few things that happen that can be directly attributed to “the light fantastic”, with the vast majority of the plot dealing with technological changes intertwined with social changes. In and of itself this is not necessarily a good or bad thing; but when you pick up a book that is part of a fantasy series, you tend to expect, well, fantasy.

On top of that, I found the actual story-telling to be somewhat heavy-handed in its parallels to modern society, with Sir Terry seeming to spend too much time telling us instead of showing us what is going on. This may in part be due to having so much he wanted to say in combination with perhaps a few too many characters, leaving this reader feeling that I never had time to really relate to any of the several important characters. Unfortunately, I also can’t help but wonder how much the writing might be affected by Mr. Pratchett’s early onset Alzheimer’s, both its effect on the mechanics of writing as well as mental processes involved.

All that being said, it’s not a bad book: I just did not find it to be an exceptionally good book. For me it was in that range where I’m glad I read it, but doubt that I would ever have any real interest in re-reading it. (Note that I am the sort of reader who is more than willing to re-read books I loved or really liked, not the sort who almost never re-reads anything.) All in all, it’s probably a must-read for hard-core Discworld fans, but if you are new to this world, I’d suggest starting out with one of the earlier novels.

Discworld on 99 Cents a Day

Well, at least for the first day, and assuming you’re a fast reader.

Anyway, I just noticed that Amazon has a new Kindle edition of the first book in Terry Pratchett‘s “Discworld” series, The Color of Magic, available for pre-order at only $0.99. It is scheduled for delivery on November 1, 2011, and contains excerpts from the latest in the series, Snuff (see my review).

While The Color of Magic and its sequel, The Light Fantastic, are perhaps not Sir Terry’s best, they are still great fun to read — especially if you’ve read a bit of epic fantasy and therefore can recognize the clichés at which he pokes loving fun. At 99 cents, it’s now an even better incentive to give the Discworld a try if, for some strange reason, you have resisted my siren calls so far. When I say “not Sir Terry’s best,” I just mean that they lack some of the depth of character and theme that begin to show up a few books later in the series; but they are still great reads that showcase Pratchett’s humor and word-smithing.

I have already pre-ordered my copy. Even though I own the paperback, now I’ll be able to read it more easily on my Kindle the next time I’m ready to follow the adventures of Rincewind, the world’s worst wizard, and Twoflower, the world’s first tourist — but beware the Luggage!

‘Snuff’: Good but not Great

I finished reading Snuff, the latest installment in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series, about a week ago. Due both to life getting in the way plus wanting to let this one sink in before writing a review, I’m finally getting around to it this evening.

The first passage I highlighted was location 93, in reference to my favorite Prachett character, Sam Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork by marriage and city cop by habit and inclination:

He’d managed to hold on to the cynical, however, and a brace of oxen on steroids would not have been able to pull the copper out of Sam Vimes; the poison was in too deep, wrapped around the spine. And so Sam Vimes itched, and counted his blessings until he ran out of numbers.*

My annotation for that sentence: “I already fell like I am in good hands.” I was glad to see that Sir Terry still appeared to be in good form, in spite of having to deal with Early Onset Alzheimer’s, requiring him to “write” now via voice recognition software.

This novel continued much in the manner of the last City Watch story arc novel, Thud!, as we follow Sam on a family vacation to his wife’s ancestral country estate. Once again Sam deals with bigotry (this time against “goblins”) and members of the upper class attempting to take advantage of their positions and privileges to take advantage of the less fortunated.

For me, this is probably what held Snuff back from being as great as the rest of the books in the City Watch story arc within the overall Discworld series: there was too much of a “been there, done that” feeling for me while reading it. The writing and storytelling were still excellent, and many of the little touches I’ve come to expect in terms of clever word-play, striking similes, and endearing characterization were there. However, I could not shake the feeling most of the time that I was simply reading Thud 2: The Return of The Summoning Dark. As such, while I enjoyed Snuff, I never had that feeling of wonder and/or inspiration that the best Discworld novels have given me, instead leaving it somewhere in my lower tier of Discworld books, “merely” a very good book that most other authors would love to have written, but not the best that Mr. Pratchett can produce.

I’ll wind this up with one more quote from the book; one worth remembering as we try to live better lives: “Goodness is about what you do. Not what you pray to.”**

_________
* Pratchett, Terry (2011-10-11). Snuff (Kindle Locations 93-95). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
** ibid (Kindle Location 3506)

Living Life on the Edge (for Me)

I just did something rebellious for me — almost scandalous: I have now purchased two non-free Kindle e-books in succession, without … wait for it … reading the samples first.

Okay, now that you’ve come back to consciousness after that shock to the system, let me explain. First it was Terry Pratchett’s latest “Discworld” book Snuff. I have read and enjoyed every other of the three dozen or so books in this series, so buying this one was a no-brainer (other than trying to decide which format to purchase). After reading it this past weekend, I can say that I feel vindicated in that pretty safe bet to buy it without sampling it first.

Perhaps a bit more of a risk was tonight’s purchase of Mercury Rises by Robert Kroese, the sequel to Mercury Falls. At $3.99 (at least for now), it’s not a huge monetary risk in any case; but since I quite enjoyed the first novel, I figured I would probably enjoy this one, too. But what cemented this reckless decision for me was reading the following imaginary interview on the Amazon product page:

Amazon Exclusive: Apocalyptic Journalist Christine Temetri Interviews Robert Kroese

Christine Temetri: Mercury Falls concerned a plot to bring about the apocalypse. Can we assume, given the fact that you have now written a sequel called Mercury Rises, that the apocalypse did not occur?

Robert Kroese: The apocalypse is a process. It’s not something that just happens all of a sudden. And it’s not entirely clear that you can prevent it, although it seems to have been delayed a bit. As Harry Giddings said, “We’ve always been headed toward the apocalypse. It’s just a question of proximity.”

CT: So what can you tell us about Mercury Rises? Does the apocalypse happen in that one?

RK: I probably shouldn’t answer that.

CT: Well, I hear you’re working on a third Mercury book, so presumably it doesn’t. Gotta keep that gravy train running, huh?

RK: I’m sorry, have I done something to offend you? Why are you so anxious for the apocalypse to happen?

CT: Why am I so anxious? Do you know how many near-apocalypses I’ve been through? Not to mention the fact that in Mercury Falls, you almost killed me on five different occasions. I can only imagine what I get subjected to in Mercury Rises.

RK: Oh, you’re not in Mercury Rises.

CT: I’m WHAT?

RK: That was a joke. Of course you’re in Mercury Rises. The volcano scene wouldn’t be nearly as exciting without you.

CT: Volcano scene?

RK: You’ll see. It’s fantastic. There’s a flaming goat head and everything.

CT: Sounds like a real literary coup. I suppose I have to put up with that jackass Mercury in this one, too?

RK: Well, he is the title character.

CT: Yeah, about that. Wasn’t the first book really more about me than Mercury? Why isn’t it Christine Falls?

RK: Mainly because that’s a terrible title.

CT: So, do Mercury and I get together in this one?

RK: Um…it’s really not that sort of book. There isn’t a lot of, you know, getting together.

CT: To sum up, then, no apocalypse and no sex. Is there anything of interest in this book at all?

RK: Uh…well, there are ziggurats.

CT: What’s a ziggurat?

RK: You know, a step pyramid. Like in ancient Babylon?

CT: The big selling point of the book is that it has “step pyramids” in it?

RK: Well, not the big selling point.

Mercury: Wow, dude, you are terrible at this.

CT: Mercury! Where did you come from?

M: I have a tendency to show up whenever Rob starts to get really long-winded and boring.

RK: He’s like comic relief.

M: More like AWESOMENESS relief.

RK: That makes it sound like you’re offering relief from awesomeness.

M: Dude, seriously. I’ve got this. Go read your Stan Hawkins book.

RK: It’s Stephen Hawking. He’s a famous physicist. I’m doing some research for book number three. You see, there’s this guy in Mercury Rises who is trying to capture these quantum particles to try to…

M: Wow, I just felt this tremendous disturbance in the Force, like a million people not caring at all.

RK: Fine. [inaudible]…write you out of existence…[inaudible]…

M: Good luck with that, Physics Boy!

‘Making Money’ on Sale for $4.99

I just noticed (thanks, Sharon!) that Terry Pratchett’s Making Money is currently on sale at Amazon for only $4.99. (Most of the “Discworld” catalog is priced around the $7.99 price point.) As you likely know by now, I am a huge Terry Pratchett fan. I own all three dozen or so of his “Discworld” books in paper versions, but this is tempting me nonetheless, as I know I’ll want to re-read it in the future (probably multiple times), and with my poor old eyes it’s much easier to do so on my Kindle these days.

Anyway, instead of me telling you what Making Money is about and how great Pratchett’s writing is, I’ll let you decide for yourself via this Kindle for the Web thingamajig. (I will note that it is a sequel to Going Postal, but as with the vast majority of “Discworld” books, it is essentially a stand-alone novel that build upon but is not dependent on the earlier book.)

For the Geometry Geeks

Okay, so this does not really have anything to do with Kindles and only marginally with e-books, but…

I was re-reading The Color of Magic (book #1 in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” collection) as one of this month’s reads in the GoodReads.com “SciFi and Fantasy eBook” group, and I encountered a passage that I remember wondering about before. It describes a temple in which the floor is paved with octagonal tiles. I was thinking about how if you take a bunch of octagons as we typically think of them (if you forgot what they look like, they’re 8-sided shapes just like a STOP sign), and try to arrange them on a flat surface by aligning them edge to edge, you’ll end up with a bunch of squares in between.

Go ahead: try it. I’ll wait.

See, I told you so.

However, while reading the novel this time, I was also referring to “The Annotated Pratchett File” — which, by the way, is a really useful sort of thing for the Kindle’s web browser. It actually mentioned this issue, and proposed a solution:

– [p. 98/87] “The floor was a continuous mosaic of eight-sided tiles, […]”

It is physically impossible for convex octagons (the ones we usually think of when we hear the word ‘octagon’) to tile a plane. Unless, of course, space itself would somehow be strangely distorted (one of the hallmarks of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos). It is possible, however, to tile a plane with non-convex octagons (and Terry nowhere says or implies he meant convex tiles). Proof is left as an exercise to the reader (I hate ASCII pictures).

I can go one better than ASCII graphics, and use “real” graphics. The secret, as alluded to above, is that in addition to some regular convex octagons…

,

…we also need some concave octagons, which look like four-pointed stars (count the sides: still eight, right?):

The final trick is to align the convex (stop sign) octagons point to point instead of side to side, and then there’s a nice space for our concave (star) octagons to fill the gaps. Now we no longer need four-sided square tiles (or lots of grout?) to fill the gaps:

octagonal tiles

So the only question left now is, was this what Sir Terry was thinking, or was he intentionally describing something that was impossible, or did he not even think about it at the time? I guess we’ll just have to wait until he reads this and then leaves a comment to let us know.

Graphic Guide to the Discworld

As many of my friends and family are probably all too aware, I am a big fan of Sir Terry Pratchett and his “Discworld” books. These books are not so much a series, as they are a collection of interrelated series and stand-alone books. As such, it can be a bit confusing to recent initiates as to which books to read in what order, should they want to follow a particular story arc in sequence.

Fortunately, in a post in the SciFi and Fantasy eBook Group over at GoodReads.com, Donna shared the discovery of a beautiful diagram available on-line that graphically illustrates the relationships and sequences of each of the story arcs and otherwise related groups of Discworld books (click on the following image to view it full-sized):

Discworld reading order diagram

Following one of the rows left to right gives you the books within that particular story arc/collection in chronological sequence (or in a very few cases in publication sequence where they more or less stand alone and outside of any specific chronology in relation to other books). Those rows are then presented vertically in the order those sub-groupings appeared. Solid lines connecting books indicate they are members of a specific story arc that should probably be best read in that order (left to right), while dashed lines indicate some relationship in terms of shared characters and/or themes, but not a specific story line that necessarily requires reading in that order — though given the choice, I’d still follow that sequence.

Of course, you can just read them all in publication order, in which case you’ll still read any two books in a given story arc in the correct sequence, though there will likely be some other books from other arcs in between. However, since each Discworld book is a self-contained story (except for the first two: The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic), you can’t go totally wrong picking them up in any order. (The only wrong way to read them is to not read them at all.)

If you have not partaken of this clever, lovingly satirical look at our world through the slightly distorted lens Sir Terry has provided us; I sometimes recommend starting with either the “Watch” story arc in Guards! Guards! or the “Witches” series with Wyrd Sisters. (Yes, I know, Wyrd Sisters is not the first one in that row; but see the dashed line between it and Equal Rites?) I suggest those two as entry points, in that they were written when Pratchett really started to hit full stride in terms of character development as well as deeper thematic material. If you start at the very beginning with The Color of Magic, you’ll probably be okay if you are a swords and sorcery fan already who would enjoy a loving parody of same, but if not, you might not be as immediately grabbed by it as I think you would by Sam Vimes and his City Watch group or by Granny Weatherwax and her coven of witches.

As to why there is a banana peel at the bottom of the diagram, you’ll just have to read the books to find out.

Ook!