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.

“Long Earth” a Bit Long on Explication

I finished Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth last night, and it was, unfortunately, a rather mediocre experience. While I did not really expect this collaboration to hit all the high notes that Sir Terry and Neil Gaiman did in Good Omens, I had hoped for something better.

The novel does score a lot of points for originality in terms of its “multiverse” concept involving many, many parallel Earths, of which ours seems to be the only one that has homo sapiens. While aspects of this concept were intriguing, in general the characters were not. On top of that, the authors seemed to interpret the idea of “show me, don’t tell me” by having much of the story, well, told to the reader via dialogue, often verging more on monologues with one character explaining things to another in long and often multiple paragraphs.

In 20/20 hindsight, I think a better approach would have been to center the story around one of the minor characters, a Madison WI police officer, letting her discover and dig up the facts instead of them being told to us. I suppose that might seem like self-plagiarizing of Pratchett’s Sam Vimes character from some of his Discworld novels; but then they duplicated Good Omen’s use of nuns as sometimes humorous characters and the re-use of the character name “Lobsang”, so why not?

If you enjoy parallel universe stories, this may be worth your time; but if you need great character development and scintillating writing, you may want to pass on it — as much as it pains me to say that about anything by Mr. Pratchett.

The Long Earth Is Here

I woke up this morning to find The Long Earth on my Kindle. I pre-ordered this beginning of a new series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter sight unseen. Sir Terry is one of the very few authors I’d spend $12.99 on without even sampling first, and I’m interested to see what he comes up with here in his return to SciFi (and a return to collaboration, such as the marvelous Good Omens he wrote with Neil Gaiman). From the Amazon blurb:

The possibilities are endless. (Just be careful what you wish for….)

1916: The Western Front. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong and the wind in the leaves. Where have the mud, blood, and blasted landscape of no-man’s-land gone? For that matter, where has Percy gone?

2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Police officer Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive—some say mad, others allege dangerous—scientist who seems to have vanished. Sifting through the wreckage, Jansson find a curious gadget: a box containing some rudimentary wiring, a three-way switch, and . . . a potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way humankind views the world forever.

The first novel in an exciting new collaboration between Discworld creator Terry Pratchett and the acclaimed SF writer Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth transports readers to the ends of the earth—and far beyond. All it takes is a single step….

It looks like I’ll either be busy this weekend, or not getting enough sleep for the rest of this work-week.

“Good Omens” Is Back on Kindle

One of my all-time favorite books is coming back to Kindle in a couple days. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman got together in the late 1980’s and decided to collaborate on a novel, the result being Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. It is a satirical look at the Apocalypse (along the vein of the movie “The Omen”), but satirical in the loving way that Pratchett demonstrates in his “Discworld” books, too. From the review:

“Pratchett’s wackiness collaborates with Gaiman’s morbid humor; the result is a humanist delight to be savored and reread again and again. You see, there was a bit of a mixup when the Antichrist was born, due in part to the machinations of Crowley, who did not so much fall as saunter downwards, and in part to the mysterious ways as manifested in the form of a part-time rare book dealer, an angel named Aziraphale. Like top agents everywhere, they’ve long had more in common with each other than the sides they represent, or the conflict they are nominally engaged in. The only person who knows how it will all end is Agnes Nutter, a witch whose prophecies all come true, if one can only manage to decipher them. The minor characters along the way (Famine makes an appearance as diet crazes, no-calorie food and anorexia epidemics) are as much fun as the story as a whole, which adds up to one of those rare books which is enormous fun to read the first time, and the second time, and the third time…”

I purchased the Kindle version (after reading my paperback 3 or 4 times) maybe a couple years ago, and then it was withdrawn from Amazon for some reason. It is now available for pre-order (at $9.99) for release on 28 June 2011. The version I have is in the dreaded Topaz format. (I find the use of Topaz makes it more difficult to adjust things like font size/type and line-spacing in order to improve readability.) I’ll be interested to see if this new version is still in Topaz or in the “regular” MOBI-based AZW format. If the latter, I’ll have to contact Kindle customer service and see if I can get my copy replaced with the new version.

Good Omens gets my highest recommendations, and is easily in my all-time top 10 book list.

Is the Stand-Alone Novel a Lost Art?

Wheel of Time covers Is it just me, or does it seem like almost nobody writes stand-alone works of fiction any more? At least in my favorite genres, science fiction and fantasy, every book that comes out these days is number something in the so-and-so series. Don’t get me wrong: I have enjoyed many series, and they can be rewarding in their depth and scope. However, sometimes I really enjoy reading a single book that is complete and self-contained; there’s no need to remember what happened in earlier installments and no frustrating wait for the next sequel.

I suspect part of it is that once an author has invested himself or herself in the creation of a world and populated it with interesting (hopefully) characters, the temptation must be immense to make use of all that work in subsequent books, rather than going through the whole creation process again. This is probably especially true in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which generally requires a lot of such world-building.

However, I also like to blame it on what I think of as the “Hollywood syndrome”, which can be summed up as: once you create something successful, repeat it over and over rather than taking a chance on something new. In the world of publishing, I don’t know how much of that is pressure from the publishers on the authors to repeat what sold before and how much is the authors either wanting to capitalize on what made them some bucks (and who can blame them) or fearing failure if they try something new.

As in most things in life, it’s probably a combination of all those influences and others I’ve not thought of, applied in varying degrees in different circumstances. At least my favorite living author, Sir Terry Pratchett, though mostly writing books in his “Discworld” series, has the the decency to have each such book be a stand-alone story that can be read in isolation, and he jumps between a number of story arcs with each new release, so it’s not like reading a linear, closely coupled series of books such as the late Robert Jordan‘s “Wheel of Time” series.

I do wish, however, there were more modern authors like my all-time favorite, Roger Zelazny, who could spin out a wonderful series (see his “Amber” novels) while also creating marvelous stand-alone books, epitomized perhaps by Lord of Light

Hey, if there are any authors out there who both write series and for some reason read this blog, too, how about leaving a comment here to let us know what your rationale is for serialization?

Review: I Shall Wear Midnight

Last night I finished reading Terry Pratchett‘s latest novel, I Shall Wear Midnight. This is the fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series, set within his much larger series of “Discworld” books. This sub-series started with Tiffany at age 9 as she discovered her calling to become a witch, and now, at 16 years old, she is on her own as a full fledged witch with her own steading: the entire “Chalk” area where she was born and raised.

The story includes numerous characters we’ve come to know from other books in the series, from Roland, baron-to-be of the Chalk, senior witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, the inimitable Nac Mac Feegles (“Ach! Crivens!”), plus appearances by several characters from other Discworld books, some in cameo appearances and some with more significant roles. (I’ll not mention them all, as some such identifications might be spoilers.)

Rob Anybody […] turned to his brother and said, “Ye will bring tae mind, brother o’ mine, that there was times when ye should stick your head up a duck’s bottom rahter than talk?”

Daft Wullie looked down at his feet. “Sorry, Rob. I couldna find a duck just noo.”

The book does Sir Terry’s usual balancing act of humor, action, personal relationships, and dealing with serious themes. Perhaps that is one of his greatest talents: being able to pull off such a balancing act without the reader being jarred by the gear changes (if I may mix my metaphors). The writing flows easily in his typically informal style. According to a radio interview I heard recently, Mr. Pratchett “wrote” this book via text-to-speech software, due to motor skill issues as his early onset Alzheimer’s has progressed. I could not detect any significant stylistic differences from the other books, so the process seems to be largely transparent, at least to this reader.

I have a couple minor complaints. The plot seemed essentially to be the same as the last two books in the series: some powerful supernatural entity takes an interest in Tiffany, begins to pursue her in some manner, and she has to figure out how to deal with it. I therefore found myself experiencing a certain amount of déjà vu while reading this book. I also found the way that the aforementioned supernatural being affected the attitudes/actions of other people to be, perhaps, a bit too much of a deus ex machina way to drive character interactions. This is a fantasy novel, so it’s not strictly wrong to do so, but I would have preferred that Tiffany have to deal with “real” attitudes and personalities, rather than magically affected ones.

But those truly are marginal complaints for me, at worst limiting this to being a very good book instead of a great book. I would still highly recommend it, though I would suggest reading the series in order if you are new to it, starting with The Wee Free Men

Old Habits Die Hard

I Shall Wear Midnight: Since I own paper versions of all of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books, while tempted to go Kindle for the next one, I decided I simply had to have it in a dead-tree version. I therefore pre-ordered I Shall Wear Midnight in hardback. I just got an email earlier today that it has shipped, so in a few days I’ll be rustling pages instead of clicking buttons.

For now I have resisted the temptation to also purchase the Kindle edition — especially since, with the current pricing issues with the publishers the Kindle version costs more than the hardcover at Amazon. But with my eyes and the ability to adjust font size on the Kindle, it is becoming less and less attractive for me to read paper versions any more. This was recently brought home to me when I decided to read my old paperback copy of Roger Zelazny‘s Doorways in the Sand. The typeface in that edition is so small and the line-spacing pretty narrow, resulting in it being a non-trivial strain for me to read. I still enjoyed it (as always), but I would really have preferred it on my Kindle. That was probably the worst case font-size-wise I’ve run into since I’ve had my Kindle, but it did serve to make me think twice about future paper-version orders. Hopefully I Will Wear Midnight will be set in a nice, clean typeface as others in the series have, but I am wondering if I’ll order the next Pratchett book in paper or e-book version.