Terry Pratchett's Joyful, Absurd, Human Fantasy

The late author brought insight and compassion to his satire, and to his outlook on life and death.

“Death isn't cruel—merely terribly, terribly good at his job,” British fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett wrote in Sourcery, the fifth book in his long-running Discworld series, in 1988.

On Thursday, March 12, Pratchett died, as confirmed by his publisher, nearly eight years after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. He was 66. The BBC reports that he was at home, with his family.

Pratchett wrote more than 70 books over his career, most of which were set in Discworld—a fictional universe where the earth was flat, the inhabitants were strange, and the situations characters found themselves in were oddly familiar. He was was known for his satire, using fantasy to poke fun at everything from Hollywood to Shakespeare to diplomacy. The books are funny, biting and, despite the many supernatural creatures that pervade them, intensely human.

There is deep truth to be found in fictional stories, no less so if they include witches and wizards and a flat earth carried through space on the back of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle. Fantasy at its best is more than just escapism. The distorted funhouse mirror of an imagined world can sometimes reflect our own more clearly than the most realistic fiction. Pratchett’s books were fantasy at its best.

But what set him above and apart was his sense of joy. The Discworld novels are satirical, but it’s a kind satire, running over with affection for all the wacky, messed-up things in life. Even death.

One of Pratchett’s greatest and most beloved characters is Death, capital D, the walking personification of the end that waits for everyone. He looks like a classic reaper—a skeleton in a dark robe, wielding a scythe, talking only in all caps. But he rides a horse named Binky. He loves cats. When the Hogfather—Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus—goes missing, Death stands in, donning a beard and a red cloak, and doing his best to bring presents to Discworld’s children, even if he finds it a little hard to adjust to the role.

Death is “implacable, because that is his job,” Pratchett once wrote in The Guardian. But “he appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars.”

The quote is from an editorial in favor of euthanasia. Pratchett, informed by his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, actively advocated for people with incurable illnesses to have a say in when they die. But in typical fashion, his argument for choosing to die came from a love for life. “If I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as ­precious as a million pounds,” his Guardian piece ends. “If I knew that I could die, I would live.”

This wonder in life shines through in his writing, in all of his characters, from the gods down to the rats. (Who are met by their own Death—sometimes called the Grim Squeaker. Whimsy even at the very end.) The people and the creatures who inhabit Pratchett’s world are determined, difficult, insightful, and absurd. As are we all.

I could quote Terry Pratchett forever, but I’ll end with one from The Last Continent: “It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.” Pratchett’s flash was bright, and beautiful.