Sir Terry Pratchett is a British national treasure. Not only is he the second best-selling author in Britain. He is a brilliant writer, whose humanity and humor have entertained, educated and enthralled WC and 80 million other readers for more than four decades now.
But Pratchett is dying. His impending death has been an implicit aspect of Pratchett’s life and work since he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, in 2007. Terry Pratchett, a man of razor-sharp wit and superb writing skills, is slowly losing both.
He deals with it through scrupulous candor, rage at the failure of health care systems to give the dying a choice of when to die, and a steely determination to work around the “embuggerance” of his disease for as long as possible. He lost the ability to use a keyboard in late 2007; the five novels since were dictated using voice-recognition software, with the assistance of the patient and talented Rob Wilkins.
Pratchett’s novels have always dealt with serious subjects like death, poverty, illness and evil with scrupulous honesty. Pratchett never lies to his readers. He may sweeten harsh truths with his patented humor, but he never hides the truth. His most recent novels are even a bit darker. For example, the young witch Tiffany Aching has to deal dark horrors, especially in I Shall Wear Midnight. But her easing of the death of the Old Baron in that novel might be exactly the kind of death Pratchett would wish for himself.
Pratchett has always written as if he knows that the most fascinating place in all possible universes is ours, this one, right here. Pratchett uses a flat world carried on the back of a giant turtle, slapstick comedy and dreadful puns as tools to tell stories about racism and religious hatred, war and the nature of bigotry, love and sin and sex and death, always death, flawlessly knotted into the ersatz adventures of talking dogs, zombie revolutionaries, crime-fighting werewolves, tooth fairies, dwarves coming out of the closet, crocodile gods and strange men who sell suspicious sausages on street corners.
Interviewed recently by Laurie Penny for the New Statesman, at one point, in a tea shop, in mid-interview, Pratchett started singing the old English folk tune “The Larks They Sang Melodious”. It’s a tune that figures conspicuously in Midnight. Penny reports Pratchett has a good voice, a quavering baritone that has lost none of its strength, and that he didn’t give a damn that half of the café had turned to look. Pratchett is utterly secure in what he is and what he does. He cares deeply about the world, and worries about what we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. But that doesn’t stop him from being Terry Pratchett.
WC is torn between rage that a disease like this can happen to someone as rare and marvelous as Terry Pratchett, and awestruck wonder at the maturity and calmness of Pratchett’s response. WC would like to tell you that he will handle his own death as well. But WC would be lying.