Death Comes for Terry Pratchett

The fantasy humorist's beloved Discworld novels tackled liberty, authority, and self-ownership with a devastatingly light touch.


Terry Pratchett in his London home, 1997
Pa/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Terry Pratchett may not have been the first writer to personify Death as a walking, talking skeleton tasked with reaping the souls of the living, but he was the first to give him a horse named Binky and a granddaughter named Susan.

This Death was no less efficient or inevitable despite all the whimsy, of course. As various characters in Pratchett's long-lasting, wildly popular series of fantasy novels passed on, Death traveled across Discworld—a flat planet resting on the backs of four elephants who stood on a giant turtle that swam through the universe—to ferry the newly deceased to whatever came afterward.

So it was highly appropriate that after Pratchett's death at age 66 on March 12, following a long and deliberately public faceoff with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, the novelist's official Twitter account described his passing as Death gently escorting Pratchett from our rounder, less turtle-dependent world.

But let's not dwell on Death. Pratchett's Discworld books, all 40 of them (not counting short stories and related works), teemed with messy, disorganized life. And because he wrote in the fantasy genre, they were also packed with wizards, witches, dwarves, dragons, vampires, zombies, demons, werewolves, and the occasional orangutan. His books were humorous in tone, but tackled weighty matters of self-determination, identity, innovation, and, above all else, liberty.

"Whoever created humanity left in a major design flaw. It was the tendency to bend at the knee." That piece of insight came from Feet of Clay, a book from right in the middle of his series, published in 1996. The witticism encapsulates a consistent theme in his books approaching how humans (and other sentient species) struggle between the desire to be free and the comfort of letting somebody more powerful or smarter (or claiming to be smarter, anyway) call the shots. In Pratchett's books, both the heroes and the villains tended to be people in positions of authority. What separated his heroes—people like police commander Samuel Vimes, witch Esme "Granny" Weatherwax, and even Patrician Havelock Vetinari, an assassin turned ruler of the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork—from the villains was their insistence on letting people live their own lives, whatever may come of it, even when they made a mess of things.

By contrast, Pratchett's villains, whether they were fallen and irrelevant nobles, religious leaders, narcissistic elves, or tradition-obsessed dwarves, pursued power for themselves while claiming it was for the benefit of all. The ultimate villains in Pratchett's books were the "auditors of reality," shapeless cosmic bureaucrats who hate life because it's so unpredictable. People aren't just shaped by the universe. They help reshape the universe, and this torments creatures who want nothing more than a permanent form of order. Pratchett responded (through Vetinari) to all these inclinations in The Truth: "Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions….It's the only way to make progress."

Pratchett's works embraced progress and innovation, both in technology and in humanity. His book series may have started in what appeared to be a typical quasi-medieval fantasy milieu, but it was far from static. Over the course of his novels, the Discworld saw the invention of the printing press, a form of telegraph, paper currency, mail, and in the last book to be published before Pratchett's death, the steam engine. But also over the course of his novels, the Discworld also saw the development of concepts of liberty, like the free practice of religion, freedom of speech and of the press, and the notion that basic rights ought to be extended to new races that humanity had treated like vermin or property—goblins, orcs, golems, the undead.

As J.K. Rowling eclipsed Pratchett as England's (and ultimately the world's) most popular fantasy writer, he introduced a teen witch named Tiffany Aching in a series of young adult-oriented books sharing the Disc­world setting and some of its characters. Rather than replicating the concept of a repressive institutionalized public school setting and infusing it with magic, like Rowling did with Hogwarts, Pratchett sent Aching out into the world to learn from other witches and through experience how to deal with serious problems using magic (or, more importantly, not using magic). She was Harry Potter's homeschooled cousin.

Pratchett's anti-authoritarian authority figures and his themes of innovative freedom and self-determination drew him praise from the Libertarian Futurist Society. Several of his books have been finalists for the group's Prometheus Award. He won in 2003 for Night Watch, a book starring Vimes that used time travel to explore Ankh-Morpork's dark history of violent, murderous leadership and thuggish police. It even had examples of a vicious variation on waterboarding-style interrogations before the world knew how the CIA was treating certain prisoners in its efforts to track down Osama bin Laden. When accepting the prize, Pratchett encapsulated both what Vimes learned from his experience with authority turned bad and what he saw from the government today: "When lawlessness walks the streets, the authorities will bend all their efforts to keeping honest men unarmed…Policemen are sometimes tempted into being sheepdogs who prefer to keep the flock corralled rather than protect it from the predators, because it's easier to bite sheep than wolves. [Vimes] learns that the people who declare that the innocent have nothing to fear are wrong, because the innocent certainly should fear; they fear the guilty and, especially, they should fear, distrust, and fight the kind of people who say 'the innocent have nothing to fear.'"

Pratchett noted, ruefully, that England lacks a tradition of libertarianism, but went on: "Currently we have a government that lacks wisdom, perspective, or talents, is centrist, arrogant, talks incessantly about rights while it curtails freedoms, and is led by a man who is passionately devoted to appearing to be passionately devoted to things. I see fragments of Night Watch all around me. So, right now, I'm feeling very libertarian indeed."

NEXT: Vid: Cattle Ranchers vs. The Feds: "You don't just come into a ranch and say I'm going to run it."

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  1. Am I the only person on this planet who thought the Harry Potter movies were utter shit? I walked out of two.

    1. Why would you go to a 2nd if you had already walked out of 1?

    2. I felt the same way about all of the Lord of the Avenging Transformer movies

    3. I loved the books, except for the weak cop-out ending. 100 pages of babble over the meaning of love, or something, that bored me to tears and felt more like she had to make sure the book was longer than the sixth book.

      I detested the movies. Minor reasons: they took out Hermione’s one minute scene in the first one. They exaggerated dragon fighting and flying in whichever one that was. But mostly I detested the child actors. Book Harry was much more independent and curious, less timid, and generally someone I would have liked. Movie Harry was a parody of the English school kid, more worried about following rules and respecting authority, someone I would have gone out of my way to avoid in real life.

      1. That 100 pages was too long but it was not babble. It masterfully wrapped up the Elder Wand struggle such that it could make sense.

    4. I saw a hairy potter once. He was at a craft fair and he was soinning pots and glazing them. Had a kiln set up and everything. I bought an ashtray and a coffee mug from him. He signed his work “Hecho en Mexico”.

  2. What does Lou Reed think of this?

    1. Fuck Lou Reed; what do millenials think?

  3. Speaking of dystopian, say Mad Max: Fury Road, and I gotta say–it’s thoroughly anti-libertarian.

    The central messages are clearly:

    1) If only we had political leaders that care, things would be different.

    2) If only the rich would share their resources with the poor, everything would be different.

    The secondary message is that women shouldn’t be treated as property or breeders, and since there’s nowhere for them to hide, they need to storm the commanding heights and seize power.

    All of this against the backdrop of–in the absence of a State, mankind would devolve into anarchy savagery.

    The action sequences are awesome–although despite all the modern slickness, I’d still recommend Road Warrior over Fury Road. And I enjoyed it for the action sequences, but…it’s a thoroughly anti-libertarian movie. This is a movie your progressive friends would take you to see so you’ll understand what the world would be like if it weren’t for Obama–with lots of direct references to “hope”.

    1. Speaking of anti-libertarians, Bill Maher recently named Texas “White Somalia”. Because we all know how much warlordism, disease, etc is going on there. I mean, Somalia has Al Shabaab, but Texas has anti-abortion billboards! See? They’re just as bad.

      You rural white people who are always saying things like “Don’t mess with Texas”. Let me tell you something. You are among the most left alone, least messed with people on the planet. You can carry an assault rifle into a Chili’s. What more do you want. The right to do it shirtless? You are practically your own independent country now. You have outlawed abortion. You have gutted government regulation. You are armed to the teeth. You are the white Somalia. Stop worrying about getting sucked into the new world order. You are barely in the current world order. And the only reason we conduct military exercises in your area is there is no chance of accidentally damaging anything anybody cares about.

      1. You do get that he’s pulling this KULTUR WAR/REGION WAR routine because you all fall for it, right? The smug sneering obnoxious leftists get to preen and look down their noses, while the butthurt offended rightists get outraged and pissed that HOW DARE those smug assholes do this. He gets a reaction out of both sides, and he gets a ton of attention.

        You realize he’s doing this specifically to get a rise out of you, right? And that you are giving him exactly what he wants? That this is his entire shtick?

        1. I’m not outraged, I’m just amused at the absurdity of the comparison. And I’m pretty sure Bill Maher neither knows nor cares what I think about it.

          Somalia is Godwin’s Law for libertarians.

          1. You know who else liked Godwin?

          2. Seriously, this is a guy who claimed on his HBO show that he isn’t down with libertarianism because it will lead to him “stepping over lepers and skeletons in the street.” Seriously. He actually said that.

            He also claimed that nobody really “wants” robotic food service. Automation trends make him look like a clown, which is appropriate, as explained by Episiarch.

            1. Nobody wants their food delivered accurately and without any lip? Clearly, he has his finger on the pulse of America.

      2. I just hope all those in California, and the norteast, who were thinking of moving here pay attention to him.

        It’s bad down here folks. Real real bad. So just stay where you are, or move somewhere else. There aren’t nearly enough of you to tip all but a few of our elections so you only have years of misery to look forward to. We hate snail darters too.

        All kidding aside, I can’t count how many people I’ve meet through the years from the north who do exactly what we joke about. Every time there has been a major slowdown in the economy we get inundated with people coming here for work, You can’t have a conversation with one of them without them telling you how they do things back home and how much better it is that way. I have shoved it back in their faces many times but they just can’t comprehend what you say about why it is that they had to leave home and come to where they hate it to prosper.

        1. You’re being too polite. If you tell them “You had to come here because the way you did things back there ruined the economy, because y’all can’t PAY for that much government, so sit down, sonny, the adults are running things here.” There’s a decent chance they’ll get so offended they’ll never speak to you again.

        2. Having lived here in CT for 6 years the only reason I’m not living in TX is the damn heat, can’t stand it, I’m hoping Maine is like a cold TX

    2. That sounds really depressing. Maybe someone will be kind enough to put the action sequences together so I won’t have to hunt for them among the dross.

  4. I couldn’t make it through The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It had none of the low budget charm of Plan 9 From Outer Space or Manos: Hands of Fate.

    1. Another classic comic book destroyed by hollywood.

    2. TLOEG was memorable for being so forgettable.

  5. Turtles all the way down.

  6. Im glad Pratchet said the word libertarianism once in a polite manner in public. That said, his books are awful. Theres a pattern with these knuckleheads that crank out 500+ page fantasy tomes by the dozen: they suck. PS if you read “young adult” novels after middle school there is a damn good chance you are either illiterate or a pinhead.

    1. I liked his first few books and then I got tired of it by the time I was done with Wyrd Sisters.

    2. That said, his books are awful.

      I’ve only read two, Making Money and Going Postal, and they were both great commentaries on the nature of money, and gov’t bureaucracy. Plus Moist Von Lipwig is hilarious.

  7. Git along, Binky, that turtle’s mighty hungry tonight.

  8. I don’t give a shit. I just want to play my long distance chess game, over the Klax, or through the mail.

  9. Thanks for the appreciation of his work, Scott.

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