Terry Pratchett was fantasy fiction’s Kurt Vonnegut, not its Douglas Adams

A.V. Club Most Read

Terry Pratchett was fantasy fiction’s Kurt Vonnegut, not its Douglas Adams

When I was 12, I stumbled onto The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and I realized that book that were funny could also be good. (If it’s a faux pas to start an essay meant as a tribute to Terry Pratchett by talking about the books his work was so often compared to, I can only hope he’d forgive me with his legendary good humor and grace.) Until I picked up Douglas Adams’ book, I had always assumed that books for adults were serious business, far removed from the absurdity and silliness of kids’ lit. I was happy to be proven wrong.

I blew through the series in the course of a single summer, laughing my way through the absurdity, puzzling my way through the sex jokes, and completely failing to understand the gag inherent in the name Ford Prefect. Despite the drop in quality as the series progressed, I powered through, then grabbed the Dirk Gently books (one excellent, one less so), and read them, too. And then I was done. Adams only wrote seven novels, after all. (He was famously fond of saying that he loved the sound that deadlines made when they went whoosh-ing past.) And so I started looking around for something to scratch this new itch I’d developed, the need for an interesting story told in a voice that didn’t treat every event like it was the end of the world (even if, technically, it was).

I still remember what first pointed me toward the Discworld books: A PC Gamer review of one of the middling-good licensed adventure games (another young-me passion) that Teeny Weeny Games made with the series back in the mid-’90s. They starred Eric Idle, and, since I was still in that stage where anything touched by a member of Monty Python was an obvious classic, I knew I had to check them out. I didn’t have a computer that could run the games, so instead I started investigating the series they were based on. The only book my local library had was the 19th, Feet Of Clay. I picked it up and tore through it in a matter of days.

In hindsight, Feet Of Clay might be the worst possible starting point in the entire Discworld series, dense as it is with continuity and a complex plot of political intrigue. So it’s a testament to Pratchett’s talents that I was still hooked, telling myself I’d understand all of that stuff later and letting myself be sucked in by the jokes and the characters and the footnotes and the tone. Especially the tone.

At first, I thought the voice of the books was a carbon copy of what had seduced me about Adams’ work, a lightness that acknowledged that there were ways to tell genre stories without being Tolkien, who had always turned me off with his humorless battles between selfless good and ultimate evil. But the more I read of Pratchett’s work (and I’ve read them all, over the years, often multiple times), the less right those parallels seem.

To be fair, Pratchett’s first few Discworld novels, The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic, show their Hitchhiker’s influences proudly, especially in their amoral, cowardly hero, the failed wizard Rincewind. Rincewind is a sleazier version of Arthur Dent, a more worldly but still ineffective everyman traipsing through direct parodies of Robert Howard and Anne McCaffrey, accompanied by a blissful tourist who always stays one serendipitous step ahead of danger. But the longer Pratchett wrote about that world, floating through space on the back of a giant turtle, something happened: Rincewind stopped showing up so often, replaced by heroes with more shading and nuance. Pratchett became less willing to burn down cities as he went, to casually kill off minor characters once they’d served their purpose. Even his nastiest creations, like the initially malevolent incarnation of Death, began to carry themselves with dignity and their author’s respect. Unlike Adams’ far-flung universe, the Discworld stopped being simply a place where jokes happened, and its people the subjects they happened to. Instead it become a home, for stories and the characters who lived them, and it was much the better for it.

To illustrate, take two characters, one from Adams, the other Pratchett. Prak is a minor character from Life, The Universe, And Everythingthe third Hitchhiker’s book, and Adams’ best workwho exemplifies what life in an Adams book is like. Accidentally imbued with omniscience due to a clumsy accidenthe was injected with far too much truth serum, in one of those inspired bits of literalism the author was so fond ofPrak eventually dies when he encounters Arthur Dent and can’t stop himself from laughing so hard, and so long, that it completely wrecks his body. Prak is the perfect Adams character: His entire life is an absurd, nasty, hilarious joke, and it perfectly captures the borderline nihilistic comedy of the Hitchhiker’s universe

Compare that to Reg Shoe, a recurring character from Pratchett’s work. Reg is initially presented as a joke, too, an “undead activist” who campaigns for equal rights for his fellow zombies and vampires, despite the fact that most of them are only involved in the movement to humor him. (His denial-filled focus on improving their lives almost puts him in line at times with the classic Pratchett villain, who ignores being good to people to focus on The Good of The People.) He’s a throwaway character, a one-off joke from 1991’s Reaper Man. Except, by then, Pratchett wasn’t throwing characters away anymore, if he could find somewhere useful to fit them in. And so Reg continued to appear, primarily as a member of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, the framework on which so many of Pratchett’s best stories hang. When the time travel adventure Night Watch finally brings the reader to the moment that transformed Reg into a zombie in the first place, Pratchett has managed to imbue this joke character with a nobility that makes the moment one of the most emotionally powerful in the entire series, all without tossing away the element of the characterhis delusional idealismthat made him so funny in the first place.

Of course, “emotional power” was never Adams’ goal. (The insistence on inserting those kind of moments into a world with no room for them was just one of the many sins committed by And Another Thing..., Eoin Colfer’s well-meaning-but-awful Hitchhiker’s sequel, written after Adams’ death.) As a devotee of P.G. Wodehouse, Adams was a master of farce, a believer in finding the most perfectly crafted line in any given situation, the most expertly set up joke. It’s that distinction, which widened as Pratchett grew into his strengths as a storyteller, that most clearly puts the lie to the idea that Sir Terry was “the fantasy Douglas Adams.” In truth, his work has far more in common with that of some of fiction’s great humanists, like G.K. Chesterton and Kurt Vonnegut.

The Vonnegut parallels are especially apparent; neither man was a scientist, but both had great respect for the field, and both worked in jobs adjacent to it. (Vonnegut as a public relations worker for General Electric, Pratchett as a press officer for the U.K.’s Central Electricity Generating Board.) Both struggled with the restrictions of being labeled a genre writer, although Pratchett’s comments on the subject were a lot gentler than Vonnegut’s description of science fiction as a file drawer that “serious critics regularly mistake... for a urinal.”

But more importantly, there is a shared theme of humanism that runs through both Pratchett and Vonnegut’s work, that brings life and meaning to all the absurdity that occurs within. Both authors’ books are full of enormously foolish characters who make terrible decisions, but who are always treated with the love due them as members of the human (or dwarf, or troll) race. Both men valued human choice, even as they mocked the follies those choices could provoke. Both employed a deep cynicism about what people were capable of at their worst, while never losing the hope of seeing them at their best. And both shared a belief that there was no human doctrine or dogma more important than treating others with kindness. Meanwhile, Pratchett’s best book, Small Gods, is as thoughtful a treatise on religion, and the ways it can warp, demean, and heighten human behavior, as any fan of Chesterton, the great Christian humanist, could hope to find in modern lit.

If it sounds like blasphemy to put one of the world’s bestselling authors in such rarefied company, I’ll readily, obviously acknowledge that Vonnegut was Pratchett’s better in sheer writing ability, and Chesterton the more sophisticated philosopher. There’s a commercialism to Pratchett’s work that can occasionally turn me off, regrettable dips into sentimentality and the status quo, that make the Discworld books feel less fearless, and more poppy, than they could be at their best.

But Pratchett holds his own, too, even against such heavyweights. There was no better world-builder working today; his crowning achievement, the glittering, stinking, vibrant city of Ankh-Morpork, will likely never be matched as a novelistic setting. A skewed version of Industrial Revolution-era London, Pratchett never stopped shading in details of the city’s life, filling it with fantasy subcultures (dwarves, gnolls, and even the horror movie henchpeople known as Igors), and then stripping them of their stereotypes to find the people underneath. (Pratchett once called the Discworld “taking something that you know is ridiculous and treating it as if it is serious, to see if something interesting happens when you do so.”)

And the man’s talent at comedy writing just can’t be discounted (the one place where the parallels to Douglas Adams are dead-on accurate). It’s easy to use “funny” as a dismissive adjective, to give in to the knee-jerk reaction to call the Discworld novels “more” than just funny books. But Discworld is great because it’s funny, not in spite of it. Death’s deadpan sarcasm, Bloody Stupid Johnson’s increasingly improbable inventions, and even poor, cowardly Rincewindthey’re all evidence of a world that operates under the auspices of a benevolent, funny god. It’s not that the comedy makes the lessons go down easier. The comedy is the lesson. I’m not ashamed to say that my younger self learned many things from reading Sir Terry’s work, beliefs that I now prize as some of the best parts of my self. But that idea, that the world really is a good, funny place, is the one I hold closest as I mourn his death, this man I never met, who created some of my favorite people and places in the world.