I heard recently that the Texas School Board had banned Terry Pratchett’s books from schools. As a big fan of his work, I was disturbed to hear it. Also rather surprised, as I hadn’t thought there was anything in his works that was likely to lead to a ban. Granted, the Texas School Board is notorious for banning books on little provocation,* but if they were going to start banning Pratchett, they’d almost have to ban the entire SFF canon.
* In 2010, a children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” was banned because its author had the same name as the author of “Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation”. The latter book is obviously a “very strong critique of capitalism and the American system”, and children must be protected from any works by an author who could create such dubious content. The fact that it was a different author altogether escaped the attention of the Board member who added “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” to the list. 2010 was a busy year for the board, which revamped the social studies curriculum to remove mention of Hispanics, stress the superiority of American capitalism, and eliminate discussion of the separation of church and state, then later in the year banned books that have an “anti-Christian, pro-Islamic slant“.
So I went online and did a bit of digging. Given Pratchett’s ardent large and vociferous fanbase, I didn’t figure it would take much digging to turn up the details. I spent rather longer at it than I expected. After a couple of hours of digging over two days, I could only find one mention of a ban on Pratchett’s work. It is in Texas, but it’s not a blanket ban, and it has nothing to do with schools. The single book “The Last Hero” is banned from Texas prisons. The reason for the ban isn’t stated in the report, but presumably it has something to do with the plot which features an attempt to destroy the home of the gods with a sled load of explosives.
I’ve just used over 300 words on this, not to debunk an apparently non-existent banning or to warn about the dangers of believing everything you hear, but because it reminded me that I really should do at least a brief write up on Terry Pratchett. Long way around the barn, isn’t it?
Stylistically speaking, Pratchett is almost as great an influence on my own writing as Douglas Adams. (It probably says something significant about me that my major stylistic influences are British, but that may be a topic for another day.) Where Adams’ style is, in my opinion, monological, Pratchett’s is more conversational. I can almost hear the pauses where he expects the reader to ask questions. His use (some might say “abuse”) of footnotes is legendary, and certainly has had great impact on my own use of digression in both speech and writing.
Pratchett’s dedication to his craft is admirable. Despite having been diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease in 2007, he has continued writing. He has used a combination of speech recognition software and dictation to produce at least four more books in the Discworld series, now at forty titles, as well as other works of both fiction and non-fiction.
Forty titles in the Discworld series, and they haven’t gotten stale?
Nope. He’s kept them fresh by focusing on different characters, different locations (he does have a whole world to play with, after all), and even different time periods. Even when he says with a single character for an extended period, the characters grow and change, learning and taking on new challenges.
The majority of the first book in the series, “The Colour of Magic”, is made up of his takes on Lovecraft’s Cthulu and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders; in both cases, he expertly straddles the line between parody and pastiche. Almost in passing, Pratchett built a universe which has far outgrown its origins. Few readers would advise those new to the Discworld to begin with “The Colour of Magic” or the second book in the series, “The Light Fantastic”. Beginning with the third book, “Equal Rites”, Pratchett began focusing on the characters who inhabit his universe; the tropes of fantasy became places to begin an exploration.
My own recommendation would be to begin with “Equal Rites”, which introduces the Witches and the town of Lancre; “Mort”, which elevates Death from a bit part to a starring and continuing role; and “Guards! Guards!” which brings the Ank-Morpork City Watch to the fore (and says some very complimentary things about libraries). With those three books, the majority of the ongoing characters and most common locations are in place. The reader, by now probably well-hooked, can then move on to the remaining thirty-seven books in the series.
Although the Discworld fantasies are the work for which Pratchett is best-known, he began his career writing children’s fiction in both fantasy and science fiction modes. His first two adult novels were science fiction, and has lately returned to science fiction in collaboration with Stephen Baxter. Personal preference here: while Pratchett’s SF is good, the fantasy is much better at each stage of his career. The stories flow more smoothly and seem more internally-consistent. Perhaps most importantly, in fantasy Pratchett seems to feel free to let his sense of humor fly free, but reins it in in his science fiction.