As the author of more than 70 books that sold 85 million copies to countless fans worldwide, Sir Terry Pratchett was probably the most famous author that mainstream readers have never heard of.
His Discworld series spanned 40 books, a saga of wizards, witches, trolls, dwarves, gnomes, golems, monks, orangutan librarians and Death himself, who always spoke without quotes and in SMALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Pratchett was one of the best-selling adult novelists of the 1990s, and his books used humor and alternate realities to comment on the world in which his readers lived.
Still, Pratchett himself, a striking figure with his long beard and black fedora, a man beloved by his legion of devoted fans and knighted by Queen Elizabeth, tended to fly under the radar compared to the kind of recognition enjoyed by, say, the denizens of Hogwarts. In fact, Pratchett once criticized media coverage of J.K. Rowling, and complained that outside of Harry Potter, fantasy as a whole was widely “unregarded as a literary form.”
Pratchett published his first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, in 1983, and immediately readers were treated to visions never before seen in the annals of fantasy fiction. Discworld, the setting for the series, is a huge disc resting on the backs of four enormous elephants who in turn are standing on the shell of the Giant Star Turtle Great A’Tuin as he swims through space. Pratchett once described the book as “an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for westerns.”
Over time, the Discworld universe expanded with Prachett writing an average of two novels per year. Characters and locations appeared and reappeared, story arcs played out, intertwining with free-standing Discworld stories—and Pratchett’s fan base steadily grew.
Throughout his life, Pratchett pursued varied interests. Always an astronomy buff, he had an observatory built in his garden (which contained a number of carnivorous plants). Concerned about the future of the planet, he had solar energy cells installed at his home. He was also captivated by orangutans, and was a trustee for the Orangutan Foundation UK, although he admitted to not having much hope for the future of the species.
Pratchett’s life was altered forever in 2007 when he was diagnosed with an unusual form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In his address at the Richard Dimbleby lecture in 2010, he discussed a subject that had become important to him: assisted suicide for the seriously ill. “I have vowed that rather than let Alzheimer’s take me, I would take it,” he said. “I would live my life my life as ever to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the Brompton Coctail some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with death.”
As the disease progressed, however, he encouraged his fans via his website to be optimistic. “Frankly, I would prefer it if people kept things cheerful,” he wrote.
Fans around the world who had gotten to know Pratchett through his writings (as well as his frequent appearances at conventions dedicated to him and his work) struggled to fulfill that request as news of his death spread. “Many a fan has had the fortune of getting to know him in person from brief encounters during a signing session to long conversations in the bar at a convention,” wrote Eelco Giele, chairman of Discworld Convention 2016. “And no matter what the conversation was about . . . one thing was always clear: There was always one more book; no, there were always several more books, which still needed to be written. There won’t be any more, and we will have to settle for the impressive amount of works he has created in the past. Many have been read several times, and many will be re-read in the future.”
The organizers of the Australian Discworld Conventions quoted Pratchett himself in paying their tribute to the author. “Truly, today the world is a slightly darker place for his absence,” they wrote. “However, if it is true (and it must be, for a wise and clever man has said so) that ‘no one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away—until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested,’ then Sir Terry will be with us for many years to come. For generations, I would say. Maybe even forever.”