I’m only about 10 pages into Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett, but from this and at least the last two or three of his books – in fact, more or less everything since Nation – I’ve gotten this strong vibe that I guess is mostly hysteria/projection, but feels compelling.
Now, Alzheimer’s is a terrifying illness for anyone to consider. Human beings are so fundamentally defined by their consciousness, their sentience and self-awareness and personality and memory, that losing it piece by piece is like some special horror cooked up by a deity so fucking malicious that saying “I don’t believe in deities” sounds like the quavering declaration of a frightened child. I know, objectively, deep down, that it’s no more or less awful for a writer than it is for anybody else, but it somehow feels like it is.
And let’s keep it real here. Alzheimer’s is a deadly disease, but it’s not “guaranteed to kill you in the next six months, get to hugging your loved ones” deadly. Although it can be. Nothing is that certain – or everything is. Life, after all, is a death sentence all of its own. You could walk under a bus tomorrow, get smooshed by a meteorite, fall off a park bench and land badly, heck. Anything could happen. Think about your life that way, and you’ll freeze up and never get anything done. Assume you’re going to die, and you’ll spend the next week saying goodbye to everyone and then an indefinite time sitting and waiting for the end – because everyone else will have gotten tired of your morbid arse and will be avoiding you.
As an amusing semi-related aside, after Facebook instituted a mechanic allowing the sender of a message or image to know when the recipient clicked on said message or image (basically an extension of the “Send Read Report” function in Outlook e-mail), we now know that a person has seen the communiqué, thus ushering in the concept of being seenzoned – it’s the new friendzoned, and is there really any hope for us as a species?
But on a purely selfish level it feels worse, because Pratchett has brought his readers into his mind, he’s told us these wonderful stories, and sooner or later (although he seems to be doing great and I love that he hasn’t let this dictate his life to him, and holy shit he has hairy arms, that can’t be unseen) it will be over. Which brings me back to how his last few books have struck me, and how most of it is probably just projection because I know about his condition and am reading too much into every little thing, but anyway.
The non-Discworld stuff, specifically Nation and Dodger and the Long Earth series he’s writing with Baxter, is increasingly philosophical and humanity-driven. This has always been a thread in his storytelling, of course, and I’ve always felt amused, humbled and enlightened by his views on … well, in a word, us. His Science of Discworld series did the same for various theories from origin to evolution, and this, along with his minor acts of eco-activism, speak of a man concerned for the future. If not for his own sake, then for the people and the world he’s leaving behind.
His Discworld books, though, are like the literary equivalent of a man getting his affairs in order.
Pratchett has created an amazing world in the Discworld series, and more than a world – a universe and a mythology and a unifying philosophy. But the world itself, in pure narrative terms, he’s nurtured from a rather comical sword-and-sorcery fantasy cliché for the purposes of satire, to a world well into its Industrial Revolution complete with railway, abolitionism, and a semaphore-based Internet community that makes me smile every time I read about it.
It’s nothing less than one of the most singular and incredible storytelling achievements in the history of literature. It’s like a game of SIM Earth that he’s been playing for over thirty years, and we’ve all been watching, and now he’s realised he’s going to die before the inhabitants of the Disc all climb into their spaceships and fly away. Chances are he always was going to – human beings die, this is just a fact – but now it just seems that much more concrete. If not to him (although I fail to see how he could keep it from infiltrating his thoughts), then to his readers, who can’t help bringing their own minds along for the ride when they cross over into the Discworld multiverse.
In his past few books, Pratchett has given his world international communications, transportation, energy-generating technology (never mind the steam engine, what about the dwarven artefact they found that is essentially a perpetual motion machine? Maybe that was swept under the rug for now), and the opportunity for lasting political and interracial stability. The opening of Raising Steam talks about the idea of peace merely being the long deep breath taken before the next war begins – surely a comment on our world as much as the Disc – but it also seems to be setting about extending that breath. The world leaders of the Disc talk to one another.
He’s giving them everything they’re going to need to survive and thrive on their own. He wants to know they’re going to be okay, and so do we.
If we could preserve Terry’s consciousness by donating bits of our own every time we read his stories, I think we would. For all I know, maybe that’s already happening – he’s doing well, and there’s reasonable evidence for the notion that an atmosphere of goodwill and positive reinforcement is enormously bolstering to the physiology. And there’s no point in saying “sooner or later it will be over”, because that’s true of him, and me, and all of us, and the sun, and the universe itself.
We don’t quit because of that. We burn brighter because of it.