A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction of Terry Pratchett

Summer continues, I’m actually starting my vacation tomorrow afternoon, and it’s going to be 2,5 weeks! But blogging requires some regularity, and so I decided to write a few words about a very special book. Terry Pratchett is a very special author, one I’ve been reading for over 20 years. I’m now in the middle (at book 16, to be precise) of the systematic re-read of the entire Discworld and I appreciate him even more.

I prefer to learn about writers’ ideas through their novels, but Pratchett is important enough to me, and his untimely demise started my slow – and now accelerating – re-read of his books, and motivated me to learn more about the man himself. There is a very moving documentary from BBC, Terry Pratchett: Back in Black, the story of his life featuring Pratchett just before Alzheimer took him, a master of language struggling with simple words, but still a powerful, wise figure. He says, at the beginning:

They say your life flashes in front of your eyes before you die.

This is true. It’s called living. But nobody’s really dead until all the ripples they have created on Earth have completely died away, so as long as my words and my stories are still sploshing around the planet, there’s life in the old dog yet.

I really recommend Back in Black to all the Pratchett fans. It made me cry a little, laugh a lot, and swear to read The Carpet People as soon as I finish my re-read. About A Slip of the Keyboard I’ve learned later, after reading Neil Gaiman’s foreword in The Guardian. A brilliant argument that Pratchett isn’t just a writer of funny stories, but predominantly an intelligent observer of the ways our society work. There was a lot of anger behind Terry’s writing, and it’s hard to disregards the satirical aspect of his works. I consider Moist von Lipwig novels to be among the best depictions of the faults of modern capitalism!

The book itself… Ola insisted we add some structure to our posts, so:

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Author: Terry Pratchett

Title: A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction

Pages: 381

Format: Paperback

There are a few dozen short texts here, a bit of autobiography, some trade secrets, some opinion pieces, and, towards the end, more and more on his illness and the approaching death. Nothing that would surprise a careful reader of Discworld, quite a lot to help us understand better where was Pratchett coming from and what he wanted to achieve.

It’s a collections of little shards of wisdom from a very smart, very good man. Let me give you some quotes, and let’s just contemplate them for a while…

I’ve always suspected that Robin Hood was just another robber, but he did have the advantage of a very powerful weapon. It was not the longbow. It was the voice of Alan a Dale, the minstrel. Weaponry will only keep you alive, but a good ballad can make you immortal. [p.151]

Fantasy is more than wizards. For instance this book is about rats that are intelligent. But it is also about the even more fantastic idea that humans are capable of intelligence as well. (…) The fantasy of justice is more interesting than the fantasy of fairies, and more truly fantastic. (…). In any case, genre is just a flavouring. It’s not the whole meal. Don’t get confused by the scenery. [p.171]

The problem is that we think the opposite of funny is serious. In fact, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious is not serious. (…) New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge. [p.173]

The future was different back in 1968. Cleaner. Less crowded. And more, well, old-fashioned. We expect the future to be like a huge wave, carrying us forward. We expect to see it coming. Instead, it leaks in around our heads while we are doing other things. We live in a science fiction world, and we haven’t noticed. [p.252]

‘The creator gave us the brains to prove he doesn’t exist’ (…) ‘It is better to build a seismograph than to worship the volcano’ [p.262, from Pratchett’s Nation]

There is a circle of Hell for (…) teachers who don’t like parents to teach their children to read before they go to school [are there such monsters? I was lucky enough never to meet one – Piotrek] and one furnace away from people who believe that children should only be given books that are suitable for them [p.272]

The role of fantasy as defined by G.K. Chesterton is to take what is normal and everyday and usual and unregarded, and turn it around and show it to the audience from a different direction, so that they look at it once again with new eyes. [p.334]

Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts [p.123] The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic – everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become. [p. 127]

So, apparently, I’m a post-modern fantasy writer. I think this is because I’ve got a condom factory in Ankh-Morpork. Admittedly, the troll that does all the packing wonders what the women are laughing about when he is packing the Big Boys. But you cannot imagine a condom machine in Middle-earth. Well, actually, I can, regrettably. But you certainly can’t imagine one in Narnia and nor should you. [p.90]

You want a fantasy? Here’s one… There’s this species that lives on a planet a few miles above a molten rock and a few miles below a vacuum that’d suck the air right out of them. They live in a brief geological period between ice ages, when giant asteroids have temporarily stopped smacking into the surface. As far as they can tell, there’s nowhere else in the universe they could stay alive for ten seconds [p.116]

Fantasy is the Ur-literature, from which everything else sprang – which is why my knuckles go white when toe-sucking literary critics dismiss it as genre trash. And, at its best, it is truly escapist. But the point about escaping is that you should escape to as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience. Too much alleged fantasy is just empty sugar, life with the crusts cut off. [p.138]

No empty sugar in Sir Terry’s books…

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16 thoughts on “A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction of Terry Pratchett

  1. “Insisted”! You make me sound like some small autocrat from an Eastern country… I simply asked, nicely, and there wasn’t even an “or…” 😛
    And now I need to read this book! Ehhh 😉 But more seriously, I always appreciated in Pratchett’s books not only the satire, but the compassion and sheer heart he had always shown his characters. I can’t remember one truly despicable character without a chance for redemption – even if I wouldn’t give it to them, Pratchett always did 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Compassion and kindness, definitely, something so closely associated with Terry Pratchett I did not feel the need to emphasise it 🙂 Read the book, but also see the documentary, it’s brilliant, very touching, and only minutes long…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’d give this book to anybody who was dismissive of fantasy, dismissive of humour, dismissive of life as, somehow, overrated, and force them to read it there and then, in front of me, and dare them to maintain their contrary point of view. I think I read this waiting to be convinced that comic fantasy was worth the effort, having expended too much time on inferior exponents. I was totally won over: in TP’s hands comic fantasy is seriously awesome. And I mean that.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Terry Pratchett, what an awesome awesome person. I loved A Slip of the Keyboard, and you’ve picked some brilliant quotes out. 🙂 I hadn’t heard about the documentary though, so I’m off in search of that now. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t read any of Pratchett’s books yet, but I do have the first books in his highly-praised universe, as well as the graphic novel adaptation of the first two books. The amount of praise given to the author has definitely given me hope on the quality of his stuff and I really do look forward to reading them for the first time. Your love for the author definitely shines through this post, and I totally understand why’d you be curious to learn more on him as an author/a person. I enjoyed the quotes you shared here, nice review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pratchett was one of a kind, really. There are many authors out there who imitate him (this being the sincerest form of flattery, according to Wilde) or are at least seriously influenced by him – but none who actually reached his level of wit, humor, sophistication, satire and compassion.

      Please bear in mind that Pratchett himself warned against reading the Discworld novels in order of appearance, the first two books being the most satirical. You may want to start in a completely different way, Lashaan, say, with Death (and then grab Mort), or with the City Watch (and then grab Guards, Guards!), or with witches (Equal Rites would be the book for you), or with standalones, such as Pyramids or Small Gods… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think imitation/inspiration based on an author is definitely the best thing an author could ever see happen. To live to see it too? Wow.

        I’ve heard several folks mention that about those Discworld novels. I’ve always been keen to check out a series in their publication order no matter what, and since the only ones I have are Sourcery, Equal Rites, Mort and The Light Fantastic, and The Colour of Magic, I might as well start with the latter and see if it’s that “hard” to get into the universe before hunting down a copy of a book I don’t own hahah Thanks for the recc order!

        Liked by 1 person

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