Goodbye, Sir Terry, and Thank You

The first Discworld novel I read was The Fifth Elephant, and it wasn’t the one that got me addicted to Pratchett. No, not at all.

The novel that made me go back and devour more was, oddly, Snuff. Released late in Pratchett’s career, it was my gateway to the Discworld and there was nothing for it but to go and find every single Sam Vimes novel. I adore Sam Vimes, the majesty of the law himself, and Death is splendid and there are a hundred characters that I’ll be reading to my kids one day. The witches. Moist. Lu-Tze. The Patrician. Susan. Ridcully. Nobby Nobbs. Rincewind, Angua, Carrot and oh god, if I keep listing them my heart will break.

I have had so many happy hours with these books. When I have been sick, I have turned to them. When I have been shoulder-deep in depression, when I felt like every nerve was frayed and exposed and I couldn’t bear any human contact. Every night with insomnia, every lazy Sunday to chase away the Monday blues. My copy of Night Watch, gifted to me by my very best friend, is about to fall apart at the spine. I read Pratchett out loud to my beloved physicist and we have discussed the intricacies of the Discworld for many happy hours.

For the gods’ sake, I have the Ankh-Morpork board game.

He was only 66, and though we know all beloved authors must die, it is still vastly unfair that a writer of such prodigious talent went so soon. At the least, he died loved and in company, and in the end, that is all we can really hope for, for all of us.

I am grateful that there are so many Discworld novels to read, and that we have them at all. That any book’s birth is a combination of luck, talent and timing, and to have so many is wealth indeed. It’s hard not to mourn the books that will now go unwritten, but at least we can turn to dozens and dozens of novels and be glad that those books live now.

Thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett. Back to stardust we all must go, but at least you spent your time here making so many people happy.

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Review of The Long Earth by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Oh, Terry. Oh, Sir Pratchett. I have read so many of your books. Sam Vimes is my very favourite character in literature. I love him indecently. I love the Discworld, and all its charming, messed-up folks. I love the subtle social commentary, the use of hard science in elaborate ways. I love the wisdom and the genuine humanism, the flavour of the characters and their adventures and trials. Your humour in the Discworld series is the kind that makes me want to phone people and read lines to them, though I can’t always finish them for the laughter.

And then, Long Earth.

I know its a co-authored work (which has been done well before with Gaiman) and I know its not Discworld. And that’s fine, because an author should always be trying something new. And I admire that, and I admired the plot of Long Earth. It involves lots of delicious what-ifs and timey-wimey stuff. Yay for that. But what happened to Pratchett?

The absence of the beloved author was made glaring by the moments in the book that were pure Pratchett, the moments that shone amongst the general pabulum of the book itself. It took me two weeks to finish this, and I had to force myself through the first 100 pages. It was like a dear friend had invited me to a party, and I was really excited to go, but then I got there and the wine was cheap, the snacks dry and the company less than stellar. And for the first two hours of the party, I wanted to fall upon a knife. But eventually it got sort of better and it didn’t feel too wasteful.

As I write this, I’m wracking my brain to try remember the names of the characters. I have since given away my proof copy (and ain’t that a sign of the times, plentiful Pratchett proofs?) and now I’m trying to remember who starred in the damn thing. It shouldn’t be this hard. Look, I think that a non-Pratchett fan might enjoy it, or a Baxter fan. He is a big-name author in his own right, though he writes in a field I generally find tedious. The thing is, this should have been the proof that Pratchett is not slipping, that he is unaffected by the onset of his Alzheimer’s (proof that there really is no god) and that he can still produce the goods.

But then, I read Snuff, and the rest of the Sam Vimes books in reverse order. And the sad part is that there is a lot of recycling going on here. The end of Snuff, with the amazing race down the river and Vimes ending up in a cave? Pretty much lifted from Thud! with Sam Vimes going crazy in a cave after being tumbled about by an underground river. That was pretty saddening. Lady Sybil is still amazing though.

But you know, even at his worst, Pratchett is still better than 90% of authors out there. I guess this is me just expecting more. Long Earth had boring characters, the female ones especially so. There’s a lesbian cop, which I thought made for a refreshing change, but she really doesn’t do much. She has a bit of a moment at the end, but she was mostly unused and ignored. The same goes for the woman who is good at stepping. (At least there wasn’t a shoehorned romance.) There’s a general menace that is explained away weirdly in something that seems suspiciously stolen from Douglas Adams (who also didn’t know when to end the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.) The ending felt rushed and a bit wobbly as well.

This really isn’t one for the fans, because fans expect more and by this point, we kind of have the right to expect that. It is hard for our favourite author to write more than 30 superb novels, and then drop this on us. I don’t even know who to recommend it to. Maybe mid to hardcore sci-fi fans? Mind you, the science isn’t really that hard and there aren’t any fantasy elements barring some interesting animals.

I know that even at my best, I can’t match Pratchett’s worst. All I’m actually saying here is that it is getting a little embarrassing being a Pratchett fan now. I will still buy every book he writes, and I will still throw my panties if he ever comes to visit here, but I am allowed to be disappointed, I think.

But! Not everyone agrees with me, so check out The Guardian’s review, The Independent’s review and what the folks at SFX.co.uk have to say.

Paulo Coelho and Book Piracy

This week the Guardian covered Coelho’s impassioned plea to his fans to pirate his books. He argues, and rather well, that people who might not have bought hard copies did so after reading pirated chapters. His sales are remarkably high; The Alchemist alone sold 12 million copies. The piracy leak sent his sales skyrocketing, so it is understandable that he would be an advocate of book piracy.

It is difficult to measure the effect of piracy on any medium. This blog post at Freakonomics suggests that the actual cost of piracy might be very low, since those who are pirating probably can’t afford the product anyway. Removing piracy won’t solve the problem of financial difficulty. We can’t really work out how book piracy affects sales, and since people have been sharing books for years the damage may be neglible. I do feel that putting digital rights management (DRM) on books will do for books what it did for music: cause a further rippling of piracy. After all, that’s one of my major gripes with the Kindle: those books would not be mine and can be revoked or deleted remotely. This has happened already with 1984.

I’m a passionate believer in the freedom of information, as I’ve shared before, but I would be unforgivably naive if I assumed piracy wasn’t having an impact somewhere. Everyone pirates, intentionally or not. But to counter Coelho’s argument, some people are happy to read thousands of lines on a screen rather than shell out for a book. Again, if they can’t afford the book then the publisher won’t be making money anyway. But I am willing to bet this blog and my signed copy of The Night Circus that there a great number of people who are quite happy to get digital versions of a book and never buy the hard copy. Geeks are particularly comfortable with just not paying for media. Most of the ones I know are in an income bracket where they can afford nice things, but would rather not buy them. This attitude has done some serious damage to the manga and anime  industry in the West. The closure of Tokyo Pop USA is a prime example. Here’s ten more companies that have closed down. Don’t forget about Bandai. Why buy an issue of Bleach or Naruto for R100 upwards when it can found freely on the net? Anime episodes proliferate as long as people are willing to translate and host them. But the problem lies here: the same market that reads/watches manga/anime is nearly entirely made up of people with access to torrents. Unlike TV series and movies, watched by a broader demographic who might not know how to download a folder, geekier things tend to be watched by the geeky. And the geeky often do not like to pay for things they can take.

It seems like a terrible thing to say, but consider who keeps the terabyte drives full of shows and documentaries and audio books. Its not the average parent, and its not the average yuppie. In a Venn diagram these groups might overlap but sadly the same generation howling for the freedom of information is doing some damage to the companies that need their support. I know I said earlier that we can’t always measure the effects of piracy, but we can at least see some evidence that a lack of buying interest is harmful.

Which brings me back to books. Sure, Sir Terry Pratchett has sold tens of millions of books and likely gets royalties from reproductions of his work. I am willing to bet that he is one of the most pirated authors on the planet because I am yet to meet a geek that isn’t a fan. But how many people have bought his books because they wanted to have it to hand? How many of them are content to load pirated pdfs onto their tablets and read that way? We don’t know. We can’t know.

The book industry is in the middle of either death throes or rebirth, depending on who one asks. Some say that self-epublishing is a ponzi scheme about to crash; some say that eBooks will rule the world. Some say that hard copies will always triumph and others will argue that bookstores will be defunct within five years. Already many of them are being treated as displays for online stores, and the closure of two decent book stores in SA so far in 2012 is not heartening. Kindle sales were up 175% from 2010, this past Christmas season. With the massive complexity of this industry, which is different in each country, we can’t really measure the effect of piracy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it, especially when there seems to be so much on the line.