In Memoriam Terry Pratchett 1948-2015

Listening to Thomas TallisSpem In Alium
and this playlist

 The best quote by Terry Pratchett may well be:

“I would like to die peacefully with Thomas Tallis on my iPod before the disease takes me over,” he continued, “and I hope that will not be for quite some time to come, because if I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as ­precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice.” (Terry Pratchett, quoted by Lea & Davies in the Guardian , March 12 2015 – see also this obituary by Priest)

 

Terry Pratchett 2012, photo by (c) Luigi Novi, see the licence

Terry Pratchett 2012, photo by (c) Luigi Novi / wikimedia commons, see the licence statement at wikipedia

I saw Pratchett only once, around 1985, at a SF Con in the Atlanta Hotel in Rotterdam – organised by NCSF and Holland SF. The Colour of Magic had been published and it was obvious that he was a marvelous author. The convention was mostly in Dutch and he spent most time on his laptop – and most fans dared not interfere afraid of interrupting the flow of creation. I had taken along young X – whom I could later introduce to Pratchett’s work, who remembered and then appreciated him much too. Later, when Z got into the SF reading stage, Pratchett’s books became something precious to share too.

I discovered two ideas in Pratchett’s novels that I had thought about myself too – and thus zillions of others I hadn’t. The one is how dragons can fly even while being too heavy to fly. This is by micro teleportation. For, once you accept the idea of teleportation, then you can apply it everywhere, and why shouldn’t dragons use it to move through the sky atom by atom ? The other notion is that a god is born as a tiny idea and grows by acquiring followers. No doubt others will have thought about this latter notion too but I felt some satisfaction that I had done so before reading Pratchett. Whenever I notice a silly idea growing in attention I tend to think: “Oh, there is yet again another little god” – and I also think of my independent agreement with Pratchett on this.

The Science of Discworld has already received attention by Pratchett in collaboration with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen. It is difficult to determine whether the magic and religion has received similar attention. Even for a fan it is quite a task to keep up with some 70 of Pratchett’s works and the commentaries. I now notice a book on The Folklore of Discworld but that need not be the same as what I intend here.

Frazer, The Golden Bough (1922, 1978), makes these distinctions, that can usefully be put into a table.  Magic is close to science, since it is based upon laws, like those of similarity and contagion. Magic is close to religion since there are spells and prayer. Magic itself is an odd mixture of science and religion. Most magical, in the view of Pratchett, is the use of words, that may effect an entire change of perspective. One example are the words printed on pieces of paper called money.

Personal god

Magic

Science

Based upon laws ?

no

yes

yes

Human influence ?

pray, sacrifice

spells, rituals

no, only application

In Discworld there is Death with some persona but with a curious mythology – and even a granddaughter. Chaos is represented by accountants who try to turn human life into maximal entropy. One key notion about Discworld is that it has been created by superior aliens: and after creating Discworld they hid themselves in the subconsciousnesses of their created human beings. We can only guess what their purpose was. This is a tiny idea that may grow into a full religion.

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