Sir Terry Pratchett (Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
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Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Sir Terry Pratchett demands passionate attention and I am prepared to give it

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Jun 5, 2019

It felt like it might never happen, but at long last there is a televised adaptation of Good Omens available to stream right now. The book that the show is based on, published in 1990, is internationally beloved. The show itself was adapted by Neil Gaiman, who also wrote the original novel, though, as he'd be the first to tell you, he did not do so alone.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, was co-written by Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE. Gaiman is (quite rightly) receiving great praise for his work on the new miniseries, but Sir Terry demands praise as well. Not just praise — he demands passionate attention. I am here to make sure that he gets it.

The story of how Pratchett and Gaiman came to write the book together has been documented elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Gaiman wrote the story up through the baby swap sequence and didn't know where to go next. He showed those pages to Pratchett (who was just starting to receive literary attention), and things lingered until it got to the point where Pratchett told Gaiman that he either wanted to buy what Gaiman had started or write the story with him.

Gaiman didn't know where the tale went next, but Pratchett did. Of course, Gaiman wisely chose to write it in tandem. As he says in The Nice and Accurate Good Omens TV Companion, "Why wouldn't I? Terry knows his craft. He had fantasy tied up but nobody was writing funny horror, and here was an opportunity to write a novel with him. It was like Michelangelo was asking me if I wanted to help him paint a ceiling."

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in 1990 (Credit: Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in 1990 (Credit: Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

Thus, the book emerged from each author writing for an audience of one, trying to make the other laugh. The movie rights to the book were picked up very quickly by Terry Gilliam, and then it went through development heaven and hell for quite a while. Gilliam lost the rights, then gained them back (preparing a version with Robin Williams as Aziraphale and Johnny Depp as Crowley), and then the Gilliam version of the project fell apart, as Gilliam projects are wont to do.

Eventually, it dawned on both Pratchett and Gaiman that Good Omens was not meant to be a movie at all — it should be a television series. They didn't want just anyone to adapt it, though. Finding the right voice for "the old girl," as Pratchett always called it, proved difficult.

That's when Gaiman got a certain request from Pratchett, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in 2007. As Gaiman says in the Companion, "I received an email from him with a special request. It read: 'Listen, I know how busy you are. I know you don't have time to do this, but I want you to write the script for Good Omens. You are the only human being on the planet who has the passion, love, and understanding for the old girl that I do. You have to do this for me so that I can see it.' And I thought, 'OK, if you put it like that then I'll do it.'"

Pratchett died on March 12, 2015, and Gaiman processed the death of his great friend by throwing himself into the work of adaptation, honoring Pratchett's request. The result, as we have now seen, is an incredibly nice and accurate adaptation of the book, which completely captures everything great about the source material. Gaiman, while working on the series, was once again working for an audience of one: His goal was to make a show that Pratchett would have approved of.

Gaiman is, for lack of a better way to say it, so hot right now. His work is being adapted everywhere, and almost everything he's ever written is in development somewhere. While promoting this new series, many people gave Gaiman sole credit for the original Good Omens novel, to the point where Gaiman routinely had to remind people that he didn't write it alone. As Pratchett himself wrote in his book Going Postal, "Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?" This is why Gaiman, along with legions of Pratchett fans, developed the following mantra: "Speak his name."

Personally, I had no experience with the work of Sir Terry Pratchett until I read Good Omens many years ago. After falling in love with it, I rectified that. Good Omens was my Pratchett gateway book, and after downing many of his novels, I realized there was so very much more to not only the man's work but the man himself.

Pratchett's biggest contribution to literature has been a large series of books that all take place in a realm called Discworld. It's called that because the enormous land is on a giant disc, placed on top of four huge elephants, and they stand on the back of the great turtle A'Tuin, who floats through space.

When I heard about this book series upon completion of Good Omens, I knew I had to dive in immediately. How had I never heard of these books? If I'd lived in Britain, I would have — the series routinely appeared at the top of bestseller lists until J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter came flying in to bump them down a little bit. In America, they are nowhere near as prevalent. It's a shame, because they are extraordinary.

Here's some passionate attention for you. The Guardian posted an infamous article in 2015, and the sole focus of it was to convince people that Pratchett was not a literary genius. I don't have a brilliantly structured rebuttal to this article, I only have a half-assed, passionate, enraged response that sounds like the end of a long "shaggy dog" joke. It is this: "F*** you, yes he was." Take that, J. Evans Pritchard!

With that out of the way, where do you begin if you want to read yourself some Pratchett? There are 41 books in the Discworld series, and they don't all necessarily connect to each other. Where does one jump on? Since I'm a completist who generally knows nothing about life, I started from the very beginning.

The Color of Magic comes first, and it focuses on a "gutter wizard" named Rincewind. It's a really fun read, and it instantly made me think, "Douglas Adams, but with fantasy." Pratchett subverts all manner of fantasy tropes to make it hilarious, and he begins his streak of combining the fantastic with the completely mundane. As I already said, it's a fun read, but it is far from the best the Discworld series has to offer.

For most fans, Mort is a better jumping-on point. One of the funniest and most interesting characters in the series is Death, a skeleton man in a black cloak who rides a horse named Binky and ALWAYS SPEAKS WITH THE CAPS LOCK ON. Pratchett was actually going to move away from the Discworld stories until Gaiman told him that he wanted to learn more about Death. It was a few days later that Gaiman received a "damn you" message from Pratchett, saying he had begun Mort, a book that sees Death taking on an apprentice.

Mort is a step up because it moves away from the familiar Dungeons & Dragons-esque tropes of the first three Discworld books and instead begins to build up a whole new mythology. Like the Good Omens novel itself, Death is a surprisingly comforting figure, despite being what he is.

Depending on where your interests lie, there are other potential jumping-on points for the Discworld series. If you are interested in the travails of witch trainee Tiffany Aching, then The Wee Free Men is where you'd begin. If you want to enjoy the inept adventures (and yes, bureaucracy) of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork (the realm's central and most vibrantly smelly city), then jump on with Guards! Guards!

In my own opinion, though, my favorite of his books can be read on its own — the utterly brilliant Thief of Time. This book is just as comforting a read as Good Omens is. I'd say that it feels like setting yourself down in a warm bath, but I've never met a bathtub that I haven't gotten stuck in. Let's just say that it will make you feel better about life, time, existence, and everything in between. Death's own granddaughter (adopted) plays a major role in it, and you also get to meet the wise and mysterious Lu Tze, who has a bit of odd wisdom for every occasion.

What kind of author writes books about (mostly) crazy people living on a disc that is slowly making its way through space on a giant turtle's back? A humble one who never took himself too seriously, that's who. After he was knighted on February 18, 2009, Pratchett said, "You can't ask a fantasy writer not to want a knighthood. You know, for two pins I'd get myself a horse and a sword." Soon enough, he made his own sword with the help of some friends and was sure to include some "thunderbolt iron" in the smelt.

This was a man who regularly attended sci-fi/fantasy conventions wearing a T-shirt that read, "Tolkien's Dead, J.K. Rowling Said No, Philip Pullman Couldn't Make It, Hi I'm Terry Pratchett."

When he died, what turned out to be the final Discworld book (The Shepherd's Crown) was published posthumously. As per his will, any and all other unfinished works were to be destroyed via steamroller.

I'm not kidding, and neither was he. It happened.

This was a man who, when diagnosed with Alzheimer's, referred to it as an "embuggerance." He then campaigned for research into the disease right up until his death. This is a man who, when a Good Omens adaptation finally happened, planned to cameo with Gaiman in the background of the scene in the sushi restaurant. It was purely so the two of them could sit and eat sushi together all day.

The release of Good Omens on television is certainly a cause for celebration, but it comes with the bittersweet note of Sir Terry not being here to see it. His spirit certainly lives within it, as Gaiman has said time and again that he fought hard for anything that came directly from Pratchett to make the cut; he was more inclined to cut his own ideas and keep things that were more Prachett-based, such as the scene in which Agnes Nutter is burned by idiots. More often than not, though, it's was hard for him to tell who had written what. The book had long since taken on a life of its own.

Pratchett was famous for wearing a black fedora, and in the series, you can see it hanging in Aziraphale's bookshop. They're not as easy to spot, but quite a large selection of Pratchett's books can also be seen in the same shop. At the premiere of the series, Gaiman made sure that Sir Terry's spirit had a seat: His fedora, his scarf, and a bag of popcorn had a place of honor right next to Gaiman himself.

The man may be gone, but his magic survives. It survives in his books. It survives in the new series. It survives in his daughter, Rhianna Pratchett, and the ongoing efforts of his estate and the BBC to create a miniseries based on the City Watch portions of Discworld, simply called The Watch.

The best way to make ensure that his magic survives, now and always, is to give it passionate attention. Read his work. Celebrate the man. Remember that he was, and still is, an unstoppable giant in the world of fantasy literature. The most important thing of all, of course, you already know.

Speak his name.


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