As most everyone remotely interested in fantasy has learned already, Sir Terry Pratchett passed away two days ago. Obituaries, including front-page articles on BBC, have paid tribute to him far better than I possible could. But while they laud him as author of the Discworld series and a public campaigner for Alzheimers disease awareness, very few mention his work that had the most significant effect on me, Good Omens
Perhaps it is because Good Omens was a co-written work. Or perhaps because it was a one-off, as opposed to the 40-something novel series of Discworld. For me, though, the sheer volume of the Discworld series is the reason I haven’t picked it up yet. One of the last times I was in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, in Bangkok, I wanted to pick up a Discworld novel, but couldn’t figure out which one to start with, so I left them alone and picked up a dense, sinfully boring historical fantasy in what was my worst book shopping error of all time. It’s been nearly five years since I was last in a real bookstore that had books in English, and I still haven’t got around to picking up Discworld. But, in the mean time, Good Omens was a perfect introduction to Pratchett’s style and to the wonderful sub-genre of comic fantasy that he embodied.
If you haven’t read it or listened to the radio drama that was recently produced by the BBC, Good Omens is a hysterical story of a minor angel and demon teaming up to stop the apocalypse, despite heaven and hell being being bent on seeing it through. It’s one of those books you cannot read in public, unless you don’t mind people giving you funny looks when you burst out laughing. But, as Phillip Pullman was quoted in several obituaries as saying, his humor was not biting or sarcastic. It was not dirty. It was the kind of light satire that made you laugh and made you feel good about yourself for laughing at the same time.
That really shouldn’t sound like such a rare and amazing thing, but it is.
There is not a whole lot of comedy in science fiction and fantasy, at least not among the big name writers. I don’t pretend to an expert on the market, by any means, but the last big fantasies I’ve read were Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind series and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings series. The biggest name in epic fantasy now is still George R.R. Martin. But you read through those books and there isn’t a whole lot of humor. A few moments, here and there, certainly, but not in the way that Good Omens kept me smiling, and turning the pages, throughout. Those three authors are amazing, and I love their work. But the genre needed Sir Terry Pratchett, and it still needs his kind.
Comedy is something I struggle terribly with. My writing tends to be dark and heavy. Maybe my reading has something to do with it. Since my primary sources of humor are funny things my daughter says, cultural comparisons between Japan and America, that next to nobody else will understand, or social media, which is sarcastic and best, I’m simply not exposed to much that could work in a book.
It’s time for me to go back and re-read Good Omens, to really study it this time, instead of just enjoying the ride. And then, on to Discworld.
Thank you, Sir Terry, for being an outstanding artist and entertainer, as well as a rare and valuable example for the rest of us.