In part two, Chris Howard celebrates the work of Terry Pratchett and Valjeanne Jeffers talks about three Cherokee writers, William Sanders, Thomas King (a personal favorite) and Daniel Heath Justice. Enjoy.
Chris Howard—Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett is one of the biggest names in fantasy literature. He’s a bestselling author in the UK and US. His books have been made into movies and translated into dozens of languages. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire, he was knighted, he’s won the Carnegie Award, and he has early-onset Alzheimers.
Instead of looking broadly at Pratchett’s extraordinary accomplishments and uncertain future, I want to narrow the focus to one accomplishment, Pratchett’s gift of an entire world—a fascinating, complex, and fundamentally comic place called Discworld. He has given it us to explore in dozens of books, so I’m also going to try to convince those who have not walked the streets of Ankh-Morpork or the forests under Überwald to take their first step.
Like a lot book series in fantasy, science fiction, and literature in general, we may have to find our own way in.
For me it started with the Guards—Guards! Guards!
I didn’t begin reading Pratchett with the wizards and the Colour of Magic, the first in the chronologically written order of the books. I began with Sam Vimes and the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork, and somewhere around forty books later I can look back on all the reading and re-reading of Terry Pratchett’s work and realize I never left Discworld. I just have to hear the name Weatherwax, Vetinari, the snapping shutters of the clacks, or anything off the list of Abominations Unto Nuggan, and I’m there. It’s like I went on a two-week Hawaiian vacation in the early ’90s, and years later discovered that I had apparently settled down just outside Honolulu.
Talking to Pratchett fans, it’s clear everyone has a favorite story series in the Discworld books, the Witches—especially Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg (but don’t forget Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men), Rincewind and the Wizards, Vimes and the City Watch books—with Lord Vetinari, mostly looming in the background, occasionally stepping in to shift lives and cities and wars toward what usually turns out to be a promising outcome.
And it all began in front of a mysterious door on a dark street, in the pouring rain, in the great city of Ankh-Morpork:
The figure rapped a complex code on the dark woodwork. A tiny barred hatch opened and one suspicious eye peered out.
“The significant owl hoots in the night,” said the visitor, trying to wring the rainwater out of its robe.
“Yet many grey lords go sadly to the masterless men,” intoned a voice on the other side of the grille.
“Hooray, hooray for the spinster’s sister’s daughter,” countered the dripping figure.
“To the axeman, all supplicants are the same height.”
“Yet verily, the rose is within the thorn.”
“The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy,” said the voice behind the door.
There was a pause, broken only by the sound of the rain. Then the visitor said, “What?”
“The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy.”
There was another, longer pause. Then the damp figure said, “Are you sure the ill-built tower doesn’t tremble mightily at a butterfly’s passage?”
“Nope. Bean soup it is. I’m sorry.”
The rain hissed down relentlessly in the embarrassed silence.
“What about the caged whale?” said the soaking visitor, trying to squeeze into what little shelter the dread portal offered.
“What about it?”
“It should know nothing of the mighty deeps, if you must know.”
“Oh, the caged whale. You want the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night. Three doors down.”
This passage shows the comic side, but it doesn’t take long to realize the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night are going to overthrow the government, and they’re going to use lies, terror, and chaos to do it. Sure, it’s going to involve a dragon summoned with the use of a stolen magic book, a puppet king, and there’s also some potential human sacrificing, and an orangutan who happens to be a librarian seeking the lost book. But it’s also about reviving or staying true to your sense of justice. It’s about a directionless, drunkard city watch captain, Vimes, who discovers that it doesn’t matter how low a man has fallen he can’t lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong, and he can always climb back up and make things right.
That is the brilliance of Terry Pratchett. He has taken the “map is not the territory” concept to unique and beautifully detailed levels, applying his own map of Discworld to our territory, our world, our changing cultures, environment, and advances in technology. Through the eyes, hearts, and minds of Vimes, Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and all the other Discworlders we see and feel and contend with their hopes and fears, the rise and decline of civilizations, gender and race inequality, with shared controversies and acts of courage, with everyday hostility and kindness.
And Guards! Guards! is just one book out of about forty, eighth in the sequence, and to many Pratchett readers—I include myself—the stories only get better as you go along. If I had to pick three for desert island reading I would go with Going Postal, Night Watch, and Monstrous Regiment. With so many amazing books it’s not easy to choose, but I think I would stand by those three.
If you’re not already a Pratchett reader, have I convinced you to pick up one of the books?
Don’t blame yourself.
I fail miserably every time I attempt to explain Terry Pratchett’s books to someone who has never heard of Discworld, Granny Weatherwax, the Ramtops, or the notion of belligerent cheese—like the Lancre Blue, which has “to be nailed to the table to stop it attacking other cheeses.” I have tried to explain the clacks—the long distance semaphore-based communications system that in some ways mimics modern technologies like email and the Internet, including a thriving hacker subculture, the business of operating the systems, and the struggles around who controls it. I quote funny lines, or try to explain the footnotes, the disc and the elephants all on the back of Great A’Tuin, or that Jingo is about prejudice and war, and Wyrd Sisters is about propaganda and the good or evil influence that words can have on history and even reality.
As Terry Pratchett’s books have grown in worldwide popularity, the problem of having to explain these things has diminished, even if the difficulty remains.
It is Pratchett’s ability to weave serious and sublime themes into blended fabrics of rough cloth, Klatchian silk, and silly string. In every Discworld story you will find an astounding complexity, cleverness, imagination, and poignancy bound together with humor—and I mean serious laugh out loud while you’re reading by yourself comedy. That’s also what binds Pratchett fans together. All of us live in Discworld to some extent, and the only thing I can say to those who don’t is pick up Guards! Guards! Or Wyrd Sisters, Going Postal, or The Wee Free Men. Start somewhere. Just take a walk through Pratchett’s world. I dare you to come away with the same view of this world, because every Discworld book has some alchemical mixture of those enduring Pratchett elements: painfully serious, brilliantly silly, but most important, simply and universally human. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discworld
Chris Howard is a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books)
and half a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine. In 2007, his story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of other books, blogs, and places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at http://www.SaltwaterWitch.com
Valjeanne Jeffers—A harvest of Native America Fantasy
The month of November is reminiscent of orange-ringed harvest moons, piles of flying leaves and succulent dishes… For some it calls to mind the Norman Rockwell moment frozen in time when Pilgrims and “Indians” sat down to dinner in a picture-perfect afternoon of brotherly love, peace and thanksgiving.
I instead envision Native American writers moving through the stacks of speculative fiction. So I thought it would be particularly apt in November to showcase the harvest of Native American SF/fantasy that I recently became acquainted with: The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan, written by Cherokee author William Sanders, Green Grass, Running Water by Cherokee author Albert King, and The Way of Thorn and Thunder by Cherokee author Daniel Heath Justice.
The Ballad of Billy Badass is a literary protest of the crimes against Native American peoples woven into a tale of a battle against preternatural evil. In Green Grass, Running Water fantasy and myth are humorously used to explore the middle ground between the modern and the traditional. And The Way of Thorn and Thunder is a high fantasy journey that address the destruction of Indigenous magic and culture by conquest– a journey which has been described as just as epic as J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings.
Thus, Sanders, King and Justice use science fiction and fantasy quite brilliantly to create a dialogue between past and present… sociopolitical dialogue which is perhaps even more effective because it is spoken through the mouths of their characters.
Writing is transformative. We transform the past and present through the power of written words whether through our characters’ raucous laughter, cries of rage, lonely voices in the wilderness, or sobs of melancholy. In doing so we inform the future. This is just as true of science fiction/fantasy authors as of any other genre. As writers, we give birth to ourselves and our experiences–often making statements about the world around us whether we intend to or not. This, I believe, is our greatest harvest. Our gift, our offering to the world.
Unquestionably it is something to be thankful for.
Valjeanne Jeffers is a SF/fantasy writer and a graduate of Spelman College. She is the author of the Immortal series and The Switch II: Clockwork (this volume includes The Switch I and The Switch II). Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Genesis: An Anthology of Black Science Fiction, Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology and Steamfunk! (in press). She is also co-owner of Q &V Affordable Editing. http://www.vjeffersandqveal.com