Underestimate Terry Pratchett? I never have.

Neil Gaiman writes On Terry Pratchett, he is not a jolly old elf at all.. It’s worth reading.

I know that what Neil Gaiman says here is true, because I’ve known Terry, a little. Not as well as Neil does; we’re not that close, though he has been known to answer my email. But I did have one experience back in 2003 that would have forever dispelled any notion of Terry as a mere jolly elf, assuming I’d been foolish enough to entertain it.

I taught Terry Pratchett how to shoot a pistol.

(We were being co-guests of honor at Penguicon I at the time. This was at the first Penguicon Geeks with Guns event, at a shooting range west of Detroit. It was something Terry had wanted to do for a long time, but opportunities in Britain are quite limited.)

This is actually a very revealing thing to do with anyone. You learn a great deal about how the person handles stress and adrenalin. You learn a lot about their ability to concentrate. If the student has fears about violence, or self-doubt, or masculinity/femininity issues, that stuff is going to tend to come out in the student’s reactions in ways that are not difficult to read.

Terry was rock-steady. He was a good shot from the first three minutes. He listened, he followed directions intelligently, he always played safe, and he developed impressive competence at anything he was shown very quickly. To this day he’s one of the three or four best shooting students I’ve ever had.

That is not the profile of anyone you can safely trivialize as a jolly old elf. I wasn’t inclined to do that anyway; I’d known him on and off since 1991, which was long enough that I believe I got a bit of look-in before he fully developed his Famous Author charm defense.

But it was teaching Terry pistol that brought home to me how natively tough-minded he really is. After that, the realism and courage with which he faced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis came as no surprise to me whatsoever.

39 thoughts on “Underestimate Terry Pratchett? I never have.

  1. The article you linked to mentions the 2011 BBC documentary he narrated, “Choosing to Die:”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choosing_to_Die

    If the opportunity ever arises again, it’s worth watching. The program ends with Pratchett watching intently as Peter Smedley, an elderly man with ALS, drinks a cup of Nembutal, kisses his wife goodbye, and then dies.

    I fully expect Pratchett will choose the same route for himself before much longer. It is telling that his arms (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Pratchett#Arms) feature the quote “dont’ fear the reaper”.

  2. I sometimes wonder if we’re replacing men this good. Are there more like Terry Pratchett in the pipeline? Vince Flynn has come and gone, with him the Mitch Rapp archetype.

  3. I’d be surprised if there would be any good writers who are not tough-minded. One of the hardest professions out there, IMHO, because when you practice the violin you hear both that it is not yet good enough and also hear that it is improving, but when you practice writing you either don’t feel it is not good enough and thus get hurt by rejection, or you do feel it is bad but you don’t feel the improvement at all, only grasp it from more positive feedbacks, if you get any.

    “This is actually a very revealing thing to do with anyone. You learn a great deal about how the person handles stress and adrenalin.”

    It was, for me. I tried target shooting twice, and kept thinking “I’d rather not have a lot do with guns, it would be FAR too easy to commit suicide with them.” Then I thought “What the hell, I am not even depressed? Or I just don’t know it?” Oddly, I still don’t know, I always thought to be depressed you need to be actually unhappy and discontent and I am not. But I still feel like keeping a distance from these suicide tools, I somehow still don’t trust myself enough around them. (But the whole thing is stupid – I don’t feel the same kind of self-distrust around ropes, razor blades or tall buildings. It is probably the historical and literary connotations of it – how a self-shot behind the desk was the typical way to go for an indebted aristocrat or failed banker in 1900…)

    So yes, they did teach something important to me about myself, although I am not sure if I really understood the lesson.

  4. Why anyone who has read his books could think he is a jolly old elf is beyond me. I also do not remember elves in his books that could be described as “jolly”.

    And his description of DEATH as a person already suggests how he views euthanesia.

  5. The first I read from him was a new one, Snot. It’s about a goblin holocaust. Unseen Academicals is about violent football hooliganism and a genetically modified fighting machine, Mr Nutt. In another one Sam Vimes time-travels to the past to meet his former self and, to put an end to the gruesome practices of Ankh-Morpork’s secret police.

    Jolly old elf, what?

  6. The Independent article is more than a little interesting– I think most people would say that having that much anger is bad, but Pratchett has obviously made a good thing of it.

    As for shooting, I think I comported myself reasonably well at a Geeks with Guns workshop (followed directions except for something about handing the gun off that Cathy might remember, got what was (to me) surprisingly accurate shooting, and didn’t freak about handling a gun), but I don’t think it proved anything about how I’d act under actual pressure. I think my background in Tai Chi helped with mental focus.

  7. “Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
    Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
    Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
    Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
    Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
    Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
    The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
    No one ever said elves are nice.
    Elves are bad.”

    Definitely not an elf, even of the other Kind.

  8. I’ve met Sir Terry, though I’d hardly claim close acquaintance. While I’ve never been a Discworld fan, I certainly never thought of Terry as a jolly Elf. He always struck me as a remarkably clear headed and balanced chap, who faced the world unflinchingly, and saw it as it was. That made Discworld possible, since it pointed out the underlying absurdity of the world we think we live in.

    I don’t expect to have Sir Terry with us much longer. Last year, I found myself helping out at the North American Discworld Convention 3 in Baltimore. A week before the con, word came out that he would not be attending as GoH. The story for public consumption was that he was in final edit stages on a forthcoming book. What struck us as more likely was that his condition had reached the point where trans Atlantic travel, even with his minder, was a bad idea. More recently, he cancelled out of being present at the Discworld con in the UK, citing worsening of his condition.

    At some point sooner rather than later, I think he’ll decide life is no longer worth living, and exit. I’ll be sorry but not mourn. Instead, I’ll raise a dram in salute to a splendid body of work, and a human being who saw life as it was, lived it as he chose, and departed by his own choice on his own terms. We should all do half as well.

    • >a human being who saw life as it was, lived it as he chose, and departed by his own choice on his own terms.

      A fitting epitaph, though I remain glad we don’t need one for PTerry quite yet.

      I think he and I have gotten along well, in our limited contact, in part because he likes people who refuse to bullshit or be bullshitted. When I shuffle off this mortal coil I hope to deserve something like that epitaph myself.

  9. if absolute chaos were lightning, Twoflower would be the sort to stand on top of a hill during a lightning storm wearing wet copper armour and shouting “All gods are bastards!”

    Laughed so hard when I read that, and have been a huge fan ever since. Terry’s a special kind of guy.

  10. It’s possible that Gaiman wanted to talk about Pratchett, didn’t have a good hook, and just went with “confronting the fools”– it’s an easy way to grab attention. Or maybe there really is a contingent of people who confuse Pratchett’s unusual combination of respect for goodness and ability to appreciate many kinds of good people with consistent niceness.

  11. The bewildering, exquisite, fantastic yet well-grounded details, and the enormous variety of sources of ideas that Terry playfully weaves into his stories are clear evidence of an extraordinarly well-read and disciplined mind.

    I am in awe because I cannot imagine the inspiration and patience needed to write a single one of his many novels.

  12. I think, given a day’s notice, there would be a pack of fans standing in the street outside the little house in a business district, all dressed in black robes and holding makeshift scythes.

  13. ESR. The very last thing anyone will say of you is that you lack a capacity for bullshit. You have many fine attributes. That is not remotely one of them. But you will certainly be missed.

  14. @Zeph: Bullshit is in the eye of the beholder. The usual knock on a bullshitter is that they *know* it’s bullshit when they spout it.

    ESR doesn’t qualify. *You* may think various of his statements are bullshit because *you* don’t believe them. But I can’t recall *any* instance over close to 30 years where I heard Eric deliberately make a statement *he* didn’t believe to be true.

    • >I can’t recall *any* instance over close to 30 years where I heard Eric deliberately make a statement *he* didn’t believe to be true.

      I’m not even much good at fibbing in situations where it’s socially acceptable. This is, occasionally, a problem.

  15. Re: Bullshit

    Terry Pratchett coined the term substition, things that are true but no one believes.

    We all suffer from it.

  16. DMcCunney: @Zeph: Bullshit is in the eye of the beholder.

    And it burns!

    esr: I’m not even much good at fibbing in situations where it’s socially acceptable. This is, occasionally, a problem.

    That seems to be a common problem among people with a hacker-bent. My wife has learned not to ask questions she doesn’t want an honest answer to (although, she sometimes forgets, much to my regret).

    • >[Inability to handle lying] seems to be a common problem among people with a hacker-bent.

      I’ve read that it is a relatively common twitch among two other groups: autists and children of alcoholics whose childhood was profoundly affected by the family’s refusal to speak truth about the alcoholism. Many hackers are mildly autistic (“on the spectrum”).

      I’m not autistic, but I do fall in the second group. I report as a possibly relevant datum, however, that my revulsion against lying increased during my adolescence and really hardened after I became adult.

    • >“BULLSHIT!” (He said, with ringing joy.)

      Yes, I can write fiction and satire. It doesn’t bother me the way lying does. There’s probably some interesting psychoneurology here.

  17. @Don: “esr: I’m not even much good at fibbing in situations where it’s socially acceptable. This is, occasionally, a problem.

    That seems to be a common problem among people with a hacker-bent. My wife has learned not to ask questions she doesn’t want an honest answer to (although, she sometimes forgets, much to my regret).”

    Like esr, I’m not good at fibbing either. I *have* become reasonably adept at just keeping my mouth shut and saying nothing in various circumstances. I have a decent idea of what beliefs of mine are acceptable in which circles I travel in, and I have an assortment of friends I know won’t accept some of what I believe, so I just don’t discuss those things.

    The question becomes “If I say what *I* think about this issue, an argument will ensue. Is it worth my time and trouble to engage in it?” If I think there is a possibility that I might change the mind of the person I’m arguing with, I might undertake the effort. But too many instances are cases of gut level belief not amenable to rational argument, and nothing I say will change their mind, so I don’t even try. If I want to waste my time, I at least want to enjoy how I’m doing it.

  18. I’m not even much good at fibbing in situations where it’s socially acceptable. This is, occasionally, a problem.

    Agreed – including one situation where I think you’d agree it’s especially vital.

    Growing up in rural Texas, I witnessed many instances of leg-pulling* – that particular flavor of sly false-but-plausibly-true assertion that parents like to a make to their kid, which, if believed, is followed by a slightly falser assertion, then falser still, until the kid realizes he’s been had. (Kid then punches parent in the thigh as the parent has a hearty laugh.) I notice this happen in most Southwestern, Southern, and Midwestern households I’ve been around, and occasionally non-American households; I notice it less on the coasts, except in lower income areas. (Read a little into this, but not too much; while my experience is fundamentally anecdotal, there *is* a particular flavor to this. Think “snipe hunt”.) I also see it between any adults and children (Boy Scouts was rife with this), and sometimes even between adults (my sister, damn her eyes, got me a few months ago).

    There’s a whole meta-game aspect to this that no one ever seems to articulate; picking it up yourself is considered part of the rules, much like understanding the hacker ethos. That said:
    # The game is considered Always On – you are never not playing it.
    # Bonus points (in the form of extra regard from peers) are earned the longer the assertion chain is.
    # Points for style; particularly deadpan expression, but also embellishment (if you can make up an entire tale supporting your assertion).
    # Points if you can snap up adults this way.
    # Points to the kid for picking up on it, and adding his own assertion to the chain rather than calling out the adult.

    I’ve seen this game in so many places that it bears the strong appearance of a socially evolved custom. To someone not aware of the game, it simply looks like adults being mean to children. But it has a definite value: playing the game well makes the player more adept at detecting misinformation in real life. It fortifies the bullshit detectors. Viewed in that light, it becomes obvious that the adults are doing this out of (possibly subconscious) love: the stakes are low, and the assertions are not designed to put the child at risk of real harm (or at worst, immediate harm which the adult can prevent if he sees the child fail). Any adult attempting misinformation resulting in real damage would be viewed as precisely the type of adult the game is intended to inoculate against in the future, when the “nice” adults aren’t around.

    *I would love to coin a term for this – “woolpulling” is my current favorite – but alas, “leg-pulling” sufficiently connotative that I cannot in good conscience attempt to declare a new name.

    • >Agreed – including one situation where I think you’d agree it’s especially vital.

      But I could do this, for the same reason I can write satire. It’s using fabulation to convey truth at a metalevel. That’s OK.

  19. Well, to me, lying and satire and fiction all share in common the property of being created in order to get the creator something. The main difference I see between lying and the latter two is how far ahead you’re thinking.

  20. >Yes, I can write fiction and satire. It doesn’t bother me the way lying does. There’s probably some interesting psychoneurology here.

    Do you have problems with lies of omission, or with counterfactuals?

    Not sure what it says about me, but I have no problem at all misleading people by simply keeping my mouth shut, or by using little tricks like telling only a carefully crafted portion of the truth, selective emphasis, misleading comparisons, etc etc (I’m also very, very good at spotting that sort of thing.)

    But I cannot abide stating a counterfactual. It feels…. for lack of a better word, embarrassing.

    • >But I cannot abide stating a counterfactual. It feels…. for lack of a better word, embarrassing.

      Yup. That sounds familiar.

  21. Writing fiction is an instance of “pretending”, which all children do when they play; no deceit is (usually) intended. A notable exception is “Roots” in which the author claimed that he was describing true events, and caught a lot of flack for that.

    When describing hypotheses, since they lack other ways of forming a subjunctive, the Chinese use their word for “pretend”. Provided that it is clearly marked as such, not as a fact, I see no ethical problem with formulating an hypothesis: it would be impossible to do empirical science without this process.

  22. With regard to Paul Brinkley’s ‘fibbing game’, every parent needs to teach their children to look out for bullshit. It’s a vital life skill that needs to be taught early; there seems to be a critical lack of it among today’s college students, who should know better at their age.

    I still remember as a small child, seeing a TV commercial for Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, and mentioning to mom how it seemed so wonderful. She later got some at the market and served it to me. I think she added a lot of salt to it so it would NOT taste good, but made me eat it all. Call it unethical if you want, but she taught me to not trust TV commercials, and the valuable lesson stuck. (One of many that I will always be grateful to my parents for….)

  23. Well, to me, lying and satire and fiction all share in common the property of being created in order to get the creator something. The main difference I see between lying and the latter two is how far ahead you’re thinking.

    Or, of course, that satire and fiction are clearly intended to be realized to be untrue, and, in the case of all satire and much fiction, for the contrast in perspective between belief and disbelief to highlight some salient point. Lies are intended to be believed to be true.

  24. @Paul Brinkley:
    >But it has a definite value: playing the game well makes the player more adept at detecting misinformation in real life. It fortifies the bullshit detectors.

    The interesting thing here is that people with innately strong bullshit detectors are not likely to engage in leg-pulling with their kids (because it’s psychologically difficult), but are also unlikely to need to fortify their kids bullshit detectors (because the relevant psychological details seem to be transmitted genetically).

    This is certainly the case in my family.

  25. @LS
    ” every parent needs to teach their children to look out for bullshit. It’s a vital life skill that needs to be taught early;”

    No better way than to teach your children how to create bullshit and do leg-pulling themselves. That is much better than destroying their trust by making fun of them.

    It starts with explaining how “strawberry flavor” is only used when the product does not contain any strawberries. Also, they should know “great taste” on food packages is only needed when it hasn’t.

  26. I’ve seen this game in so many places that it bears the strong appearance of a socially evolved custom. To someone not aware of the game, it simply looks like adults being mean to children. But it has a definite value: playing the game well makes the player more adept at detecting misinformation in real life. It fortifies the bullshit detectors.

    During a Skype call from my family that started after I got out of the shower at a hotel in Stockholm, my daughter asked why I wasn’t wearing a shirt. I explained that in Sweden, people didn’t wear clothes. She tried to catch me out on this for YEARS, but I stuck firmly to the assertion.

    Then came the day when she spotted a man at the park wearing a Sverige shirt. She immediately ran up to him and asked if he was from Sweden. When he admitted that he was, she asked him why he was wearing clothes, if he was from Sweden. The Swedish guy didn’t miss a beat, but glanced up at me and said “well, we’re not in Sweden now, are we? It would be as silly for me to not wear clothes here as it would be for us to wear clothes in Sweden. Wear clothes in Sweden? That would be unimaginable!”

    She was DUMBFOUNDED. Later, I commented: “So I’m guessing you’ve got kids.” He laughed and said, “yeah, three of them.”

    Clearly “woolpulling” is an international custom among fathers everywhere.

  27. VD: Ha! I knew it!

    No better way than to teach your children how to create bullshit and do leg-pulling themselves. That is much better than destroying their trust by making fun of them.

    Not at all. Said trust was established long before. Remember what I said about it looking to the unaware as adults being mean to the children? Even the kids understand that it’s not, once they realize the game is afoot. It’s not quite the same thing as making fun of them. Some fun is being had at their expense, but it’s a small expense, especially compared to the expense of snake oil salesman in the Real World.

    And they do join in, sometimes against their parents, sometimes against each other. It’s the same spirit whence come practical jokes and pranks and AFD.

    Surprise is a critical element. Teaching kids how to make up their own BS is insufficient, because real BS does not announce itself by its own nature.

  28. “Said trust was established long before.”

    Precisely. The kids love the game. The more ludicrous statements are usually followed by exasperated cries of “DADDY!” and peals of laughter. Or, as my wife wryly puts it, “hilarity ensues”.

    They’re constantly testing and trying to catch me out. For example, the idea that a special counting system is required for counting hippos promptly leads to the question: “okay, so what is one thousand and thirty two hippos?”

    I see it as an amusing and effective means of developing logic and critical thinking. I suspect fathers who don’t do that sort of thing tend to raise children who are much more inclined to erroneously take statements at face value.

  29. We had a Belgian Shepherd named Nessie who loved inventing her own entertainment, including practical jokes – whether on other dogs or on people. She never tired of provoking other dogs to bark inanely while she pranced off with her tail held high and a smile like the Cheshire Cat’s on her face.

    For years she had been trying to catch us out by sneaking in a “kiss”, but we had always evaded her attempts. But one day, my fiancee was in the front passenger seat and Nessie, seated behind her, did something to get her attention then swiftly plonked the biggest, wettest “kiss” possible. She then grinned and, in her doggy way, laughed, with evident satisfaction that she had finally succeeded.

    Once having achieved such a feat, she was satisfied and would never repeat it; instead she would devise something new for next time.

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