Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Discworld novel 11
Corgi 1992 (1991)
What happens when Death fails to claim humans who die? What happens to their bodies, their consciousness, their life force? And what are the consequences for a world in which this calamity takes place?
Terry Pratchett’s famous character Death, who only converses in small capitals, has been ‘retired’ by Azrael, “the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” — or the Angel of Death as our monotheistic religions see him. With his scythe and faithful mount Binky he descends on a Discworld farm; here, as Bill Door, he is taken on as a farmhand by Miss Renata Flitworth. Elsewhere on Discworld, and especially in Ankh-Morpeth, people are ceasing to die: witness Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in the world, who after death turns into a zombie. In trying to find a point to his new afterlife he joins the Fresh Start Club (other members include werewolves, vampires, a banshee and a bogeyman) and starts to note curious events unfolding — things like ovoid snow globes appearing, supermarket trollies multiplying and swear words taking physical form.
This being a Terry Pratchett novel we expect the unexpected, and the unexpected is what we get. And — it goes without saying — any review of a Discworld novel is no substitute for experiencing it first hand; all a review can do is indicate the reviewer’s experience of it. Myself, I found this at first very slow moving. The stasis created by nobody dying was reflected in a general lack of action in the narrative: Windle Poons wandered hither and yon trying to find what had happened to him, or rather not happened to him; Death settled down to working as a farm labourer and experiencing the ordinary rituals of village life.
But the build-up of life forces on Discworld from people not dying properly had to find an outlet somewhere; and in due course Death’s replacement was going to come for Death himself. All this leads to the inevitable crisis and climax, though — as intimated before — this being a Pratchett novel it doesn’t end quite as the reader might expect.
Here is the strength of Pratchett’s writing, Yes, comic fantasy is the name of the game, and there is a lot of humour involved as far as us Earthbound readers are concerned, even if Discworld inhabitants wouldn’t necessarily see the funny side of things. But this is not what marks him out for me: what I appreciate is his humanity in the treatment of the individuals he has created. A lesser writer reveals the comic potential in his characters; Pratchett also reveals their mortality. When the time comes for Windle Poons and Miss Flitworth to properly depart this life, that leaving is done so gently and so movingly. And Death, traditionally a faceless harbinger of individual doom, is some body we want to do well, to succeed — whether it is to understand his charges or to do his job to the best of his ability. As, paradoxically, a believable human personality — perhaps slightly on the autistic spectrum — Death nevertheless works hard to get what human beings are about, and we love him for it.
Neil Gaiman talked about Terry Pratchett’s anger in his introduction to a posthumous collection of Sir Terry’s non-fiction pieces. That anger is a little more muted here, but it’s clear he has a hatred of some aspects of modern life. In particular shopping malls. Shopping malls come in for the rough end of Pratchett’s satire here, as places that pretty much suck the life out of you. But that’s mostly it.
This is my contribution to DWJMarch or MarchMagics, hosted by Kristen over at We Be Reading (http://webereading.com/)