In Praise of Pratchett: Thief of Time

With Thief of Time an era came to an end, for this would be the last Discworld book to sport a cover painted and drawn by Josh Kirby, whose art had defined the image of Discworld for us all from the beginning. Such a shame that there would be no more.
At least Kirby went out on a high, for Thief of Time was another monster of a story, with Pratchett in complete control of the various threads that he wrapped into one powerful threat from the very first sentence.
I always think of this as another Death and Susan book, the last, in fact, but it’s that in no more than half. The Auditors of Reality are on the attack again, this time cloaking themselves in flesh in order to manipulate the somewhat unhinged Clockmakers Guild foundling, Jeremy, into building a Glass Clock that will stop Time for ever. Death is aware of this and, once more, the Rules prevent him taking a hand in opposition, so once more his mostly human granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is required to act as his trigger finger.
And Susan accepts her role with far less resistance than in any of her previous appearances, despite her fervent desire to be only human, only normal. She’s progressed from Governess to teacher now, and a very effective teacher of course. But once the Death of Rats shows up, with Quoth the Raven in tow, Susan’s resistance is primarily token. She’s getting used to her ‘powers’, to being what she is and not what she wants to be. And she’s quicker to realise that there’s a very big threat out there that can’t wait for her to go through the usual unavailing protests.
Normally, that would be enough, but Thief of Time has another, almost more important dimension. We’ve already had a cameo from Lu-Tze, the Sweeper, back in Small Gods, but this book is as much his as it is Susan’s: more so because we now are introduced to the History Monks, their monastery at Oi Dong, and of course, Rule One.
Actually Lu-Tze is, like Death and Susan, part of a double act, paralleling our already familiar pair. Instead of Grandfather and Granddaughter, we have Master and Apprentice, with Lu-Tze taking responsibility for the most naturally-gifted, untrained and untrainable novice you could imagine, Lobsang Ludd. Oddly enough, Ludd’s just as much a foundling as is the obsessive Jeremy, but whilst Pratchett makes nothing of that, it’s going to be a matter of critical concern.
So: the Auditors, in the awkwardly human form of Lady Myria LeJean, are leading Jeremy to the construction of the Clock that will finally bring unlimited order to the Universe, and Susan on the one hand, and Lu-Tze and Lobsang on the other, are the parallel forces trying to prevent this outcome.
Pratchett adopts a dramatic model that’s rather unusual for him. There’s but a single story, though the piecemeal approach of the early part of the book delays this realisation. Pratchett starts several threads with no apparent connection to one another, but all of which soon start to coalesce, not into the same direction but for the same destination from opposite ends.
As soon as we understand the significance of the Glass Clock, we understand that it is going to be made, and that this will have to be dealt with. But with a single event to prepare for, Pratchett can stretch the story over a longer period than we’re used to, and without any sub-stages of significance to provide us with peaks and troughs.
It’s all a slow accumulation of tension, the better to emphasise that, when the Clock is set in motion, we have reached The End, and that only very special talents, operating in a sphere far beyond the knowledge of anyone else, can take any actions that might lead to the winding down of the clock and the restoration of any kind of observable reality.
The stakes are consequently higher, not to mention more remote, than in any other book in this series. A fact  emphasised by the slightest of devices, as Pratchett separates every section of his story with the italicised word tick, which collapses in on itself, leaving the whole of what will or won’t be salvation to take place between ti- and the perhaps never found -ck.
Though Pratchett has a down-to-Earth side to his story, Thief of Time is another of those books that operate deeply in the fantastic. It’s not a fantasy story as such, being based on a decidedly science fiction concept, that of stopping time, and its solution depends on the fact that the two foundlings, Jeremy and Lobsang, are connected: they are not twins but rather the same person, born twice in different split-seconds, and due to be rejoined as one being.
Creator of the menace, resolver of the menace, what was Jeremy/Lobsang becomes Time himself, inheriting his role from his Mother, who proves to be less permanent an anthropomorphic personification than Death, who is never going to take up pipe and slippers and leave it all to Susan to take over (then again, unlike Time, Death is not ‘married’).
Indeed, more strongly than he’s previously hinted, Pratchett leads us to believe that Lobsang and Susan, being two of a kind, will go on to forge a relationship as only they – literally – can. Perhaps that’s why Susan never returned in any later stories: reader, she married him (or at least snogged him in the stationery cupboard).
But Pratchett does still have a serious element to bring to the fore, which is what it is to be human. Throughout Thief of Time, with each of its mythopoeic characters – Death, War, Famine, Pollution, Time – Pratchett touches on the idea that, although none of them are human, they are human in shape, put into that shape by the beliefs of the humans on whom they act.
And being human creates an abyss into which everything must fall. Susan is more aware of this than others, though Death has seen too much of life not to have gathered an understanding of by just how much their expectations of him have influenced how he appears, talks, acts and thinks.
But Pratchett is at his most explicit in the form of Lady Lejean, the Auditor turned some form of flesh, who undergoes the full effect of becoming human and everything that means. She begins as Myria, a simple reflection of Myriad, but accepts Susan re-naming her as Unity. Through her, we see something of what it means to have the world cease to be one thing and become two: yourself… and everything else.
It’s what Pratchett brings to this book that we take away, the other side of the coin of mirth. For we can laugh, and gasp in excitement, and chew our nails over impossible threats, whilst knowing as readers that there is a solution, there will be a way out. And we can close the book on Time, and Susan, and Lu-Tze, and even giggle at his Fifth Surprise.
But we can’t close our eyes to the gap between ourselves with our eyes shut, and the rest of everything.

In Praise of Pratchett: Reaper Man

Though it’s not usually regarded as being among the Great Discworld Books, Reaper Man deserves a much higher reputation. It deals with Death, and death, and to speak of death means to speak of Life, and Reaper Man in its most fundamental moments is about what it means to Live.
In this book, Pratchett shows for the first time his understanding of the internal need of his characters to grow, to take on board the experiences he gives them, and to respond to those experiences by changing. Rincewind had, by this time, appeared in four books (five, counting his cameo in Mort) without being in the least bit different: the failed wizard, the inveterate coward, the one who runs away from danger only to land in even more danger.
Death might have been the only character to turn up in every book so far, but he had starred in only one, the afore-mentioned Mort. Now, what happens to Death in Reaper Man, indeed the whole perilous situation that arises in the two halves of its plot, is as a consequence of Mort, the outgrowth of what Death exposes himself to whilst he allows his apprentice to assume the Duty.
Now, Death has taken an interest, has begun to wonder about these humans that he meets but once, and that briefly. He has begun to develop a personality, as well as a function. And as a consequence, he attracts the attention of one of Pratchett’s greatest creations: the Auditors of Reality.
They’re not yet fully developed, not up to direct intervention in their quest to order existence into lines of utter predictability, but they petition their ultimate master, Azreal, and the outcome is that Death shall be replaced. Death is put out to grass, and his retirement gift is his own hourglass, but unlike the one he has always retained – the clock to his job – this clock (suitably gold) has grains of time in it, rushing towards the bottom.
So Death is sent out to live what remains of his life, subject for the first time to Time, among humans. He becomes a workman for Miss Flitcroft, who owns a farm by an un-named village in an unidentified part of the Disc, and is paid sixpence per week to bring in the harvest. The Reaper Man becomes the reaper man, Death has to learn Life among those with whom he has always lived, and thus he grows more appreciative of what life is, what has to be gone through, and what has to be accomplished under the knowledge that the end is always the same, the end.
Death’s lack of comprehension, his complex approach to fitting in under his new name of Bill Door, is not only hilarious, it is funny, and touching, and it takes Pratchett into regions considerably more serious than Discworld books are popularly supposed to be, yet without which the books would only be funny, and would end up being forgotten.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s ending. Death has been made to step down and, in due course, there will be a replacement (the delay in such succession is the wellspring of what is happening in the other, lighter-hearted, part of the story). But the new Death is a creation of the Auditors: it is melodramatic, it is shapeless, it relishes the bringing of death, it works in multitudes, it does not see death as something that happens to individuals, only as death itself. Pratchett is a little too blatantly allegorical in contrasting Bill Door, cutting a field of wheat stalk by stalk to a primitive, horse-driven Combine Harvester – the first instance of technology finding its idiosyncratic way into Discworld – but Bill Door’s instinctive shrinking from the Combination Harvester is nothing as to Death’s outrage at the New Death, and especially at the crown it wears.
Though the odds are stacked up against him, Death overcomes the New Death and, with a sense of empathy that will ever afterwards inform him, persuades Azrael to restore him to his job.
Pratchett comes into his own in these parts of Reaper Man, understanding the voice he has, awakening to the fact that Discworld is not just an entertainment park in its own right, but a focus for those things that, deep within us, we have to say.
That Reaper Man is not seen as one of the essential Discworld books is entirely down to the fact that it’s not simply a book about Death. I’ve always seen it as such, in a sequence from Mort to the later books that co-star Susan Sto-Helit. However, it’s just as much an Unseen University Faculty series book as it is Death’s: indeed, Pratchett emphasises the dual nature of the story by using different densities of font to immediately identify which half of the story we’re in. Though I can’t help but think that by using a near-Bold font for the Faculty half suggests a greater weightiness that is entirely misplaced.
Though the other half of the story ultimately descends from the same starting point, there is no overlap or crossover. The closest we come to this is a Rite of Ashkente that doesn’t summon Death, merely an Auditor.
No doubt it’s careless reading on my part but, in years of focusing upon Death’s role, I’d overlooked the prominence of Ridcully and the Faculty, for a second novel in succession. What they have to deal with is the absence of Death in its aspect of nobody actually coming to pick up the dead: in particular, 130 year old Windle Poons, whose return to his body in the absence of any kind of eternal rest to go to upsets all the other wizards.
(Ponder Stibbins hasn’t yet made a mark, but the Senior Wrangler is to the fore).
So the surplus Life Force, as well as animating Windle Poons and inspiring the ever-fanatic Reg Shoe to start campaigning for Undead Rights, has to go somewhere. It starts by popping up as snow globes which then turn into shopping trolleys (as you’d expect…) and matures into trying to take over Unseen University in its mature form as a Shopping Mall.
It may not be the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but I’m sure it sits down at the same family meals.
It’s funny, but so’s Death’s side of the story, and the Faculty story melts into insignificance besides that.
And I suppose so does Reaper Man‘s overall ratings. It’s a mix of the mature Pratchett with a throwback towards the juvenile Pratchett, though the mature writer is rather better at juvenile than his younger self.