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Mihir S Sharma: Terry Pratchett, our greatest progressive writer

The writer of the greatest contemporary political novels in English died last month. Millions mourned his passing, finding the years of anticipation did not blunt the grief. And given his stupendous commercial success, the mainstream press also had to take note of his departure. But, for many, Terry Pratchett was just a writer of fantasy, a man who wrote stories with dwarves and trolls in them, and so not someone who could be taken genuinely seriously. He received none of the awed respect reserved for literary novelists who choose to be political, however half-baked, illiberal and divorced from reality their ideas.

Science fiction and fantasy are, by their very nature, deeply political genres. To create a believable alternative world, you have to also create the rules that govern it. That act of creation – of “sub-creation”, as J R R Tolkien used to call it – reveals your politics. It reveals your nostalgia and your hopes; it reveals your expectations from society and from progress; and, above all, it reveals your core beliefs about people, their motivations and whether we can, in the end, all get along. Tolkien, for example, had politics that is painfully clear in The Lord of the Rings: an incurable passion for the England of his youth, before it was despoiled by the Great War and all the social upheaval that accompanied that.

Few great authors of speculative or fantasy fiction have been apolitical. Robert Heinlein, who wrote the shoot-the-giant-bugs classic Starship Troopers, did it because he hated anti-war flower children who humanised the enemy. Steven Brust’s Dragaera series is apparently about intrigue among immortal elves but actually a Trotskyite take on feudal societies and the immigrant experience. And Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are a socialist imagining of a post-scarcity universe, in which productive capacity has expanded so greatly that the laws of economics begin to loosen their grasp.

In all these cases, the politics is something you noticed early on. Pratchett’s genius, however, lay in the fact that you could read and enjoy all his books without even noticing how overtly political they were. Nobody has ever harnessed the persuasive power of fantasy, or for that matter, of humour, as well as did Terry Pratchett. He was the perfect liberal propagandist, in fact. He would write entire novels about sticking up for the little guy, for the principle of the thing, against jingoism and xenophobia and prejudice and for common-sense and kindness and rights and community and old-fashioned truth-telling. And you would think they were just extended jokes about dragons and witches.

He never met a trope he didn’t want to hilariously subvert. The mythos of the hidden king? He wrote a hidden king into his books, except the king is very happy being a middle-level cop and his country runs fine without him. The barbarian hero? In his books, they have to keep on going because of the lack of any pension plan. Revolutions? They are glorious, but almost always fail. Glamorous, powerful immortal elves? In Pratchett’s view, anyone immortal and so dashed good-looking would naturally treat the rest of us like dirt. Orcs and goblins, the dreadful foot-soldiers of fantasy evil? In Pratchett’s books, a long-enslaved race who are still the target of virulent prejudice.

And his world grew in the telling, as is the case with all the best series. The city of Ankh-Morpork (a laissez-faire Mecca, official motto: “We Will Rule You Wholesale”), for example, grew from being a standard fantasy backdrop to a richly detailed melting-pot. The later books set in the city are about ethnic integration and the effect of technology, about hackers and the post office and the mint – and even one of the finest novels about what it really should mean to be a journalist, The Truth. (Featuring the Ankh-Morpork Times, a well-meaning but poorly sub-edited newspaper, with the consequent unfortunate motto “The Truth Shall Make You Fret”.) He could get away with writing an entire novel about affirmative action hiring for women by making the woman in question also a werewolf, allowing him to have enormous fun with the idea of quotas – which quota is she filling, exactly?

Just below this surface, thus, Pratchett’s books were the most extraordinary testaments of the necessity for progressive, liberal values – delivered with such warmth and passion that they converted rather than offending.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Terry Pratchett was a woolly-headed activist/anarchist. As a matter of fact, his most-written-about protagonist, Sam Vimes, was a hard-headed policeman, a copper who believed in the law and in justice and in knocking a few heads together – and knew sometimes you needed one of those three and sometimes another. But Vimes was also the sort of policeman who viewed war as just a crime on an international scale, and once stopped a war by arresting all the belligerents, including his own boss.

When Pratchett was diagnosed with an early-onset variant of Alzheimer’s, five years ago, I felt it like a punch to my gut. I fear I will never be able to read the few Pratchett books I have not yet read; as long as they stay unread on my shelf, I can pretend he is still alive and writing. Typically, Pratchett used his diagnosis as an opportunity to speak for the right to die with dignity, demanding that he be allowed to commit suicide with his mind intact, listening to his favourite classical music on his own lawn. And typically, he laced this poignant agenda with an edgy good humour, a combination that very few people in history have been able to manage.

Pratchett will be missed not just because he was a great writer, although he was. He will be missed because he was unique. No other politics-minded author has been as funny.