Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Reaper Man, Part IV

It’s time to face the Great Attractor and ask for a little more time. Let’s finish Reaper Man.

Summary

The Fresh Start crew make their way through the shopping mall that’s sprung up as the next phase of the parasite that has infested Ankh-Morpork, getting menaced by shopping carts. Bill Door runs from the new Death, finds that his scythe has not been destroyed as he requested, and ducks the new reaper (who takes up that scythe), telling Miss Flitworth to take Sal on Binky and make a run for it. He goes to the farm in hopes that he can take up his farming scythe, but his hands pass through it. The new Death emerges to take his life, a figure of smoke wearing a crown. Death is bothered by this rendering—he never wore a crown—but the new Death wants to rule and he attacks. The scythe doesn’t work; Miss Flitworth appears and she’s giving some of her life away to Bill, allowing him to take up the farming scythe and cut the new Death down. Now he is Death once more.

The Fresh Start crew find the wizards frozen in place inside the mall, and they find a disk that they think might be powering the whole center, so Arthur pries it off while in bat form and suddenly the whole place begins to collapse. Ludmilla suggests that they load up the unmoving wizards into the suddenly docile shopping carts and wheel them out. Windle Poons decides that he might be the city’s best defense mechanism against the parasite in that moment and decides to fight the creature using the mall as its disguise. Death faces down the Combination Harvester, which falls apart because he removed an essential piece. He tells Miss Flitworth that he has a lot of work to do, but promises he will see her soon. Ridcully awakens, and the Fresh Start group insist that he and the other wizards go to rescue Poons from the shopping center. Ridcully takes the Dean, Reg Shoe, and the Librarian back in to find him. Death goes to a mountaintop and the Auditors tell him he has not won, but he’s unbothered and frightens them away. Then he summons all the smaller Deaths that cropped up while he was gone and absorbs them back into himself—all except the Death of Rats.

The wizards make it to Poons, and the Dean fires up several spells at once and puts them on a delay so they can escape before the parasite is destroyed, but it’s not quite enough of a delay. Schleppel shows up in the nick of time and stops hiding behind things so he can save the group. The skeletal horse that the crowned Death was riding shows up in Miss Flitworth’s barn, and she suggests it be kept. The Fresh Starters are invited to a meal at the University and while everyone’s talking, Poons asks that Ludmilla and Mrs. Cake take care of Lupine, effectively setting them up. Then he leaves the table to find his end. Death is back in his study, then gets up and travels to Miss Flitworth’s house; he finds the chests of gold the villagers always assumed she had tucked away, but one of the trunks has a wedding dress, letters, and a music box with two figures dancing. He goes to confront Azrael, the great Death under which all other Deaths are ordered. Discworld’s Death is met by him, and by the Auditors who would see him punished, and he tells Azrael that they must care about what they do or there is nothing but oblivion—and even oblivion will end. He asks for time, and Azrael grants it. Then he goes to shops and buys all the most beautiful and expensive flowers and chocolates, and tries to find a “friendly” enough diamond (because the lady at the chocolate shop said “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”), but can’t manage it. So he takes the largest, which is the Tear of Offler (the crocodile god).

Death shows up at Miss Flitworth’s house and hands over all these items, then tells her he means to take her away from all this. Miss Flitworth wants to go to the Harvest Dance, and will hear no other options. Death puts her in a diamond encrusted dress and they go to the dance, but she’s wise to his plan—she saw her hourglass and knows she is running low on time. She appreciates the effort, though, and tells him he should call her Renata. They dance their way through the night, and Renata realizes once it’s over that she was already dead. Death puts her on Binky and then travels through time back to when her fiancé, Rufus, did in fact die, so that they can be together in their afterlife. Windle Poons heads to the Brass Bridge, briefly sees Sergeant Colon, then Death finds him and he’s finally truly dead. Death creates a new large field of corn in his domain, and the Death of Rats shows up, along with the Death of Fleas, the only ones he missed. He thinks of absorbing them too, but remembers the loneliness and Azrael and decides he won’t. They have a talk about what the Death of Rats should ride.

Commentary

I’m just saying that there’s a hefty side plot to this book with the Fresh Starters being an allegory for minority rights groups, and the whole thing starts off as purely comical aside, but by the end we’ve got the lot of them doing all this work to save the city and this group of wayward wizards and… it’s sort of extremely on the nose in terms of how people treat minority groups. Sure, you’ve got struggles informed by systemic oppression, but what are you doing for me today? Oh, you saved our lives, guess we should give to access to the cellar. It’s all very humorous in a groan-help-me-make-it-stop sort of way.

All that being said, I do like Windle’s arc in the story, and the idea that a person might find their “people” and purpose even after their life has ended. We really can’t know when things will find us, the defining moments, actions, and people who will make them up. And sometimes it happens after you’d prefer it—I remember feeling unbearably lonely while studying abroad and suddenly finding a great group of friends in my last few weeks there, while doing an archaeological dig. Was it sad that it happened so late in the game? Of course. Would I have traded those weeks for anything? Absolutely not. Sometimes the important bits are fleeting, or come in right at the end, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a weird facet of life and time.

I think a lot, as a reader and a writer, about how time affects story. People have said that “happily ever after” is all about when you end a tale, and that’s certainly true, but there’s a bigger issue at work here—that when you widen your scope (whether through distance or time), you can see how small any given story really is. It’s a drop in the bucket, every time, no matter how dire the stakes, no matter how many fates held in the balance. Sometimes expanding that scope too far can make the smaller stories feel… not necessarily meaningless so much as baffling. You get the reminder that you’ve invested a great deal of brainspace, energy, even love, into something quite tiny. This is true in plenty of SFF narratives, including the big banner ones; Lord of the Rings, Dune, Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Star Trek, all of these stories have histories and futures that get plotted out and rendered in such detail that their starting points can become too distant, almost fragile-seeming. It can make you feel lost, even as a devotee.

I’d argue that Death speaking to Azrael is somehow an all-encompassing reversal of this conundrum. In the space of a few pages, Pratchett proves to us that the universe is infinite and unending—the acknowledgement that the Clock of the universe’s existence goes around once, but said clockwork can be wound up again is a particularly beautiful touch—and also that every little thing within it matters. Every moment, every story, every ending, and every aspect of Death, who has to care because the caring creates being. And being matters more than anything.

We’ve been given the macro-view of the universe and it makes the small story more immediate, more important. Death goes to Azrael to argue for his existence, but also to ask for a little time to make up for what Renata gave him, a gift before her passing. He gives her physical gifts, too, that she hasn’t much use for (though “here is a diamond to be friends with you” is forever engraved on my heart), and then something far better, a night out where she can dance the way she remembers being able to when she was young.

In the last story we watched Death fumble in his understandings of romance and affection as he tried to set up his daughter with Mort. But Discworld’s Death is different from other Deaths, and now the experience of being Bill Door has also changed him. It would seem he fell a little bit in love with Renata Flitworth (platonically or not, it makes little difference), and he shows that in the only way he truly can—a little more time, and an end that reunites her with the man whom she never got to marry. But it starts with this plea to a much greater entity that himself, and a hope for understanding.

FOR IF WE DO NOT CARE, WE DO NOT EXIST.

As the precept to a certain manner of faith, I can think of very little more compelling than that. And as Pratchett continues to construct and build out the Discworld—his own corner of being—I think we learn far more about what he wishes for us through the reaper that watches his realm.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Tons of references in here, from Alien to Indiana Jones to It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re fun little bits to pick out. The use of the color pink for the alien parasite also put me in mind of the slime from Ghostbusters II.
  • Ridcully says that saving the undead Windle is a “miracle of existence” to which the Bursar replies “Like pickles,” and this confuses everyone except me. I’m with the Bursar. Like pickles, miracle of existence that they are.
  • The Lecturer of Ancient Runes arguing that shouting “bonsai” (like the warriors of the Counterweight Continent) isn’t a good idea because “We’ve got a totally different cultural background. It’d be useless,” is actually a fair start at having a conversation about cultural appropriation, though they don’t quite get there.
  • “Mrs. Cake always assumed that an invitation to Ludmilla was an invitation to Ludmilla’s mother as well. Mothers like her exist everywhere, and apparently nothing can be done about them.” That would be my mother. The only thing that can be done is not letting her know about the invitations.
  • After doing a little ruminating last week on Death and gender, a weird implosion occurred online where TERFs tried to insist that Pratchett held with their transphobic views, and his daughter weighed in firmly negative to that, and then some very shoddy thinkpieces about what his work meant and how we should handle subjects like “Death of the Author” popped up. And… nevermind the fact that the internet is full of stories from fans who will talk of how warm and accepting and hilarious and lovely Sir Terry was in person, I’m just exhausted and flabbergasted that people can read these books and think that an author who devotes so much page-space to the idea that perception and belief create reality would ever hold with the idea that “too bad, your private bits determined your gender.” And that’s without even bringing up Cheery Littlebottom (who we haven’t gotten to yet), or the fact that good satire doesn’t punch down. And Pratchett is, in addition to many things, a superb satirist.

Pratchettisms:

It was, as he was wonderfully well placed to know, merely putting off the inevitable. But wasn’t that what living was all about?

The writing on them hadn’t fully ripened yet, but Windle would have bet his afterlife that it would eventually say something like SALE!!!!

Occasionally people would climb the mountain and add a stone or two to the cairn at the top, if only to prove that there is nothing really damn stupid that humans won’t do.

Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.

Change the perspective. The furrowed landscape falls away into immense distances, curves at the edges, becomes a fingertip.

And, with great relief, and general optimism, and a feeling that on the whole everything could have been much worse, Windle Poons died.

I AM ALWAYS ALONE. BUT JUST NOW I WANT TO BE ALONE BY MYSELF.

Next week we’re back with the coven as we begin Witches Abroad! We’ll read up to “She’d really seen it in a bowl of jambalaya she’d prepared earlier.”

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