Terry Pratchett and Leonard Nimoy: Some thoughts

It’s a curious thing when a famous person dies, an actor or writer or some other figure who you don’t know exactly, but who has affected your life in some way, big or small; influenced you, brightened up a grey day, made a boring car journey pass quicker, made you feel less alone at school, made you feel connected to something bigger and better. It’s a strange thing to process.

That’s partly because, in a way, you don’t want to intrude on the grief of those who did know the person in question – their family and friends deserve their privacy, to not have their grief usurped by adoring fans – but also because you feel compelled to express how you feel, and do it publicly. Write an article or a blog post. A Tweet at least. I’ve banged on about this previously from the standpoint of people desperately needing to make their voices heard when a newsworthy event happens. In cases like the death of Sir Terry Pratchett yesterday, or the death of Leonard Nimoy two weeks ago today – seriously, universe? Those two guys in the same fortnight? Fuck you – it doesn’t feel like everybody’s clamouring for attention, though, desperate to be seen to care. Not at all. People loved these two men, what they created, what they stood for, and they want to express and sum up their personal journeys with them, the lasting effect they’ve had.

Both men, to me, represent the very best of both science fiction and fantasy geek culture and of human behaviour. Leonard Nimoy was in many ways the human avatar of Star Trek, a series that, while often hokey, stiff and cringeworthy, at its best, symbolises humanity striving to reach its highest potential. Humanism, inclusivity, working hard to better ourselves, exploration, the pure wonder and majesty of the universe, the transformative power of science fiction – these are the things that Nimoy represented, to me.  That, plus the fact that he was, by all accounts, a hugely warm and generous individual. He wasn’t just an icon, a symbol. He was  a human being, and a top one at that, and geek iconography and legacies aside it’s obviously sad when a good person dies, whether you knew them personally or not.

Similarly, apart from the fabulous body of work he leaves behind – wonderful characters like Tiffany Aching, Death, the Librarian and the Luggage, brilliant novels like Thief of Time, Only You Can Save Mankind and Wintersmith – which has entertained me, expanded my mind and inspired me hugely as a writer (seriously, you should read some of the diabolically awful Discworld rip-offs I used to bash out back in the day, actually you definitely shouldn’t ever), Terry Pratchett went about the business of being a person in a dignified, inspiring and hugely humane way. Look at the way he dealt with the onset of that horrendous disease – with such grace, good humour and well-directed anger. As difficult as it is to watch, I would recommend that everyone check out his documentary Choosing to Die, which aired back in 2012. It’s a painful and sobering programme, but also full of beauty – everyone involved, not just Sir Terry, are models of moral, compassionate behaviour. This is how human beings should interact with one another. With empathy and understanding and warmth. And, occasionally, a sharp tongue.

I met Sir Terry once, briefly, at the Hay Festival. I was in my teens, and I attended a Q&A session, and I was absolutely desperate to ask a question, for him to be even briefly aware of my existence, but I could not for the life of me think of a decent one. I wanted to be incisive, astute, to make him laugh. In the end I thought of a pretty crap one, asking whether he liked to work with music, or if he had to make sure he had absolute silence – no music or lawnmowers or anything in the background. I can’t actually remember the substance of the answer he gave, but I do remember that he misheard me, or pretended to for comic effect, and said something like, “Musical lawnmowers? What a brilliant idea”. Then he proceeded to do a little riff on that before answering the question. Later on I got a book signed, and I almost brought up musical lawnmowers as though it was our private joke that we’d both be laughing about for decades to come. But I didn’t. Basically the twin morals of that story are that I am a massive nerd, and that he was a top individual.

It’s tempting to say things like “the world is a greyer place” when people like Nimoy and Pratchett die. It’s certainly easy to gripe about how unfair it is that excellent figures such as them have gone – so early as well, in Pratchett’s case – while other perhaps less humane individuals remain on this mortal plane to spread their poison. But the world is still here. The universe remains – although, to re-iterate, fuck you universe. And these men’s individual legacies remain; the influence they’ve had, the myriad people whose lives are different for having had some kind of contact with them, whether that was shaking hands at a convention, receiving a letter or just reading a really funny book when you really needed to laugh. Both have brought joy to thousands, millions. They are examples against which we can hold ourselves, who can inspire us to be better. We can curl up with a favourite Discworld book, or perhaps one we’ve not yet read, or we can watch Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and marvel that that weird-ass whale flick ever got made, and forget the myriad bollocksnesses of life for a while.

These are their gifts to us.

Thank you, gentlemen.