In a very different universe, the world is a flat disc carried on the backs of four elephants, which are standing on the back of a giant turtle, which is swimming…

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In a very different universe, the world is a flat disc carried on the backs of four elephants, which are standing on the back of a giant turtle, which is swimming through space: some say, towards the ultimate mating ground – the literal big bang.

This universe belongs to the unusual imagination of Terry Pratchett.

Welcome to the Discworld.

In 2009, Terry Pratchett celebrated the 25th anniversary of his Discworld series. A remarkable moment, if you consider Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, selling more than 65 million copies worldwide. Specific Discworld novels, like Mort and Wyrd Sisters, also repeatedly feature on lists of the best books produced in the last 100 years. He is the second most read author in Britain, and the seventh most read in the United States. And before a certain boy wizard, he was the best selling British fantasy writer of all time.He was also the bestselling British author of the 1990s and his books average sales of 2,5 million copies a year. He has won several awards, including the Carnegie Medal, and was knighted in late 2009 for his contribution to literature.

Take all of that, and it cannot be denied that Discworld, and its creator, are a big deal.

It is sad then to realise that 2011 might be the year of the last Discworld novel. Pratchett was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007, and his steady decline is slowly, and sadly, decreasing the likelihood of any more novels from the pen of the man who critics agree is “the best comic writer writing in Britain today.”

Discworld, the fantasy world Pratchett created, encompasses a complicated geography and political and social landscape, and deals with hundreds of individual characters, all of whom appear and disappear, star or make cameo appearances, in most of the novels in the series. The books do not have to be read in order, but specific groups of book have been clumped together. If you know Pratchett, you know about the “witch books” or the “Death books” or the “city watch” books.

Snuff, the latest “city watch” book, and the 39th Discworld novel, is due out later this year and according to statements by Pratchett, two forthcoming novels, Raising Taxes and Scouting for Trolls, are in the works. However, as of late 2009, the author has admitted that he is finding it difficult to sign autographs and he has had to resort to dictating his novels because he is finding it increasingly impossible to type. This has led to widespread media speculation about the probability of Pratchett completing another novel. Neither Raising Taxes nor Scouting for Trolls has been officially confirmed by Pratchett’s publishers.

Pratchett’s form of Alzheimer’s is a rare one called posterior cortical atrophy, it results in the back parts of the brain shrivelling, causing dementia.

For those who have not encountered Pratchett it is difficult to classify his style or his charm. It could be described as Douglas Adams meets Tolkien, but that would do Pratchett a disservice as he has become one of the leading satirists, or parodists, writing in Britain today.

Pratchett’s books are, however, often limited by their fantasy brand. While the Discworld is undoubtedly fantasy, Pratchett is known for his breakaway from traditional fantasy tropes and his unique use of humour. Not that Pratchett denies he writes fantasy. He says, “I owe a debt to the science fiction / fantasy genre which I grew up out of.” He adds that he is annoyed that fantasy is “unregarded as a literary form because it is the oldest form of fiction.” This latter quote came after a controversy concerning the British book store chain, Waterstone’s, who refused to display the Discworld novels on the bestseller shelves, even though they qualified, instead relegating them to the fantasy aisles.

But regardless of such minor snubs, there is no doubt that the Discworld series is significant. Not only in the redefinition of a genre, or because of its undoubted contribution to 20th and 21st century literature, but also because of the wildly popular, yet passionately cultish, fandom it inspires. It is relevant, popular and enduring – a combination which is rare in the fickle world of publishing. And all this, not despite of, but perhaps because it is fantasy.

Discworld will be missed. Maybe in the not too distant future, much like with the works of Douglas Adams, another author will take over the series. Ardent fans might cringe at this idea because Discworld is Discworld only because of the man behind it – it is the tragic loss of his comic power and literary potency which will leave a gap in the market and the hearts of fans. For now, Perdeby wishes Mr Pratchett all the best with his treatment. His books and his vision live on.

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