His Name is Still Spoken

In March of this year, I loaded up Twitter only to receive some rather upsetting news.

For those who don’t know, or have better things to do with their time than worry over the deaths of fantasy authors, Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the generally well-regarded Discworld series, finally lost his battle with Alzheimer’s disease early this year. The tweets above were written by his editor, Rob Wilkins, shortly after his death.

The Discworld series, which boasts a catalogue of over forty books, takes a comedic approach to common literary tropes (such as the classic tale of a girl masquerading as a boy to join the army) which are then taken to their logical extreme ( where 90% of the characters had exactly the same idea), or introducing concepts common to our world and putting them where they don’t belong (like the Discworld’s first tourist, rock and roll music that eats away at the musician’s life, or a gun that dominates your mind and forces you to kill). Most commonly, however, was the lampooning of certain behaviours present in the modern day, with an entire novel dedicated to the story of two countries fighting over an island with no real value that suddenly appears out of the ocean, only to sink before the negotiations are completed. The message was that fighting over something as silly as the island was pointless, and that hating a person because of the country they come from is also ridiculous. The name of the book? Jingo. Does the plot sound familiar to you?

While many knew that Terry had made arrangements to “take the disease with him”, he ultimately did not have the chance to die as he had planned. As his daughter Rhianna, a storyteller herself, has resolved not to continue the series, the tales of the wonderful world that runs on stories have ended. The outpouring of grief came from everywhere — Neil Gaiman, an old friend who had collaborated with Pratchett on an earlier book, led the tributes. Soon, other notable people such as David Cameron, Ricky Gervais and Margret Atwood joined the outpouring of grief felt across the world.

This was the moment readers were dreading — Most who followed Pratchett’s affairs knew that his “embuggerance”, as he called it, had been getting worse. His books were clearly the result of less of his own words and more of his editors’ attempts to fix any holes. The afterword in his last book, The Shepherd’s Crown, indicated the Pratchett did not finish as much of the book as he would have liked, and the editors were tasked with making a complete work out of what they had. The afterword goes on to list some of the ideas Terry had about further novels, telling us all about the fantastic books which will now never be written.

In a series where Death appears in nearly all of the novels, his passing, despite the wishes of many, was expected.

What was not expected was how the internet chose to remember him.

In one of his Discworld novels, Going Postal, there is a system of communication called the Clacks. The Clacks a semaphore system with lights instead of flags, with various lines of code in order to transmit images and shorter messages. In terms of operation, the Clacks are a lot like the telegraph, and fills the same technological niche as the telephone or the internet would in our modern day universe. While the main system is for paying customers sending messages to loved ones and colleagues, there is a separate Clacks for the operators, the Overhead.

A reading of “Going Postal”. Thanks to Margret Purdam for use of the recording studio.

John Dearheart was the son of the Clacks’ creator, who was attempting to raise enough money in order to buy back the family business from the amoral Reacher Gilt. He was killed when someone unhitched the safety cord he was using when fixing the lights in his Clacks, causing him to fall to his death. By keeping the name going up and down the line of towers, the characters in the reading kept Dearheart’s memory — and the circumstances in which he died — fresh in the mind of all the other operators.

G to send the signal on. N to keep it safe. U to keep it going on forever.

Some of the clever folks from Reddit latched onto this idea of circulating a name to keep that person’s memory alive. After all, the most appropriate way to remember the man would be through one of his ideas, wouldn’t it? So, those who knew how to code put their plan into action by inserting him into our own version of the Clacks. The words “GNU Terry Pratchett” are hidden in the code of hundreds of webpages across the globe.

For those who don’t want to go sifting through the code of every page on the internet in order to find these memorials, there are very simple ways around this. Chrome and Mozilla Firefox have add-ons that let you see if the website you are currently visiting has remembered Terry in this way. Neil Gaiman and MUSE have this on their pages, and it amuses me to no end that the Guardian article I linked previously, a rather snobby piece talking about how Pratchett wasn’t all that great despite the author admitting to having never read a Discworld novel, also has the code in the page. The ridiculously popular crafting-survival-sculpture-building game Minecraft, which has sold over 20 million copies on the PC alone, has the phrase as one of its random start up quotes. Even the web search giant Google has chosen to take the Reddit users up on their plan, with the code being present when you search for Terry Pratchett’s name. Try these things for yourself, and see how many people have been touched by Pratchett’s books.

Who knows how long the internet will last? Given how integral it is to modern society, probably a good while. And since no-one is really dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away, Sir Terry Pratchett may never truly leave us.

A Clacks signing the letter T. Image by Jess Cunningham.