Is Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff” The Next Book For You?

13 Nov

Imagine, if you will, an expert gardener. For decades he has been tending a plot of land near a highway. He grows beautiful plants and tends each one for years until it is absolutely stunning. People come from all over the world to enjoy the plants in his plot. A few notice that within the patterns made by plants is an important message that the gardener wants to communicate.

One day the gardener learns that the highway is to be widened. His plot of land will be reclaimed and bulldozed. There is nothing he can do to prevent this, but he still has his garden for a few more years.

How might he react? He can no longer spend years tending a new plant. He can no longer wait patiently for people to understand his hidden message. Perhaps, then, the last plants he grows will be less beautiful, less carefully formed. Perhaps he will make his message more explicit.

When I read Snuff it seemed as if Terry Pratchett had become this gardener.

I’m a great Terry Pratchett fan and when Snuff came out in paperback I bought it immediately. I mentioned this to a colleague who also liked Terry Pratchett. He had already read Snuff. He said it was okay but that it but it seemed like “just another book about Sam Vimes

The theme of Snuff – a previously rejected group becoming accepted – has appeared in multiple Pratchett stories, but in none other I read is the message so explicit, nor does it so overwhelm the plot.

Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. He must have felt like the gardener, suddenly informed that his time for creative work was coming to an end. And he has, it seems, reacted similarly. Snuff seems less beautifully crafted and less creative than other books in the series. Terry Pratchett’s message is more explicit too.

So what is this message that Terry Pratchett is so eager for the world to hear?

In Snuff, the protagonist encounters a race of creatures called goblins. In Pratchett’s world everybody hates goblins – they are treated as worthless, less than nothing. It turns out, though, that goblins can sing incredibly beautifully. By the end of Snuff this ability has given the goblins value. They are accepted as people, along with all the other races in Pratchett’s world, the dwarves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, humans and others.

The message, if I’ve understood it, is not one I can fully accept. The goblins are accepted because there is something they can do far more beautifully than anyone else in their world.  I’m left wondering, then, what would the fate of the goblins have been if they had no special talent? In Terry Pratchett’s eyes, does the value of a person derive solely from what they can do, from their contribution to the world? If so, then what of those who, through misfortune or fate, have no power to produce beautiful or valuable things? Do they themselves have no value?

Terry Pratchett is an outspoken supporter of voluntary euthanasia – the right of an individual to choose the time of their death. Now I certainly cannot say what I would think or feel if I were in Terry Pratchett’s shoes. However reading Snuff has left me wondering – how much of Terry Pratchett’s passion for the cause is because he’s afraid that Alzheimer’s disease will render him incapable of producing beautiful things? Is he afraid, if only in part, that as it steals his abilities, his disease will also steal his value as a human being?

My personal conviction is that people’s value is intrinsic – not determined by talent or accomplishments or other people’s opinions. Terry Pratchett’s value as a human being does not derive from his ability to write amazing works of fiction, even if his fame and acclaim do. If the goblins lived in the real world, their worth would be the same whether or not they knew how to sing. The message of Snuff therefore rings hollow, adding to my disappointment with the work.

Terry Pratchett has produced a book whose value is less than that of its predecessors, just as the gardener, losing his garden, grows plants that are less valued than their predecessors. The gardener himself is not diminished, but his knowledge that his garden’s days are limited has already begun to sap its beauty, long before the first bulldozer rolls.





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  1. =Tamar

    November 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Unseen Academicals is a previous book with a similar discussion. In it, there are passages about “worth” – first as repeated by the person who learned them from his second teacher (after being rescued by his first teacher, who may have had a different opinion, since he thought the untaught person was already worth rescuing). Later the concept is reinterpreted by others. I believe that the concept of potential is included. In Snuff, VImes was already halfway there as soon as he considered that animals don’t wear jewelry; the music was just the clincher. Also, as much as Vimes occasionally speaks for Sir Terry, he is not Sir Terry in all ways.
    IBy the way, the goblins played instrumental music and made beautiful pots; I don’t recall any singing.