Reaper Man: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett (1991) (read in 2019)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is an early story of one of Pratchett’s favorite characters: Death. It’s wonderfully written, one of Pratchett’s best.
In it, Death takes a vacation. He goes to work on a farm. He has a vacation romance with the proprietress.
The rest of the Discworld must deal with the temporary loss of death. Ghosts pile up. The wizards of Ankh Morporkh University try to get to the bottom of it. Reg Shoe—the zombie—pleas for the rights of the dead gain more weight as the number of the dead threatens to outweigh that of the living.
To fix this problem, humanity envisions a new Death, who comes for the old Death. Their battle is short. The old Death didn’t enjoy his job or his power—his stoicism and dedication win out over a lust for power.
Death gets special dispensation for his fling—Mrs. Flitworth—from Azrael, the galaxy-sized cat who was there before the universe and will be there after.
“And this is the room where the future pours into the past via the pinch of the now.”
“Alone of all the creatures in the world, trolls believe that all living things go through Time backward. If the past is visible and the future is hidden, they say, then it means you must be facing the wrong way. Everything alive is going through life back to front. And this is a very interesting idea, considering it was invented by a race who spend most of their time hitting one another on the head with rocks.”
“Wizards don’t believe in gods in the same way that most people don’t find it necessary to believe in, say, tables. They know they’re there, they know they’re there for a purpose, they’d probably agree that they have a place in a well-organized universe, but they wouldn’t see the point of believing, of going around saying, “O great table, without whom we are as naught.” Anyway, either the gods are there whether you believe or not, or exist only as a function of the belief, so either way you might as well ignore the whole business”
“Something wonderful, if you took the long view, was about to happen. If you took the short or medium view, something horrible was about to happen. It’s like the difference between seeing a beautiful new star in the winter sky and actually being close to the supernova. It’s the difference between the beauty of morning dew on a cobweb and actually being a fly.”
“Intellectually, Ridcully maintained his position for two reasons. One was that he never, ever, changed his mind about anything. The other was that it took him several minutes to understand any new idea put to him, and this is a very valuable trait in a leader, because anything anyone is still trying to explain to you after two minutes is probably important and anything they give up after a mere minute or so is almost certainly something they shouldn’t have been bothering you with in the first place.”
“A door burst open and a suit of clothes came out, a pair of shoes dancing along behind it, a hat floating a few inches above the empty collar. Close behind them came a skinny man endeavoring to do with a hastily-snatched flannel what normally it took a whole pair of trousers to achieve.”
“This usually led to a fierce ecclesiastical debate which resulted in Mrs. Cake giving the chief priest what she called “a piece of her mind.” There were so many pieces of Mrs. Cake’s mind left around the city now that it was quite surprising that there was enough left to power Mrs. Cake but, strangely enough, the more pieces of her mind she gave away the more there seemed to be left.”
“It wasn’t even a one horse town. If anyone had a horse, they’d have eaten it. The residents appeared to make a living by stealing one another’s washing.”
“How could they live with it? And yet they did, and even seemed to find enjoyment in it, when surely the only sensible course would be to despair. Amazing. To feel you were a tiny living thing, sandwiched between two cliffs of darkness. How could they stand to be alive?”
““What the hell are you doing?” He looked at the blade in his hands as if he was seeing it for the first time. I THOUGHT I WOULD SHARPEN THIS SCYTHE, MISS FLITWORTH. “At one o’clock in the morning?” He looked at it blankly. IT’S JUST AS BLUNT AT NIGHT, MISS FLITWORTH. Then he slammed it down on the anvil.”
“The new daylight sloshed onto the world. Discworld light is old, slow and heavy; it roared across the landscape like a cavalry charge. The occasional valley slowed it for a moment and, here and there, a mountain range banked it up until it poured over the top and down the far slope. It moved across a sea, surged up the beach and accelerated over the plains, driven by the lash of the sun. On the fabled hidden continent of Xxxx, somewhere near the rim, there is a lost colony of wizards who wear corks around their pointy hats and live on nothing but prawns. There, the light is still wild and fresh as it rolls in from space, and they surf on the boiling interface between night and day. If one of them had been carried thousands of miles inland on the dawn, he might have seen, as the light thundered over the high plains, a stick figure toiling up a low hill in the path of the morning.”
“He looked proudly at the Combination Harvester. Of course, you needed a horse to pull it. That spoiled things a bit. Horses belonged to Yesterday; Tomorrow belonged to the Combination Harvester and its descendants, which would make the world a cleaner and better place. It was just a matter of taking the horse out of the equation. He’d tried clockwork, and that wasn’t powerful enough. Maybe if he tried winding a— Behind him, the kettle boiled over and put the fire out. Simnel fought his way through the steam. That was the bloody trouble, every time. Whenever someone was trying to do a bit of sensible thinking, there was always some pointless distraction.”
“I’VE NEVER BEEN VERY SURE ABOUT WHAT IS RIGHT, said Bill Door. I AM NOT SURE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS RIGHT. OR WRONG. JUST PLACES TO STAND. “No, right’s right and wrong’s wrong,” said Miss Flitworth. “I was brought up to tell the difference.” BY A CONTRABANDISTOR. “A what?” A MOVER OF CONTRABAND. “There’s nothing wrong with smuggling!” I MERELY POINT OUT THAT SOME PEOPLE THINK OTHERWISE. “They don’t count!””
“Vermine are small black-and-white rodents found in the Ramtop Mountains. They are ancestors of the lemming, which as is well known throws itself over cliffs and drowns in lakes on a regular basis. Vermine used to do that, too. The point is, though, that dead animals don’t breed, and over the millennia more and more vermine were descendants of those vermine who, when faced with a cliff edge, squeaked the rodent equivalent of Blow that for a Game of Soldiers. Vermine now abseil down cliffs, and build small boats to cross lakes. When their rush leads them to the seashore they sit around avoiding one another’s gaze for a while, and then leave early to get home before the rush.”
“Something about the relentless movement, the way they crushed one another in their surge, suggested that the wire baskets had as much choice in the matter as water has about flowing downhill.”
““Why are you called One—” is that all? I thought you could work that one out, a clever man like you. in my tribe we’re traditionally named after the first thing the mother sees when she looks out of the teepee after the birth. it’s short for One-Man-Pouring-a-Bucket-of-Water-over-Two-Dogs. “That’s pretty unfortunate,” said Windle. it’s not too bad, said One-Man-Bucket. it was my twin brother you had to feel sorry for. she looked out ten seconds before me to give him his name. Windle Poons thought about it. “Don’t tell me, let me guess,” he said. “Two-Dogs-Fighting?” Two-Dogs-Fighting? Two-Dogs Fighting? said One-Man-Bucket. wow, he’d have given his right arm to be called Two-Dogs-Fighting.”
“In the Ramtop village where they dance the real Morris dance, for example, they believe that no one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away—until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.”
“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.”
“And then, below, a plain. Distance was as meaningless here as time, but there was a sense of hugeness. The plain could have been a mile away, or a million miles; it was marked by long valleys or rills which flowed away to either side as he got closer.”
“The furrowed landscape falls away into immense distances, curves at the edges, becomes a fingertip. Azrael raised his finger to a face that filled the sky, lit by the faint glow of dying galaxies. There are a billion Deaths, but they are all aspects of the one Death: Azrael, the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time. Most of the universe is made up of dark matter, and only Azrael knows who it is. Eyes so big that a supernova would be a mere suggestion of a gleam on the iris turned slowly and focused on the tiny figure on the immense whorled plains of his fingertips. Beside Azrael the big Clock hung in the center of the entire web of the dimensions, and ticked onward. Stars glittered in Azrael’s eyes.”
“WILL YOU GRANT ME JUST A LITTLE TIME? FOR THE PROPER BALANCE OF THINGS. TO RETURN WHAT WAS GIVEN. FOR THE SAKE OF PRISONERS AND THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS.”
“Pratchett writes that everything living needs Death for the sake of mercy, the same mercy that prisoners experience when they see, through the windows of their cells, birds in flight. Mercy, but also longing and hope, since they look at the birds and think that one day they too might be free.”
Apparently, this is one of the most oft-quoted passages from Pratchett’s opus.
“Somewhere in the night, Reg Shoe looked both ways, took a furtive paintbrush and small pot of paint from inside his jacket, and painted on a handy wall: Inside Every Living Person is a Dead Person Waiting to Get Out . . . And then it was all over. The end.”
“Death stood alone, watching the wheat dance in the wind. Of course, it was only a metaphor. People were more than corn. They whirled through tiny crowded lives, driven literally by clock work, filling their days from edge to edge with the sheer effort of living. And all lives were exactly the same length. Even the very long and very short ones. From the point of view of eternity, anyway.”
“And at the end of all stories Azrael, who knew the secret, thought: I REMEMBER WHEN ALL THIS WILL BE AGAIN.”