According to Neil Gaiman’s foreword, behind the ‘jolly old elf’ veneer that many people see from meeting him at signings, conventions or interviews, Terry Pratchett is in fact filled with and driven by fury. Fury at injustices from the casual disinterest of unimpressed teachers to the baffling legal structure that doesn’t let a terminally ill patient choose the time and place of their death. When you look at his work in this light, you realise that Gaiman has a point. A Slip of the Keyboard collects together essays, articles and speech notes from across Pratchett’s whole career, from wet behind the ears journalist to Knight of the Realm, and while the topics vary wildly it’s a collection that showcases pretty much everything that makes him such a wonderful and well-loved writer.
There’s something about the way Terry Pratchett sees the world, an ability to look further than most and see truths that the rest of us miss, that makes his writing so interesting. It’s not just the wit and the wordplay, it’s the observations both large and small that fill his writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and identify it so clearly as his. Here there are pieces of writing on an enormous range of subjects, from the choice of hats and the key requirements for laptops, to childhood influences, the joys and perils of touring Australia, thoughts on what makes something science fiction and reflections on seeing his own work on stage. Some pieces are only a few paragraphs long while others are lengthy articles, but from the longest to the shortest they are entertaining, engrossing and often enlightening.
The last quarter or so of the book also deals with pressing issues from the later stages of his life to date, including his diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s and his much-publicised support of assisted death. Entitled ‘Days of Rage’ this last section most obviously confirms Gaiman’s point about anger fuelling his writing, and while his usual humour is still in place it’s a much more serious set of articles. What’s notable throughout this section though is the absolute lack of self pity; at times brutally honest, he writes with stark clarity about his experiences and motivations, and refers regularly to his experiences with other people in similar situations, almost embarrassed by the way that his wealth and position mean he has tools and options not available to others.
It’s a rare book that has the reader in fits of laughter one minute and floods of tears the next, but then Terry Pratchett is a rare author. This book’s release, coming after the 40th Discworld novel and amid a flurry of re-releases and new non-Discworld titles (A Blink of the Screen, Dragons at Crumbling Castle, the third collaboration with Stephen Baxter), carries with it a sense of inevitability that the writing within subtly reinforces. It’s as though he’s making the most of the time he has left to make sure that we, his faithful readers, get the most reward we possibly can for our loyalty. Read this now, treasure it, hold it tight; we’re assured that another Tiffany Aching book is on its way, and that Pratchett will keep writing for as long as he’s able, but with tearful inevitability we have to acknowledge that all good things come to an end. In this case, far too soon.