Non-Fiction Reviews

A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-fiction

(2014) Terry Pratchett, Doubleday, £20 / Can$32.95 / US$19.95, trdpbk, xi + 315pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52122-4


This is a collection of Terry's non-fiction spanning some 50 years, but primarily encompassing the past 25. As you would expect it is entertaining with articles and snippets that provide some insights into Terry's life, and indeed that of a successful writer in general: it is not as glamorous as it seems and authors' tours seem to be all rather arduous. Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.

This volume begins with a foreword by another contemporary giant of genre literature, Neil Gaiman. He dismisses the illusion many prospective readers might have that Terry is 'an affable man with a beard' and 'a jolly old elf'. We learn, 'No, no he's not'. What follows is an anecdote demonstrating that Terry can get very angry with himself and the world; and why one US radio station blacklisted terry and Neil from live broadcasts for several years…

The main body of the text is divided into three sections each of which contain a dozen or more articles, typically of three to several pages in length, that Terry has in the past written.

The first section includes pieces themed on the practice and business of being a writer. There is advice to booksellers, insights into a writer's life and even a couple on SF icons, including the aforesaid Neil Gaiman. However the item entitled 'Dr Who? is not about the eponymous time traveller but is Terry's honorary doctorate acceptance speech from Portsmouth: Terry has been granted nine honorary doctorates for services to literature, which Terry kind of finds odd as on every suitable occasion he denies he writes it.

The second section contains items that Terry categorises as exemplifying him as a bit of an eccentric (in thought) and a dreaming fantasist. This is perhaps one of the most widest-ranging sections. Indeed of relevance to SF2 Concatenation, that was launched as part of Britain's 1987 National SF Convention (BECCON), was Terry's postprandial speech at that convention's pre-awards banquet. Also within this section is Terry's oldest piece contributing to this collection: a letter written in 1963 to the editor of the British SF Association fanzine Vector. Terry wrote this as a schoolboy.

The final section is fortunately the shortest, but not by much. I say fortunate because this section contains prose relating to some of the most pertinent and desperate issues concerning lives and life today, both on a personal individual as well as planetary scale.  This section is the one that affirms Neil's introductory comment that Terry is not a jolly elf. It is titled 'Days of Rage'. Here we get to see what really gets under Terry's skin, and it is troubling. The reason that these articles are so troubling is not so much that they get under Terry's skin in person but that they arguably do upset any thinking individual. Here we see Terry's conservation concerns and particularly his encounter with orang-utans, but the main thrust of his 'rage' is at his embuggerance, his fight against Alzheimer's and on personal rights to die. These articles will make you rage too, and so they should and as such should be read by politicians if they have any interest outside their Westminster, Capitol Hill, or whatever, bubble.

To say that A Slip of the Keyboard is an entertaining read providing insights into the mind of a hugely successful writer would be to do it a great disservice. True, there are illuminations that if taken careful note would be invaluable. For example, such as that for an aspiring writer (the good news being that it can be done; the bad, that it takes much work to marry one's mind with words often over many years). But what we also get is a window on a life and a perspective that does provide a sense of the human condition. This will touch readers. It is a book whose words will make you smile as well as a few that will make you mad. Get it. Have a laugh. Get mad.

Jonathan Cowie

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