Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thoughts on "Reaper Man", by Terry Pratchett

"Reaper Man" is a somewhat morbidly humorous fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett. In "Reaper Man", Death is fired for developing a personality and liking people. The Auditors, the ones firing him, complain that this is unprofessional, as if gravity had decided to like people. So, Death gets time to live, and takes up the name Bill Door. Death has to be replaced, of course, but this happens slowly, with each species getting its own separate Death, with the new human Death taking the longest to form. In the meantime, the life force of all the things and people who are supposed to have died, but haven't been met by Death, cause problems on Terry Pratchett's Discworld. The book may be offensive to some religious people, but then again, pretty much all fantasy books are probably offensive to some religious people.

I really enjoyed it. I like how Death is portrayed not as some sort of evil monster, but as a polite, interested, and even somewhat likable. Everyone has to deal with death. The deaths of those we care about. Living with the knowledge than one or more people we care about, perhaps even ourselves, has a terminal or life-threatening condition. Some people have near-death experiences. And then there are the little deaths, the injuries, the illnesses, each breath of toxic air from the coal plants or the gas wells or our smoking neighbors or whatever. The little deaths that kill us off cell by cell, accelerating faster than repairs by perhaps the age of 20-30, accelerating faster and faster, causing our metabolism to become less efficient, our hair to grey, our skin to wrinkle, our vision to deteriorate, our hearts to become less sturdy, all leading up to the final death, the death from which there is no return, at least not to the body in question (but possibly to another one, if you believe in reincarnation). Death being a part of the natural order that we all have to face, it is nice to read about a kindly version of Death.

As an example of Death's friendliness, as exemplified during his time as Bill Door:
"The silence returned and hovered. Bill Door sought desperately for something to say. He had never been very good at small talk. He'd never had much occasion to use it.

"What did people say at times like this? Ah. Yes.


"Later on they taught him a game that consisted of a table with holes and nets around the edge, and balls carved expertly out of wood, and apparently balls had to bounce off one another and into the holes. It was called Pond. He played it well. In fact, he played it perfectly. At the start, he didn't know how not to. But after he heard them gasp a few times he corrected himself and started making mistakes with painstaking precision; by the time they taught him darts he was getting really good at them. The more mistakes he made, the more people liked him. So he propelled the little feathery darts with cold skill, never letting one drop within a foot of the targets they urged on him. He even sent one ricocheting off a nail head and a lamp so that it landed in someone's beer, which made one of the older men laugh so much he had to be taken outside into the fresh air.

"They'd called him Good Old Bill.

"No-one had ever called him that before."

The story also follows the adventures of one Windle Poons, a wizard who dies. Without Death to greet his spirit, he has nowhere to go but back to his body, where he becomes a sort of zombie. He enjoys much better thinking, hearing, and eyesight than he did while he was alive, but unfortunately, he now has to direct his heart to beat and other physical tasks that normally occur automatically. This is initially very concerning to his old colleagues, who try warding him off with garlic, holy objects, etc., but they eventually accept him after he helps to save the town. He also makes new friends, including Dead Rights Activist Reg Shoe, who writes, "Inside Every Living Person is a Dead Person Waiting to Get Out."

Don't worry, there's a good ending. Death manages to outsmart his would-be replacement and take back his place helping souls transition to being dead. And good riddance! The New Death was very pretentious. He even had a crown, indicating his desire to rule.


  1. You totally should! It's funny, entertaining, and thought provoking, all at the same time! :-)

  2. The Discworld series is one of my favorites, and Death is one of my favorite characters in it for pretty much the same reasons you listed. If you liked Reaper Man, I'd also suggest you check out Mort, Soul Music, Hogfather, and Thief of Time.

  3. Has anyone any thoughts as to why DEATH hones his scythe so carefully (even with sunlight) then asks the blacksmith to destroy it? PS the description of the sunrise and the lost wizards of XXXX surfing the light must be one of the most lyrical passages in TP's work

  4. I wondered that too, but then I figured it out. Remember how One Man Bucket gets to have the drink when they burn it? It's ghost became available to him. Bill Door sharpened the scythe as sharp as unhumanly possible and then wanted it utterly destroyed so it's ghost would be available to Bill Door's ghost so he could fight Death with it.

    1. Ok, stupid autocorrect. I know the difference between "its" and "it's", better than you do, apparently.