Books to give you hope: Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

The giddy invention in this novel is a spirit-lifter in itself, but its vision of all too familiar folly comes with a heartening reminder that we can learn from our errors

Why we’re writing about books to give you hope this summer

Imagine something that will change everything irreversibly. Something that will bring disaster on everything and everyone around you. Something that doesn’t need to be invoked, that shouldn’t be invoked, but that will still be invoked because, as Terry Pratchett explains in Thief of Time:

Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some caves somewhere, with a sign on it saying ‘End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.

Imagine also a world in which “democracy at work” is really just reckless and mindless chaos. Imagine a world in which one of the chief aspects of humanity is, as noted by Death (a character with so much gravitas that he always speaks with caps-lock on): “ARROGANCE, PRIDE AND STUPIDITY.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So familiar that reading Thief of Time after the Brexit vote is a strange, disconcerting experience for me. I’ve just finished the novel and I felt at times that Pratchett, who died in 2015, must have foreseen our current sad story. But it also felt like he was bringing good news. Alongside a few stern words about our collective idiocy, the great writer had a message of hope. Someone in Thief of Time does inevitably push that awful button – which in fact concerns a clock that traps time rather than cuing Article 50– buthe reassures us with: “We can learn. That’s how humans become humans.” We may do bad things, but there’s also something about humanity that helps us go on.

It’s a comforting thought. But even without my current political obsessions and fears, I’m certain that I’d find other kinds of solace in this wonderful novel. Pratchett understood human nature, for better or for worse. I imagine future generations will be seeing their own mistakes in this novel, just as clearly as I’ve seen our own. And I find such thoughts comforting: there’s nothing new about folly. Humans have always got it wrong, but we’ve generally muddled through too.

There are other reasons to find hope in Thief of Time, chief among them that it’s a delight to read. The story is as complicated, daft, hilarious and satisfying as vintage PG Wodehouse: part kung fu epic, part philosophical novel, part mind-bending experiment with chaos theory (and a piss-take of those three things). Pratchett has an admirable ability to land home truths, be very silly and also very wise all in one go:

Wen considered the nature of time and understood the universe that is, instant by instant, recreated anew. Therefore, he understood, there is in truth no past, only a memory of the past. Blink your eyes and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, he said, the only appropriate state of mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.

Yes, it’s a lampoon. But it’s also full of warmth and sympathy. The same is true of the rest of the book. Pratchett may think us fools – but he still likes us. That too is consoling.

I’d suggest we can even find hope in the very fact that this novel was written. It’s a fillip for anyone who believes in the craft of writing, that practice brings you closer to perfection and that experience and age can be as important as youthful exuberance. This was Terry Pratchett’s 26th book, published in 2002, during his 54th year, and arguably marks the peak of his career. I’m sure it will come to be regarded as one of his masterpieces.

When it was released, AS Byatt suggested that it should win the Man Booker prize. She also made the splendid suggestion that at the age of 12, everyone in Britain should be given a Terry Pratchett book, like this one, to read and enjoy. I imagine Britain would be a better, kinder and more sensible place if that were to come to pass. Although, I know, that’s probably too much to hope.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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