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2 August 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:41am

The core message of Terry Pratchett’s books was that people should think for themselves

As a row blazes over what the bestselling author would have thought about trans rights, his biographer reflects on the rich and diverse politics of the Discworld and Pratchett’s own nuanced views.

By Marc Burrows

Let’s start with an obvious but important point: I don’t know what Terry Pratchett’s view on the gender politics of 2021 would be. No one does. The much-beloved Discworld author died in 2015.

Being dead, however, hasn’t stopped Pratchett being drawn into the increasingly vicious row over trans rights, which was supercharged last year when JK Rowling plunged headfirst into the debate by claiming that gender identity doesn’t overrule a person’s biological sex. Pratchett’s name was invoked after a Twitter user went viral on 30 July for claiming that “the GCs” (Gender Criticals – a name adopted by those arguing against some trans rights on the basis of biological sex) “are trying to recruit Terry Pratchett posthumously”.

The Gender Criticals’ argument seemed to be that Pratchett’s down-to-earth style and indomitable and expertly drawn female characters suggest the author would have been sympathetic to their views. Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, responded: “my father would most definitely not be a GC if he was still alive. Read. The. Books.” Pratchett’s friend and collaborator Neil Gaiman backed her up, recalling the author’s pride that trans people saw themselves in his dwarf characters, who are boxed into identifying as male, regardless of their actual gender, by social convention. The intervention of Gaiman and the younger Pratchett, who between them have nearly three million Twitter followers, sparked a social media storm that soon went viral.

I revisited all 60 of his novels and read hundreds of articles and interviews when researching my biography of Terry Pratchett. Even with all of that swimming around my head I wouldn’t dream of second guessing his views on this issue, and not just because predicting the opinions of someone who has been dead for six years is a fairly pointless exercise. The way he approached social issues in his books evolved over time. By 2014, when he completed his final novel, the tone of his work had grown far away from the more thinly sketched fantasy satires of the 1980s. It would still be evolving. When he wrote the third Discworld novel, Equal Rites, in 1987, the tale of a young girl who wants to break into the male-only world of wizardry, he specifically said that it wasn’t a feminist story, and that the character Granny Weatherwax (one of his greatest creations) wasn’t helping her young charge because she genuinely thought women should be wizards – she was doing so out of stubbornness because someone had told her she couldn’t.

[See also: It’s still possible to “cancel” gender-critical feminists, but this strategy won’t work]

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Indeed, many of his jokes and stories take aim at PC culture, like the “Campaign For Equal Heights” that advocates for rights for dwarves and gnomes but is mostly run by over-earnest humans, or the undead activist Reg Shoe, who goes to cemeteries to beg his fellow corpses to “not take it lying down”. Back on Earth, rather than the Discworld, the teenage protagonists of 1993’s Johnny and the Dead struggle to make sense of a world where acceptable language is always changing: “you’re not allowed to call them dinosaurs anymore,” says one. “You have to call them pre-petroleum persons”.

And yet, as Pratchett’s writing became more sophisticated, the analogies and ideas became more nuanced. Monstrous Regiment (2003) deals with desperate teenage girls disguising themselves as boys to join the army, and has an emphatically queer-coded, beautifully written relationship between two young women simmering in the background. By the end of the story (and this is a massive spoiler, so look away if you’ve not read this one) the formidable Sergeant Jackrum is revealed to have been a woman all along, but decides to continue to live his life as a man, going back to his home town to meet the son he gave up and introduce himself as a long-lost father. His biology doesn’t come into it – Pratchett simply allows him to be who he is.

One pertinent seam running through the Discworld books involves dwarves. Pratchett has some fun riffing off an aside in Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings – that male and female dwarves are identical down to the beards (“Dwarf courtship involves, in delicate and circumspect ways, finding out what sex the other Dwarf actually is”). However, as is typical in his writing, what starts as a throwaway gag soon becomes a thematic focus: what if a dwarf wanted to embrace their femininity in a male-presenting society that has no separate gender identities or gendered pronouns?

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Enter the character of Cheery “Cheri” Littlebottom in Feet of Clay (1996), who scandalises dwarf society by declaring herself female, sparking something of a social revolution. Pratchett uses the journey of dwarves “coming out” as women to explore the idea of restrictive, deeply traditional cultures that allow for no deviation from the norm. There are all sorts of real-world analogies there, from fundamentalist religion to – yes – gender conformity. Pratchett always called the Discworld a “world and mirror of worlds”, and what we see there is usually a cracked and revealing reflection of ourselves.

[See also: How Marvel conquered culture]

“Seeing yourself” is, of course, the reason there is such contention about what Pratchett truly thought. You take away from books what you bring to them, and often the reader’s views are confirmed rather than challenged, regardless of the author’s intention. If a “gender critical” reader wanted to find support in Pratchett’s novels, they probably could. You’re supposed to work it out for yourself. One of the main themes – perhaps the main theme – of Pratchett’s huge body of work is that ultimately your life is your own; that no one can tell you what to think or who to be. There is a burning fury at injustice at the heart of his best writing, and it’s always fuelled by the policing of someone else’s agency. The very worst sin, as Granny Weatherwax herself says in 1999’s Carpe Jugulum, is to “treat people like things”.

We cannot know Pratchett’s views on the gender wars, but we can assume they would be insightful, compassionate and wise. He knew that people were nuanced and complicated, messy and changeable, that there are no simple answers, no meaning of life. People are not fundamentally good or bad, but “fundamentally people”.

Marc Burrows is author of The Magic Of Terry Pratchett, the first full biography of Terry Pratchett.