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Did you know that Terry Pratchett - bestselling author of the comedy-fantasy Discworld series - had his first short story published when he was just 13? It's pretty good, actually - very readable, if just a little rough around the edges, but you really wouldn't know it was by a just-turned-into teenager. If you're curious, then it's the first story here.
The 33 stories (21 non-Dicscworld and 12 Disc) are presented in chronological order, by writing, which theoretically gives you a view of how the author's writing style improves. In fact, it almost seemed to me that Pterry's skill arrived fully formed and needed only to develop a little polish over the 50 years (wow - first time I've counted that!) since that first, teenage tale.
Which isn't meant as too much of a sucking up comment, honest! I am a big fan of both Discworld and the non-Disc books such as Good Omens, and I enjoyed a lot of what I read here. It's fun seeing PTerry's sense of humour exploring different kinds of set-ups, and more the snippets that really aren't short stories so much as explorations. That works particularly well with the Disc stories (in part 2, as the book separates non-Disc and Disc) where I was already very familiar with the set up and could appreciate the random asides.
For instance, the lyrics to the Ankh-Morpork national anthem are here! It is a most sensible anthem, consisting largely of the word 'nnnr', after the first verse - after all, that's how pretty much every national anthem is sung, anyway ;) As well as amusing in and of itself, it's brilliant to read that the piece - including full orchestral score! - was commissioned and performed by and on the BBC, to celebrate a season on (otherwise real) national anthems. How ace! Oh, and the town of Wincanton in Somerset is genuinely twinned with Ankh-Morpork, and here we can read Lord Vetinari's speech from the day - how funny!
Perhaps more than the stories, then, the blurb that precedes each one absolutely fascinated me. Getting to read a bit about what was going on at the time, or what inspired the story, was often more interesting (for me) than the subsequent tale.
That was particularly the case in several of the middle-of-the-book stories. I found there was a bit of a run of tales in the same style. It's a semi-reportage tone, with the narrating character basically having a bit of a whine. Thus we hear about a Russian factory worker complaining about his pigeon co-workers, or a disco attended by Death (sorry - DEATH) and as much as I might have liked the idea, overall I was just left slightly irritated at the style. Another intriguing idea - a 'Victorian-style' horror where the characters are trapped on the front of Christmas cards - was spoiled for me as I think if the foreword hadn't explained the setup to me I wouldn't quite have 'got' what was going on.
Thankfully with short stories, even if you don't like them they're over quickly!
Most of the stories were a lot more fun, although they tended more towards shorter-than-short (the 100-word challenge, for instance, which is a great little joke). The ideas weren't always original (I'm sure the idea of the fantasy character, killed off in his book and then appearing in the real world to quite literally 'meet his maker', has been done elsewhere) but mostly came right for the PTerry spin - like the idea of Merlin being a time traveller trapped in the past, rather than the 'remembering backwards' of the other versions.
My favourite story from the selection was actually one of the longer pieces. Slightly unexpectedly, perhaps, is the revelation that Mr Pratchett can be both serious and a rather good pure sci-fi writer. 'The High Meggas' is the idea that became 'The Long Earth', co-written with Stephen Baxter - it sounds a lot like the latter's work, but nope, the idea was here first.
In a similar vein, 'Rincemangle, the Gnome of Even Moor' is the precursor to 'Truckers'. Amusingly, despite being ten times shorter than the (admittedly still quite short) book, the short story contained the entirety of what I could remember. The character's name was obviously recycled later, too!
The other longer, full short story in the book was one I'd read before, the Discworld short 'Sea and the Little Fishes'. As well as a full tale of Granny Weatherwax et al - rather a good one - here we also get an 'outtake', an extra bit that was removed largely for reasons of pacing. I love seeing things like that, revealing the editing process. As it turned out, the outtake was also highly familiar, as it was reused in a later Discworld novel.
So while a bit of a mixed bag, overall I thoroughly enjoyed 'A Blink of the Small Screen'. The bits that I didn't like so much were brief and just that: didn't like so much, rather than outright hated. A couple of the stories and more of the ideas totally caught my imagination, but most I'm quite glad to see left in the short story or even shorter format. Above all of that, though, the glimpse into the creative mind, the idea generation (and recycling!) process and even occasionally the editing process were absolutely worth the money for me.
Bonus: some of Josh Kirby's illustrations - some familiar, some not so, are scattered through the book.
Look out later this year (2014) for the companion collection of short non-fiction.
Paperback: 363 pages
First published in 2012
A while back, I read The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous collection of writings culled from Douglas Adams' computer after his untimely death. The Blink of a Screen does something similar for Terry Pratchett who, thankfully, is still alive. It chronicles a selection of his published writings across a range of different publications spanning his entire career from amateur scribbler to best-selling author.
The real strength of this collection is that, although technically, these stories have already been published, at least some will be new to all but the most ardent Pratchett fan. Most either appeared in very obscure publications (local newspapers), for a niche market (fanzines) or very early in his career before he became famous. For most people then, this is a brand new Pratchett book. Certainly, there was only one story in it that I had read before.
As you might expect, some of the stories are connected to the Discworld, but they actually only make up only a small percentage of the total page count. This might be disappointing to some fans who seem to froth at the mouth whenever Pratchett writes anything non-Discworld, but it's actually one of the book's strengths. It's good to see the author get away from well-trodden paths and show off his skill and imagination in other areas. The Discworld stories are fun but I would say that I enjoyed the non-Discworld sections more.
For me, the most interesting entries were the earlier efforts. Although these show an author still developing his style, there are more than enough glimpses of Pratchett's talent to make them entertaining. Moreover, because they deal with a greater variety of subjects (exasperation at the inanity of politician's ideas, the frustrations of modern life, send-ups of sci-fi/fantasy tropes) they are like a breath of fresh air. Pratchett's Discworld books are invariably entertaining, but we know what to expect from them. The Blink of a Screen gives the opportunity to see a well-known author in a new light.
What the stories really show is the depth of Pratchett's abilities. It seems he can take almost any subject and make it interesting, entertaining and funny. Even the first story, written when Pratchett was 13 has a lot to like about it (even if the author is embarrassed by it). It shows that even then he had a slightly skewed way of looking at things. Inevitably some of these earlier works lack polish and can be a little raw (how many of us would be brave enough to go back and publish something we wrote when we were at school?!), but they are still fun to read.
For fans of Pratchett, it's also interesting to note the parallels between some of these stories and later books. One, for example, was later expanded to form the novel Truckers; another has a brief mention of a bully called Greebo - a name that Pratchett was to recycle in his Witches books. Spotting little things like this add an additional element of interest.
"Fun to read" is a phrase that pretty much sums up The Blink of a Screen. Stories are very short (generally less than 10 pages; the longest about 50) and this makes them a lot of fun to read. Inevitably there are some tales which are not quite as good as others, but this doesn't matter. Even if you think a story is a real clunker (and I wouldn't say this applies to anything in this collection) you don't mind too much, as it won't take very long to read and hopefully the next story will be more to your liking.
This short story format makes the book insanely readable. It was one of those titles that I just didn't want to put down. I'd get to the end of one tale and because the next was just a few pages long, I'd start reading that one. And, of course, once I'd started reading it, I couldn't possibly stop until I'd finished because, after all, it was only short. Then I'd reach the end of that one and the whole cycle would start again. Throw in some gorgeous, full colour, full page pictures from regular Discworld artist Josh Kirby also visually appealing. What more can you ask for?!
I had no idea what to expect from The Blink of a Screen, but really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it far more than 2012's other Pratchett offering, Dodger, which I found a little stale. A Blink of a Screen, on the other hand, is like a breath of fresh air. The stories are interesting, varied and novel. They benefit from being (mostly) set in a non-Discworld environment and allow the author to present a different side to his writing, whilst still showcasing his quirky humour.
Available for around £10 (hardback or Kindle) this is one Pratchett book no self-respecting fan should be without.
The Blink of a Screen
© Copyright SWSt 2013