REVIEW: ‘Once More With Footnotes’ by Terry Pratchett

I don’t normally read short story collections. I read plenty of short stories but it’s only recently, since foraying into short story writing territory myself, that I find myself reading collections from cover to cover. I used to discriminate, read the shorter ones if I was pressed for time, or the title story, or the one that was recommended to me, or even just read the opening paragraphs of each until I found one I liked and stuck it out until the end. Now I seem to read them from cover to cover, as if they were a novel.

Once More with Footnotes is an odd book. It was published by the NESFA press in honour of Pratchett’s attendance as guest of honour at the 62nd discworld convention. It gathers together his short stories (including his first published story), speeches, introductions to other books and articles and journalism. I had actually read several of the short stories online before I became aware of the collection. As soon as I discovered it I immediately wanted to buy it, then discovered that there had only been three limited print runs back in 2004. Only a few thousand copies were printed (and when you sell books by the skip full like Pratchett that’s a meagre number). So then I got sad. After awhile though I rediscovered my ebay account and started bidding furiously on the few copies still in circulation. After spending a diriculous amount of money on one book (and I won’t say how diriculous) it was just a matter of waiting for weeks while ebay sorted itself out and delivered it. Having read only his novels for years it’s amazing to see what he can do with a much more contrained word count.

However the book has some flaws, which I’ll briefly discuss first:

  • His journalism becomes a case of ‘Read one, read them all’ after awhile. Being the prolific force of fantasy that he is he was frequently asked to write articles defining fantasy, explaining, fantasy, telling how he got interested in fantasy, advice to people writing fantasy, theories on fantasy… While the non-fiction end of the spectrum is well written it all gets a bit samey after awhile.
  • Some stories are longer than they needed to be. They weren’t really edited between their initial publication and being added into this collection so it’s fair enough that he was younger, less experienced etc. and overall it was a pretty brave move to leave them as tehy were.
  • His juvenalia really stands out as being stylistically different to the rest of the book, there’s a real sense of him struggling to figure out his voice and style. These early pieces are much more formal and don’t flow as well. (that being said they’re far better than anything I wrote when I was starting out, and better than most of what I write now. He had an insanely large vocabulary as a kid)
  • It’s hard to figure out what logic there is behind the order of pieces but there’s no real continuity or flow. It leads to a very disjointed reading experience. The little introductory notes he writes at the start of each piece, while often unnessecary, help maintain some kind of flow.

But the stories are awesome! Wow, I can barely keep myself from gushing about the first story ‘Hollywood Chickens,’ which was written as an ecological study of chickens and how they attempt to cross the road (but no-one can answer the all-important why)

There’s a brilliant Discworld story where an philosopher tries to outsmart Death (that’s the anthropomorphic personality that TALKS LIKE THIS), and a monologue featuring Death written as a transcript of a police interview.

There are some great Discworld moments such as Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax competing at the witching trials or when the Watch investigates the murder of a Punch and Judy stall owner.

There are also brilliant moments where we get to see what fantasy staples Pratchett might have turned to if The Colour of Magic had flopped. One example is the time travelling physicist named Mervin who gets stuck in Arthurian times and rigs up remotely controlled electromagnets to ensure only the person he deems appropriate will be able to pull the sword from the stone. Another is told from the point of view of a labourer on a monolith thousands of years ago trying to deal with a documentary film crew.

Overall Once More With Footnotes was worth the price for the fiction alone. It’s not a great place to start if you haven’t read Terry Pratchett though, I’d recommend picking a thread on this chart instead and just keep ploughing through those for awhile, but if you’ve read and loved everything he has to offer and are willing to spend a some moolah then this is a must have.

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