For me, A Blink of the Screen was a venture into nostalgia. It starts at the very beginning of Pratchett’s published writing career, which, as it turns out, was when he was 13 years old. “The Hades Business,” which involves the Devil hiring an image consultant, demonstrates that while Thirteen-Year-Old Pratchett may have loved exclamation points not wisely but too well, he was an absolutely brilliant, terrifyingly precocious kid. To tell the truth, I think I enjoyed the early stories the most. “The Picture,” written when Pratchett was 14 or 15, was another of my favourites, mostly for the kick at the end.
While many of the other stories show Pratchett’s wit, I think he’s a stronger novelist than short-story writer.* Several of the stories are overtly and caustically political, often mocking the public-school politicos. Others are actually proto-novels that later developed into fruition. For example, “Ricemangle, The Gnome of Even Moor” can be found more fully fleshed out as The Truckers. “Turntables of the Night” doesn’t take place in Discworld, but it seemed to me to have more than a few glimmers of Soul Music in its core. “FTB”, which starts with a computer writing to Santa Claus, has several elements that made it into “Hogfather.” “The High Meggas,” one of the longer (and to my mind, more gripping) stories in the collection, was eventually transformed into The Long Earth, written in collaboration with Stephen Baxter. I’ve so far avoided this collaborative work, but the short story put it back on my to-read list.
There were several stories that left me wishing for their novel offspring. “Final Reward” opens with an author killing off his barbarian protagonist in his long-running epic fantasy series, only to have the character turn up on his door to meet his Maker and receive his Final Reward. I’d love to have seen it as a novel. “#IFDEFDEBUG + ‘WORLD/ENOUGH’ + ‘TIME’” was another of my favourites, the sort of semi-dystopian cyberpunky short story that I tend to fall in love with. “Once and Future” is another story that I wish had become a novel. When his time-machine malfunctions, a nerd named Mervin finds himself in a place called Avalon where everyone keeps mispronouncing his name…
The final section in the book is composed of Discworld short fiction with insight such as:
"According to the trollish philosopher Plateau, 'if you wants to understan' an enemy, you gotta walk a mile in his shoes. Den, if he's still your enemy, at least you're a mile away and he's got no shoes.'"
While most are simply little gags written for conventions or similar, there are three genuine stories in the collection, all of which can also be found online. In “Theatre of Cruelty,” Captain Carrot has to solve the murder of a Punch and Judy presenter. In “Troll Bridge,” an aged Conan the Barbarian returns home to fight a troll, “Mano a… troll.” It’s silly and fun-- to start with, t involves a talking horse and industrialized trolls--yet still manages a moment of Pratchetty insight:
“Things change, things pass. You fight a war to change the world, and it changes into a world with no place in it for you, the fighter. Those who fight for the bright future are not always, by nature, well fitted to live in it."
Out of all the stories, the one that stayed with me the longest was “The Sea and Little Fishes.” It’s basically an exploration of “Granny” Esme Weatherwax, who I find one of the more compelling Discworld characters, mostly because while she’s good, she’s certainly not nice.
"The villagers had said justice had been done, and she'd lost patience and told them to go home, then, and pray to whatever gods they believed in that it was never done to them. Because the smug face of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as wickedness revealed. [...]
Supposing there was justice for all, after all? For every unheeded beggar, every harsh word, every neglected duty, every slight…
Who’d come to her funeral when she died?"
I think the story is meant to be as light and funny as the rest, but I found it unalterably sad. There’s a terrible pathos in knowing that the world you work for would prefer for you not to be in it.(show spoiler)
I haven’t read a Discworld book in a while, partly because there are so many new books to devour, but mostly because the Discworld was an anchor of my early teenage years, and I want to remember the books for what they meant to me then. This book made me realize that even if I do go back to the series with new eyes, Pratchett will always shine.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Doubleday Books, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!~~
*Although the footnotes are far less fun in kindle form.