Liam Proven (lproven) wrote,
Liam Proven

This is not the best novelist in the world. This is just a tribute.

A long time ago, a man decided to take a chance and moved abroad for a new job.

Not me, although I did that too, last year.

No, this was my dad, Ian Proven, in about 1972 or so. He went to Lagos in Nigeria to take over Pilkington Glass (Nigeria) Ltd. It went very well -- he diversified from plate glass into glass fibre, ideal for boat hulls in the tropics, both because it doesn't rot and because it can easily be made and repaired by unskilled people, even illiterate ones, working from purely pictorial instructions. But the stress destroyed his fragile health, and in about 1976 we came back to Britain.

He recovered, and in 1977 or so, we went back, this time to work for a different company, Leventis. This is a Lebanese Cypriot-owned chain of supermarkets in West Africa, who decided to get into glass bottle making. (Soft drinks are a very big seller in the tropics.) My dad was about the 8th general manager they hired. He went out to a large hole in the ground, and when we left in about 1980, Delta Glass' plant was producing a million bottles a week. I still have a few.

But this job was far upcountry, in Bendel State, deep in the Niger Delta. Initially we lived in a small town called Warri-Effurun, at first in the Gardenia Hotel and later in a chalet in Chief Essiso's compound. Then we moved closer to the factory, to the village of Ughelli. I think we were the first white people ever to live there -- we caused a lot of interest and attention.

But it meant that I was something of a lonely child, studying at home by correspondence course, socialising almost entirely with adults. My dad had already got me reading SF, giving me his old Heinleins and Asimovs and Van Vogts. Indeed I already disdained fantasy; one of my set books from Mercer's College was The Hobbit and I remember exclaiming in horror at having to read a book with a dragon on the cover.

But SF, I devoured, in great quantities. An adult novel every couple of days, at least. Anything I could get. Everything SF&F in the Warri Club's tiny library, including lots I really disliked -- Philip K Dick, Barry Malzberg, Brian Stableford (in his enfant terrible years -- the later stuff is wonderful).

But I also bought a lot, or got my mum to. Anything SFnal that appeared in the supermarkets we went to in Warri -- Kingsway and Alex, mainly. And in the book rack in Alex one day, I found something that looked very promising. A slender NEL paperback with a beautiful Tim White cover of a robot fly, resting on a leaf.

It was called The Dark Side of the Sun by a new writer called Terry Pratchett, and it was -- and is -- one of the best books I have ever read. In parts it's an hommage to Larry Niven, but it's so packed full of references to everything from Aristophanes to Heinlein that it's a joy to try to unpack.

I loved it. I still love it.

I had it stolen once, but as it happened, I got it back again.

A couple of years later, the Proven family returned to UK, and shortly afterwards, to the Isle of Man. There, in another book rack in another supermarket, Shoprite on Victoria Road, Douglas, I found another Pratchett: Strata. This is the novel where Pratchett invents his flat alternate Earth, a world the shape of a disc, populated by a vaguely Mediæval culture with magic, demons etc. -- but all powered by technology. Demons fly because they're constantly teleported back to base and then back out again, this time slightly higher in the air, because there's no such thing as antigravity and a humanoid with wings can't fly in 1G.

Again, a wonderful book. Any sufficiently advanced technology can be made to look indistinguishable from magic if you try hard enough. This book also spells out panspermia, has one of the best depictions of large-scale terraforming ever and works in some great conspiracy-theory gags too.

I wrote to NEL and asked if they'd got any more by this fabulous writer (and also if they'd got any stuff for a school project on SF that I was doing). An actual paper letter -- this was the early 1980s. They wrote back. They said, in essence, "sorry, no -- and those two did so badly, we'll never touch him again. But, if you're really keen, he did a kids' book which was not our sort of thing. It never made it out of hardback. We believe his publisher has rather a lot of them left. Here's his address. Ask him."

So I did.

A year or two later, when I was off at university, in my second year and living in digs in Virginia Water, I got a phone call from a chap with an immensely rich, plummy, posh English voice.

"Hullo! Are you Liam Proven? You wrote me a lovely little letter about books by this Terry Pratchett chap! Yes, I have hundreds of the bloody things -- office is full of boxes of 'em. Can't give 'em away! How many d'you want?"

It was Colin Smythe -- a charming chap I met at the launch party for Hogfather, the twentieth Discworld book, a decade or so later.

And that is how I came by my third -- but oldest -- Terry Pratchett novel. This copy here, scanned the day I rediscovered it:


It is now, of course, far and away the most valuable book I own or have ever owned. Rare unsigned copy, too. And I do mean rare.

Before it got to me, The Colour of Magic launched -- from Corgi this time -- and the rest is history. A few years later, I was at ConFiction in the Hague. Pterry was on a panel about clichés. I think Sourcery had just come out in paperback. People in the business were starting to really notice him. He was introduced as "Terry Pratchett, a man who should know all about clichés because that's all he writes!" Pratchett visibily ground his teeth, but as ever, gave a good show.

So, yes, dammit, I was a Pratchett fan, and one long before all these damned kids and their Discworld stuff. (Much as I love the Discworld novels.)  But I wonder how many others of us are there who were Pratchett fans from before the Discworld? Of his original, early SF stuff.

Goodbye, Sir Terry.
Tags: books, dad, nigeria, pratchett

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