Fulfilling an obligation
August 30, 2017 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Last Friday, Rob Wilkins, former personal assistant to Terry Pratchett and manager of his estate, fulfilled a promise by having a steamroller named Lord Jericho destroy a hard drive containing Pratchett's unfinished works.

The remains of the hard drive will be displayed at the Terry Pratchett: HisWorld exhibition at the Salisbury Museum.

Pratchett is not the first author to have instructed that unfinished manuscripts were to be destroyed upon the author's death. Sometimes their executors completely ignore those instructions, as Max Brod famously did with Franz Kafka's papers.

Sometimes the author's wishes are respected, giving them their dead hand control over their literary remains. It seems likely that playwright Edward Albee's executors will do so, but not without controversy:
Eva E. Subotnik, an associate professor at St. John’s University School of Law, argued for some skepticism about such provisions.

“There is something special about these kinds of assets — they’re not just like a mansion or a fancy watch, but they’re socially valuable, and that has to play into the calculus,” Ms. Subotnik said. “I definitely argue against full-throttle enforcement of artistic control after death.”

But another expert on the subject, Lior J. Strahilevitz, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, disagreed. “Part of what we value in a great artist is not just raw ability but the ability to curate, and it’s frequently the case that artists build great reputations by being selective about what they show to the world,” he said. “It’s problematic to force Albee to share these plays when he didn’t think they were good enough.”
posted by metaquarry (41 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
GNU Terry Pratchett
posted by metaquarry at 5:55 PM on August 30, 2017 [17 favorites]

The hard drive, now resembling a flattened disc, should be placed upon four elephants standing upon a large sea turtle.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:02 PM on August 30, 2017 [71 favorites]

If I cared much about my reputation after I die*, and I felt I could not trust my estate to destroy those things I instructed them to destroy, I would be extra sure to destroy them myself while I was still able to do so.

*Personally, I don't care, and they can talk about me plenty after I die. (chorus: Oh yeah?)
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:11 PM on August 30, 2017

I am not an expert but I think there's a chance that data's still recoverable with enough resources and skill... The way to be sure is thermite.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 6:17 PM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Running over a hard drive with a steamroller isn't a very good way to destroy your data. It's hard to tell from those pictures, but the platters seem pretty much intact. You're much better off just tossing it in a fire; once it's above the curie temperature for the material you're probably ok. Plus, it's very KLF.

(on preview: what the eponysterical gentleperson just above said)
posted by phooky at 6:19 PM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I support this smashing approach to unfinished works. Without a Christopher Tolkien to take the reins, it's too easy for estate owners to end up taking a ham-fisted exploitative approach and detracting from the legacy.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:20 PM on August 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

Is Christopher Tolkien really an appropriate example? Seems like he's been pretty vocally upset about the Peter Jackson franchise without being able to do anything about it.
posted by dilaudid at 6:24 PM on August 30, 2017

*hums "All the Little Angels"*
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:46 PM on August 30, 2017 [16 favorites]

This just makes me sad.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:01 PM on August 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm hella glad that this happened because I saw how hard the corpse of Frank Herbert got fucked after he died.

In some cases *cough* Robert Jordan a better author comes up to take the reigns and finish things gracefully after the original author kicks off. But that's obviously impossible in this case, much like when we lost Iain M. Banks. Better that it not be tarnished.
posted by Sternmeyer at 7:23 PM on August 30, 2017 [12 favorites]

Neil Gaiman was on BBC World earlier, and made similar arguments about how it was Terry's job not just to create, but also filter out that which was unfinished or unfit for publication. He also emphasized that we still have so much of Terry's completed work to enjoy and explore anew, and to ask for more would be 'greedy'.
posted by Lykosidae at 7:41 PM on August 30, 2017 [19 favorites]

The alternative I prefer is for material like this to go into a sort of "escrow" for X decades while everybody makes do with the author that we knew, how they wanted to be known. Then years later when that's all history, the papers are revealed for die-hards and archivists to chew through.
posted by traveler_ at 7:57 PM on August 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

That's good. It's what our Terry wanted. But oh, for just one more story....
posted by BlueHorse at 8:11 PM on August 30, 2017 [15 favorites]

The alternative I prefer is for material like this to go into a sort of "escrow" for X decades while everybody makes do with the author that we knew, how they wanted to be known.

This seems like a pretty reasonable alternative to wholesale destruction, and it's similar to what Mark Twain did with his autobiography. He left a vast (and uncensored, and occasionally quite vicious) memoir, on the condition that it not be published until a full century after his death. It finally was... in 2010. (Although his estate had allowed researchers access to it previously, but only by traveling in person to the archive; again probably not a terrible compromise after some intermediate embargo threshold.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:22 PM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

posted by adept256 at 8:29 PM on August 30, 2017 [20 favorites]

As much as I'd like another peek into the Discworld, I'm not sad about this - that world continues to turn even if we can't see it. I think Rhianna Pratchett would have been a fine steward and I would have read her take, but I think she had the right of it when she ruled out writing any more. In the end, I won't miss reading the next "Terry Pratchett's Discworld" any more than "Iain M. Banks' Culture", "George Alec Effinger's Budayeen Cycle", or "Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide". ("And Another Thing"? Never heard of it...)
posted by sysinfo at 8:31 PM on August 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams (posthumous) was good though. His unfinished work. Some of it was adapted for the recent Dirk Gently TV show, which wasn't awful. And another thing, leave it on the shelf. It did have the support of his widow however.

Rhianna seemed to regret Terry's career taking him away on book tours so often in her childhood. Rob Wilkins, his assistant, to whom he dictated his final novels, and trusted to destroy the unfinished works, was who he chose to look after his legacy.

His autobiography Back in Black.

I would have liked to take a peek, but this is what he wanted, and I respect that.

If this is how A Song of Ice and Fire ends, I'm digging up GRRM.
posted by adept256 at 8:43 PM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

It was, and I give Salmon of Doubt the benefit thereof, since he seemed to have explicitly stated his desire to write one more, and it was a mix of previously-published material and a (relatively unedited) unfinished draft. I guess the rewrite/new-author situation is where I draw my line?

As far as Rhianna and the decision, I guess I was going off the Guardian article shortly after he died, and the Telegraph saying that he had left the IP to her.
posted by sysinfo at 9:00 PM on August 30, 2017

More precisely, that's Narrativia, which is jointly owned & controlled by Rhianna, Rob, and Rod Brown.
posted by sysinfo at 9:14 PM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I glanced at a couple of the last books and put them back. they made me sad.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:14 PM on August 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

OH! Speaking of the final books, there is a big spoiler in the autobiography documentary I posted concerning the last book. My sincerest apologies.
posted by adept256 at 9:18 PM on August 30, 2017

I definitely get that, Sebmojo. I didn't read Raising Steam until shortly before he died, and it took me at least a year after to read The Shepherd's Crown.

If/when you're up for it, I'd say they're both well worth it. I mean, Moist von Lipwig followed up by Tiffany Aching isn't the worst way for our window to close.
posted by sysinfo at 9:28 PM on August 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've never been sure if my experience of the last few Pratchett books was objective enough, or if I got turned around by the announcement of his condition, but they seemed off to me. From Unseen Academicals (I may have read it a while after publication) on, they seemed to be less sharp, less lustrous. I don't have the heart to re-read them, and I probably couldn't ever read a Pratchett book again, so I don't think I'll get to figure this out properly.

I don't mourn the loss of his unfinished works. I don't think they would have been his best, and I'd prefer to remember him as the gloriously vibrant author he was. If he wanted them gone, in a suitably theatrical way, why should anyone stand in his way. He definitely earned it.
posted by figurant at 9:37 PM on August 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

I don't doubt that it changed his writing, I suppose I just see it as his focus changing - different, not less. However, having gone through the progression of Alzheimer's with my grandfather, followed by my aunt (early-onset), and with the looming prospect of it affecting my father in the next few years and eventually myself (carrying at least one associated allele) I suppose I have my own lens. I'll stop sitting on the thread now.
posted by sysinfo at 10:01 PM on August 30, 2017

I re-read Guards! Guards!, Men-At-Arms, and Feet of Clay while on vacation this weekend, and they all still hold up. Angua + Carrot 4 eva
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:09 PM on August 30, 2017 [13 favorites]

As curious as I am about what he had on that drive, I'm glad his wishes were carried out. I couldn't bear it if someone else took over.
posted by MissySedai at 11:03 PM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've not read "The Shepherd's Crown". Maybe because while it's on my shelf unopened there's always another Pratchett book to read.

I have to wonder about backups: surely there was some sort of backup strategy... where is the *second* disk/server? Is there a forgotten FTP server or Dropbox account somewhere stuffed full of unseen Discworld fragments?
posted by BinaryApe at 11:40 PM on August 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

I find it very hard to agree with Strahilevitz's arguments in favour of carrying out the will of deceased authors for two reasons:

- Strahilevitz seems to be firmly grounded in the belief of life after death, or the eternal soul, if he calls for fully respecting the post-humous wills of people relative to their creations. I do not subscribe and believe, instead, that the authors are dead and whatever remains is public property. There being two opinions, at least a discussion must be held.

- Strahilevitz seems to assume (quite erroneously, the history shows), that authors are in a supreme position to estimate the value of their products to future generations. This is just plain delusion and the fact that any conflict can exist about the value of those creations is an argument for pre-emptively saving all products of the human mind just in case they might be useful in the future. Similarly, Mein Kampf must be saved to show future generations what kind of thinking leads to what kind of suffering - it's too easy to forget and disbelieve, even after one generation (cf Holocaust denialists).

So I'm hoping a copy of that hard-drive is saved elsewhere and will surface at the opportune moment.
posted by Laotic at 12:29 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've not read his last few books. At some point I'm going to start at the beginning again with The Colour of Magic and binge read my way through right to the final books in the series. I need to fill a few gaps, anyway. It might be interesting to try and spot how his ideas and writing change over time.

Good for him for having the disk destroyed, if you ask me*. I'm sure its contents have great cultural value, but I'm with Neil Gaimain on that one. Except I live a few miles away from where the Dorset Steam Fair takes place and missed being able to watch it happen, because I was on holiday elsewhere. So BOO for bad timing.

*Except TP is a bit of a trickster so part of me thinks this might be the first stage in a bigger plan and the contents will pop up elsewhere in 20 years' time or something, which he had worked out all along with the Narrativia directors. Maybe someone buying a very old steam traction engine will find themselves with the one and only copy of something...
posted by dowcrag at 1:06 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I disagree. Terry's death was not an accident, it was his personal decision. A choice you can only make in private with yourself. It was a rational suicide. It was a final act of agency, and if we respect free will, we must also respect the privacy which engenders it. And if you wish, he's probably telling Socrates that they have way better shit than hemlock now.
posted by adept256 at 1:07 AM on August 31, 2017 [5 favorites]


( all over again )

Oh, and I'm in the "The same, but different" cohort w.r.t. the writing change. But man, he sure delivered EVERY SINGLE TIME. I bought a Hardcover Shepherd's Crown upon release, but hadn't gotten to it when he passed.

Then I just couldn't get through it because of all the feels, and then had to put it down for a week or two and finish it up when I had the reserves.

Each and every book is a pleasure, and will remain so forever.

Wherever Death took you, if you can hear us in any way -- even a faint echo you're not sure you had really heard...

posted by mikelieman at 2:10 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

If there was a real need to destroy draft works, surely it should have been done two years ago? I think this is really just a stunt to publicise the exhibition (which is fair enough); I shouldn't think there was really anything of substance on the drive. He had time to tidy up before he went, and it doesn't seem very likely there were a lot of abortive or uncompleted stories lying around anyway.
posted by Segundus at 3:27 AM on August 31, 2017

I dunno on having someone else take up the mantle of writing his works (I doubt anyone, even his kid, could replicate his style), but I still kinda wish I could have nosed through what ideas he had.

Kinda like reading "Leaving Cold Sassy," the unfinished sequel to Cold Sassy Tree. It includes, as far as anyone knew, what the author had in mind for the rest of the book. It was interesting, though after reading what the author had in mind (i.e. depressing), I guess I'm fine with it ending where it did.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:13 AM on August 31, 2017

I've not read "The Shepherd's Crown". Maybe because while it's on my shelf unopened there's always another Pratchett book to read.

That's the same reason I won't buy it. I want there always to be another Pratchett book to read.
posted by Ruki at 6:16 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I finally ready The Shepherd's Crown a couple of months ago. It was a right and good way to end.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:28 AM on August 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

Just wait, in a couple of weeks, there will be some mysterious note suggesting some unfinished work or treasure on the hard drive.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:03 AM on August 31, 2017

I've not read "The Shepherd's Crown". Maybe because while it's on my shelf unopened there's always another Pratchett book to read.
I want to be ready to read it, but I made the mistake of re-reading Snuff shortly after my father, Sam, passed away and I just don't think I have it in me to deal with the wracking sobs of grief while trying to read words.

Some day I will.

And I'm delighted that they followed his wishes and killed the hard drive. So far, Rob and Rhianna are doing a great job of respecting TP's wishes and I can only hope I have heirs that are as sensitive.
posted by teleri025 at 8:56 AM on August 31, 2017

I have read every other Discworld book at least half a dozen times (and some of them dozens of times) but I just. can't. get through the last ones. I've attempted Raising Steam twice and been stymied both times, and I just don't have the heart to open Shepherd's Crown. The last couple before that were definitely lacking as well, with off bits and loose ends that don't feel right to me, but I've read them both more than once. I can forgive Pratchett because he gave us so many wonderful, wonderful books—but I think he kept it up a little bit longer than he should have. Oh well.

If he wanted his unfinished works destroyed, that's fine. What he gave us is more than enough, and I think that by the time he left he'd already given us the best that he had to give. Alzheimer's sucks, let him rest.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:16 AM on August 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

mikelieman - Shepherd's Crown was published a while after he died.
posted by gnuhavenpier at 1:45 PM on August 31, 2017

dilaudid: "Is Christopher Tolkien really an appropriate example?"

I think a man who spent a huge amount of his life curating and editing the manuscripts with the author, before then taking over the estate, is vested enough in the process and knowledgeable enough of the individual to do a good job of completing the writing - especially so when Tolkien so often points out which sections were his and which his fathers, including discussion of areas where the intent was unclear or the original manuscript illegible. What that effect has on derivative works such as movies is not necessarily the same, but to be honest I also have some qualms with Jackson's work on the movies - as much as I loved them for the visuals.
Haldir was never at Helms Deep, for god’s sake, so why would Jackson choose to (unnecessarily) add him in? And then, insult upon injury, unceremoniously kill him off? It was an entirely unnecessary move and it detracted from the uniqueness of Legolas being present at the fight; like Gimli, he was to have been the sole representative of his race.) And as hard as it would have been to include Tom Bombadil, leaving him out also leaves out the arc explaining why Merry’s blade was able to harm the lord of the Nazgul... and the Scouring of the Shire is an essential piece of the story, not a tacked-on end that can be excised without losing the point - that in world-changing events, the world is changed, everywhere, to some degree. You can go back home, but you can’t really ever truly go back to where you came from. But hey, I have OPINIONS I guess.

Sternmeyer: "In some cases *cough* Robert Jordan a better author comes up to take the reigns and finish things gracefully after the original author kicks off. "

Yes, and in the case mentioned, the one tasked with finishing the series was explicitly hand-chosen by the original author, provided all the materials and the (apparently fully developed) final chapter, was told the (intended) storyline, and had full cooperation of the estate in completing the works. Which was fine with me - readers got closure, and I found a new author that I quite like.
I don’t know if I would definitely say Sanderson is “better” - I would definitely agree with “different”; Jordan was great at world-building, not so great with some of the female characters but still better than many - they had actual roles and were often important on their own! - but he wasn't good at limiting himself, sometimes less is indeed more, as can be seen by the s-l-o-w plot progression (or lack thereof!) in the middle volumes of the series. Sanderson? I don't know if I have been reading him long enough to have developed an objective analysis of his strong and weak points. Ask me again in 15 years.

In both cases (Jordan and Tolkien) what makes the difference to me is that the original author was explicitly involved in choosing a successor. Far too often, someone hires a ghost writer to clean up the half-finished drafts just to add some dough to the estate. Where the authors express wish was to have Chosen Successor work on the documents, I am fine... and where the author expressly asked that the unfinished works be abandoned and/or destroyed, I am also fine. It's the ones where the author’s wish was unknown or ignored that bother me.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:29 PM on August 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

The disc (world) survived the roller and was eventually shredded in a commercial disk shredder.
posted by Burn_IT at 3:48 PM on August 31, 2017

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