Chief Editor: Terry Pratchett – Alive in the Overhead

Technically minded fans of recently deceased author Terry Pratchett are keeping his name alive through a (not so) secret web code #GNUTerryPratchett

This was how Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of fantasy fiction writer extraordinaire Sir Terry Pratchett, announced her father’s meeting with one of his best known characters via his Twitter account last week. The author was 66 years old.

It’s not often the death of a celebrity moves me to tears, but I must admit to welling up at the recent passing of our honorary grandfather Leonard Nimoy, and to outright sobbing when I heard of Terry Pratchett’s demise. He was, in a way, the writer that taught me how to think, and how to think about what I’d thought.

All of us, including Terry, had time to see his death coming; he was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. I was in a café in central London when a man with a laptop took it upon himself to shakily announce the fresh news to the rest of us. Terry inspired that level of feeling in a lot of people.

He leaves behind upwards of 70 books, with about 40 of those making up the ever popular Discworld series, a multitude of satirical fantasy tales with a sprawling cast of  hilarious, lovable, admirable, and not so admirable characters. There’s a lot of mourning going on right now, not just for Terry, but for the stories that will now never be told. Perhaps, though, fans of Terry’s work could look at it in quite another way; the stories will now never be finished.

Young Sam is still growing up, Moist is still working on his latest genius scheme, Granny Weatherwax still Ate’nt Dead, the Turtle still moves, the Librarian still ooks, and Death himself is having an intriguing philosophical discussion with Albert about the petition requesting him to bring Terry back.

Terry’s more technically minded fans have come up with a rather unique way of showing their respect. In what is possibly my favourite of his novels, Going Postal, a suspiciously internet-like messaging system called the Clacks is in use. Operators of the Clacks pass messages between towers by signalling with a code, which then passes through the ‘overhead’ to the next tower, and the next, and so on. In the novel, the clacks operators show respect to their deceased colleagues (some of whom have died in sinister circumstances) by keeping their names running up and down the Clacks lines using the code ‘GNU’.

G means that the message must be passed on, N means ‘not logged’, and U means the message should be turned around at the end of a line and passed straight back the way it came, keeping the name constantly moving, almost like a retweet, or a reblog. According to the Clacks operators, ‘a man is not dead while his name is still spoken’. In the book, this practice is referred to as ‘Sending Home’.

So, it wasn’t at all surprising when Pratchett admirers began tweeting and blogging away using the hashtag #GNUTerryPratchett as soon as they heard of his death. Reddit users took the whole thing a step further, designing a code called the XClacksOverhead that can be embedded into any website (setting a header that reads GNU Terry Pratchett). In this way, the authors name is gradually becoming inherent in the internet.

A character in the novel sums the concept up pretty nicely: “If you had to be dead, it seemed a lot better to spend your time flying between the towers than lying underground.”

Other fans have also been honouring the writer by wearing sprigs of lilac flowers, or lilac ribbons, in reference to the People’s Revolution of the Glorious Twenty-Fifth of May, an event that took place in Pratchett’s 2002 novel Night Watch.

this seemed the most fitting thing to wear today. vale, sir terry.   A photo posted by @digitalsprawl on Mar 12, 2015 at 1:20pm PDT


Pratchett reportedly passed away at home in bed, with a pet cat sleeping beside him. As Pratchett’s Death himself intoned, when asked what there was in the world that truly made living worthwhile: CATS. CATS ARE NICE.


Discussion feed

Up next in