Reaper Man

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Reaper Man
Written by: Terry Pratchett
Central Theme:
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: Discworld
Preceded by: Moving Pictures
Followed by: Witches Abroad
First published: 1991
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Reaper Man is the 11th Discworld novel. It was written at the same time as the Bromeliad trilogy and it shows, both works talking about how beings with short life spans live them 'faster' than humans so everyone's lifespan is subjectively about the same, and using mayflies as an example.

Unusually, there are two almost completely separate plots, and they are even denoted using two different typefaces (most noticeable in the first hardback edition).

The primary plot involves Death. His cosmic bureaucracy, the grey and numberless Auditors of Reality, sack him for getting too close to humans, and Death is sent to live as a mortal instead. Will Death get his post back, or will he have to face his own mortality?

The B-plot focuses on the consequences of what happens when Death Takes a Holiday (or in this case, is fired). Too much life force floods through the world, the recently dead arise as zombies, and metaphorical ideas are powered into life as the ancient (and recently deceased) wizard Windle Poons struggles to deal with the consequences.

The title is a pun on Repo Man.

Tropes used in Reaper Man include:
  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Death's scythe. His first one is sharpened on sunlight and is so sharp it cuts words. But at the end when Death is forced to use the harvest scythe against the New Death, his own rage gives it an edge "beyond any definition of sharpness".
  • Bait and Switch Comment: The wizards see a man chasing his animated suit shouting that he paid seven dollars for it, who is then followed by a pair of walking trousers. Ridcully then comments on what an extraordinary occurrence this is: a tailor selling a suit with two pairs of pants for only seven dollars.
  • Berserk Button: Death, when he sees that the New Death wears a crown and sees himself as ruling over the lives of mortals.

Death: A crown?! I never wore a crown!

  • Big Yes: One that takes up a whole page by itself. Rumor has it Pratchett went to the extra effort of writing an entire extra page of narrative just to ensure the "YES" was on the left side, so the reader would see it when they turned the page.
    • Rendered pointless by numerous editions which, as a result of typeface changes and other shenanigans, moved it to the right hand side, greatly diluting its shock value.
  • Book Ends: The story begins and ends with Azrael.
    • Also, we are introduced to the Dark Morris at the beginning and it is explained at the end: whereas the normal Morris dance welcomes in the spring, the silent Dark Morris welcomes in the winter.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Standard Discworld trope, but comes into play here because instead of there being one Death for everything, the spontaneously re-forming Deaths are built up by the beliefs of all the different species - for instance, the Death of Mayflies is a great black trout. The New Death's malevolence is based on the fact that modern people tend to treat death as more fearful and less of a natural occurrence than people in the past.
  • Dancing Pants
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: At the end, when the New Death's spirit has possessed the Harvester to go One-Winged Angel, Death calmly reaches into his robe and removes a small part - one integral to its frame - that he had removed earlier. The machine collapses inches before reaching him.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Death to the New Death. Oh. Drama.
    • Even better: Death deduces when the New Death will arrive because a Death who will pose on a hill on a skeletal horse during a thunderstorm to be lit up by a lightning flash, will not come at 11:25 when he could come at midnight.
  • Death Takes a Holiday (or is fired, but the effects are the same)
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Casanunda (here spelled Casanunder) the Dwarf is mentioned in a footnote at the end. He'd later become a major character in Witches Abroad and Lords and Ladies.
  • Eureka Moment: Subverted. Ned Simnel is wondering how to make his Combination Harvester run without a horse. A blast of steam goes off immediately, but he writes it off as a useless distraction.
    • In the New Discworld Companion, it is claimed that this has happened to poor Ned over 150 times
    • Made even funnier when you've read Sourcerer, which has a brief bit discussing inspiration particles that fly through the universe, and only ever once-in-a-million times strike the right person at the right time. How persistent was this idea?
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: The New Death is unable to understand why Miss Flitworth would give up some of her own time on the earth to give Death a chance to defeat him.
  • Genius Loci
  • Glamor Failure: Sal, the innkeeper's daughter, can see Bill Door clearly for a skellington in overalls.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck: The excess of life force causes Mustrum Ridcully to produce small, strange-looking creatures whenever he swears. He resorts to euphemisms to prevent this from happening, and eventually produces "the most genteel battle-cry in the history of bowdlerization: 'Darn them to heck!'"
  • Hair-Trigger Avalanche: Referenced.

"One yodel out of place would attract, not the jolly echo of a lonely goatherd, but fifty tons of express-delivery snow."

  • Heroic Fire Rescue: By Bill Door (Death) no less.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Sort of...the New Death's appearance and some of his dialogue is based on the Witch-King of Angmar from The Lord of the Rings (who proclaimed to Gandalf that he was "Death Himself"). Then again, the Witch-King has a certain resemblance to the personification of Death in Paradise Lost.
  • Hive Mind: The predatory shopping mall.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Death comes up with his alias' surname because there's a door behind Miss Flitworth (after his initial attempt of looking up and suggesting Mr. Sky?).
    • There's also One-Man-Bucket, short for One-Man-Pouring-A-Bucket-Of-Water-Over-Two-Dogs.
      • This was a tribal tradition in One-Man-Bucket's tribe - children are named for the first thing their mother sees outside the tent after their birth. His elder twin brother, named ten seconds earlier, wasn't so lucky...

Windle: Let me guess. Two-Dogs-Fighting?
One-Man-Bucket: Two-Dogs-Fighting? Two-Dogs-Fighting? Wow, he would have given his right arm to be called Two-Dogs-Fighting.

  • Literal Metaphor: The overabundance of life after Death is fired means that it infuses what was only a metaphor - the idea of shopping malls as parasitic predators that suck the life out of inner city shops - and makes it real.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Death answers some questions this way.

Flitworth: You've got to be Bill or a Tom or a Bruce or one of those names.
Death: Yes.

    • Also, Azrael.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Auditors. Enjoy the fact that one showing any sign of personality goes up in smoke...or is that sad?
  • Only Mostly Dead: Sal, after Bill Door starts sharing his time with her.
  • Painting the Fourth Wall: Besides Mr. Bill Door's distinctive text style, the scythe that Bill Door creates to fight the new Death becomes so sharp that it starts/ cutt/ing up the dial/ogue.
  • Pinball Projectile
  • Powers That Be: Azrael, the Death of Universes, is one of the eight Old High Ones.
  • Shout-Out: There is a song called Particle Man, by They Might Be Giants, which has things oddly mirrored in Reaper Man. The song contains characters with names like Particle Man, Person Man, Triangle Man, and Universe Man. Triangle Man is portrayed as malicious towards Person Man. Auditors come in threes, hate all life (especially humans) and, in Thief of Time, are portrayed on a triangular chessboard with triangular spaces. Universe Man is 'the size of the entire universe, man' and owns a clock with a millennium hand and an eon hand and is kind to smaller men. Not to mention that 'Reaper Man' would fit right in with the names from that song.

"Millennium hand and shrimp!" - Foul Old Ron[1]

    • Windle Poons' last words to the company in the Great Hall of Unseen University are almost identical to those of Lawrence Oates, a member of Scott's doomed Polar Expedition who deliberately walked out and lost himself in the Antarctic night so as not to slow his comrades down.

"I am just going out. I may be some time."

    • His last words when he dies for the first time ("What I could do with right now is one of Mr Dibbler's famous meat pies -") mirror the alleged last words of William Pitt the Younger ("I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies.")
    • Can't forget Vetinari's line when nobody in Ankh-Morpork knows what's going on with the poltergeist activity.
      • Being Vetinari, of course, he opts to correct the grammar of the quote even as he unwittingly references it.
    • A possible one to For a Few Dollars More: Death's hourglass running out as New Death bears down on him, only for Miss Flitworth to give up some of her time to give him a chance, is strongly reminiscent of The Man With No Name bringing the second musical pocketwatch into the duel between Mortimer and Indio.
    • The wizards fighting the shopping trolleys sequence has a few to Alien, which Pratchett is fond of referencing in other works as well.
    • The line about the 'Dark Enchantments' chocolates ("To deliver a box of chocolates like this, dark strangers drop from chair-lifts and abseil down buildings."), is a reference to the old Cadbury's Milk Tray adverts, as well as the name of the chocolates themselves being a reference to Black Magic, another type of boxed chocolates.
    • The Priests in the Lost Jeweled Temple of Doom of Offler remark that a chap with a whip managed to get past the boulder booby-trap, but was killed by the giant spikes.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully's brother Hughnon is the High Priest of Blind Io and therefore the leader of Ankh-Morpork's clerics. They get on pretty well, but drop continuous cracks about each other's vocation:

Mustrum: How's things in the godbothering business?
Hughnon: Not bad. How's the tinkering with things men was not meant to understand?
Mustrum: Pretty fair. Pretty fair.

  • Staring Kid: The little girl who won't stop talking about the "skellington with clothes on." She's seeing exactly what's there, unlike the adults, and poor Death is at a complete loss trying to deal with her.
  • Time Abyss: Azrael is as old as the universe (and note his namesake from Islamic theology is said to be the last being in all the universe to die at the end of time). He's also responsible for the Ultimate Clock, which is actually the opposite of a clock - rather than telling what you what the time is, it tells Time what it is.
    • Death notes, too, that unlike other clocks, this Clock only goes around once. And, at the end of the book, Azrael states "I remember when all of this will be again."
  • The Un-Smile: "Ludmilla gave [Poons] the bright, crystalline smile perfected by people who had long ago learned not to let their feelings show."
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: This is when the new Death will turn up. The new Death deliberately chose this time in order to heighten what Death dismissively refers to as "drama".
  • Werewolf: Ludmilla Cake; fellow Fresh Start Club member Lupine is the opposite, a wolf that turns into a human every full moon. Poons arranges for them to meet, but it isn't clear if anything comes of it. Another character points out the Fridge Logic involved.
    • At the end, we get this passage that makes it pretty clear what happens between them:

There'd be two figures running across the high moorland under the moon. Not entirely wolves, but not entirely human. With any luck, they'd have the best of both worlds. Not just feeling ...but knowing. Always best to have both worlds.

    • Making Money points out that the relationship is still going on years later.
  • Womb Level: The predator mall becomes this once Windle and company get the Queen's attention.
  • World's Shortest Book: The Librarian may not be an expert on guerilla warfare but, as he reminds the Dean, what he doesn't know about orangutan warfare could be written on the squashed-up remains of a smart-ass wizard.
  • Zombie Advocate: Spoofed.
  1. Confirmed as being from a random string generator that had the lyrics to Particle Man and a Chinese restaurant menu as components, amongst others.