Three Minutes With Terry Pratchett
By Ray Daley
They’ve got him in a small room. A few people have already put their selfies online. #MeetADeadWriter is also trending globally.
There’s a chair for the punters to sit in, a table to keep them at arms length and another chair for the great man himself.
Sir Terry Pratchett. R.I.P.
It’s only been twelve years since his death but this lot are currently cashing in on what they refer to as “recent advances in reproductive technology“, or at least that’s what they claim. Behind me in line I can hear the various minders explaining to yet another punter that he’s not a clone. Despite the very large sign stating that he isn’t.
Some wag has already written “I aten’t dead!” on it too.
They run this gig for four hours every day, and it always sells out. You’ll still hear many disgusted voices (some even coming from this very queue!) saying things like “It’s not right!” and “they should let him rest in peace!”
Bugger that say I. If it gives me another chance to meet my favourite author without having to buy my own copy of “How To Raise The Dead“, then I’m in.
And in I am. Even if it does cost a small fortune. And that’s just to get a spot in the queue for a day. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make it inside to see the man himself.
We don’t know exactly how they’ve reproduced him. No-one is allowed to touch him. A few have tried and are now banned for life with their pictures hung by the main door to ensure they don’t get in again.
Ah, hang on.
Here’s their announcer. “Okay folks. I’ll be letting the first person for today through in a minute. You all know the rules. No touching, no autographs, no telling him he’s dead. And no banana daiquiris!”
He’s done that last bit every day since they opened four months ago. Not once has it gotten a laugh yet. I expect he’ll keep trying until it does. I only know this because I’ve been in this queue every single day since it opened.
As the first person goes inside, I already start doing the maths in my head. I’m unlikely to make it inside today. Unless something drastic happens.
Mind you, something drastic normally happens every day, but it’s almost always going on behind me. So I generally never make it any closer to the door. Or inside.
“It’s not right to treat him like this!” Some woman in front of me is already kicking up a tremendous fuss. Silly mare. As expected, the minders appear and take her picture then escort her to the staging point a couple of streets away. And she was going to be next as well! If she’d only kept her mouth shut another minute or so.
Fifty-eight seconds, it turns out to be. One of the minders finally sets up a digital timer outside so everyone in line can now see how long it’ll be before the next lucky punter gets their three entire minutes with this recreation of Terry. Obviously it’s not the real thing. And the minders say it’s not a clone either.
My odds improve again when six people start fighting several places ahead of me. I do the maths once more and it says I’ll probably make it inside before they close today.
Then there’s all kinds of fluster as we discover some guy inside has just tried to touch him. What an idiot! He’s carried out by the scruff of his neck. That leaves four more people in front of me.
I’m actually getting in today! Yay!
I get to watch the timer count down four more times, then I’m finally allowed inside.
“Hello!” He sounds exactly as I remember him. And then I find myself suddenly dumbstruck. What do you say to a dead author?
“Hello!” he says again. Exactly the same tone and inflection as before.
‘Some sort of AI? Or a recording?‘ I think to myself. “Hello Terry. You probably don’t remember me.” Of course he won’t, he’s never met me. But the real Terry did. Three times in one day, in fact.
“Well it’s been a long time,” he says.
And then I see it. I see precisely how they’re doing this. My eyes spot the sheet of transparent material they are projecting him onto. It’s some kind of Peppers Ghost set up.
Which explains why they don’t want people touching him. Almost certainly some sort of AI then, or a system with a database of appropriate responses. I’d wager that most people are asking him the same few questions.
As I find myself wondering if he’s Turing approved, I’m painfully aware that I haven’t got much longer left in here.
I say “Terry,” and it makes eye contact with me and smiles, “purple monkey dishwasher.” Well that’s one way to check for an AI. It might well be a human queuing up prerecorded answers. Either way, it’ll do well to answer that with any semblance of sense.
Terry smiles again. “I’m not sure I quite got that. I’m not writing a new book. Sorry!”
Not half as sorry as I am.
I look at him. “Terry, are you dead?” Then my time is up.
Outside, one of the minders tries to take my picture for the banned list. At least until I explain the finer points of semantics to her.
“I asked if he was dead. You said we couldn’t tell him. So you can’t ban me. Not unless you fancy being sued out of business?” They don’t and I’m allowed to leave without an escort. Nor does my picture get taken. I post my review of the experience during the bus ride home. No-one online seems surprised to hear how the trick is done.
Also, a new rule is added to the list, thanks to me.
And despite the fact they know exactly how the illusion works, people will still continue to queue to spend three minutes with Terry Pratchett.
Because they can. And they want to. Because we miss him, now and forever.
And as long as we’ve got him in any way, he aten’t dead.