Happy Birthday

Each year brings exciting new SF anniversaries – vastly outnumbered by boring old SF anniversaries. Did you know that 2008 is the seventieth year of television SF? No, Doctor Who isn't quite that ancient, but in February 1938 the BBC broadcast its adaptation of the Czech stage play that added a word to our language: Karel Capek's R.U.R: Rossum's Universal Robots.

Interesting author centenaries seem thin on the ground. 1908 saw the birth of Cleve Cartmill, the SF writer who's now remembered only for triggering a US Intelligence investigation of Astounding SF magazine when his atom-bomb story appeared in March 1944. Also born in 1908 were two thriller writers with SF connections: Ian Fleming, whose movie adaptations became more science-fictional as they got less like the books, and the incredibly prolific John Creasey. Creasey wrote 562 books under 28 pseudonyms, including a ramshackle SF series in which Dr Palfrey of Department Z – not unlike an earlier incarnation of U.N.C.L.E. – saved the world from alien invasion, global flooding, sloppy writing, and terrorist city attacks involving miniature aircraft flown by zombie kids. Those were the days.

Terrorism is central to a fantasy that's now 100 years old: G K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, a frequently comic nightmare with some chilling insights into bomb-throwing anarchists (as they used to be called). "The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody."

Other memorable novels from 1908 are H G Wells's The War in the Air, which predicted aerial bombing (six years later Wells wrote about atomic bombs dropped from planes in The World Set Free) and William Hope Hodgson's very strange The House on the Borderland. His doomed householder's adventures range from repeated attacks by hostile "swine-things" – swarming from a pit in the garden which the estate agent carefully didn't mention – to a far-future galactic vision in which the entire solar system is gobbled up. It's profoundly odd, and was Terry Pratchett's choice in Horror: 100 Best Books. (Mine, by an eerie coincidence, was The Man Who Was Thursday.)

Which brings us with suspicious neatness to a further 2008 anniversary: 25 years of Discworld! In the bygone 1980s, when manuscripts had to be submitted in double-spaced cuneiform on clay tablets, I was SF review columnist for the games magazine White Dwarf. Taking up my +2 Vorpal Pen of Vitriol, I tore into The Colour of Magic: "It's one of those horrible, antisocial books which impel the reader to buttonhole friends and quote bits at them. My ceiling is covered with brown spots from when I tried to read Pratchett's jokes and drink beer at the same time. Only native sadism makes me recommend this disgraceful work."

Not being as good at prophecy as H G Wells, I never imagined the Discworld series would run so long. Nor did I expect that I'd be roped in as publisher's reader when Gollancz were considering Equal Rites, and as freelance editor from Mort onward. Or indeed that I'd end up compiling two Discworld quizbooks, writing essays on Terry Pratchett for about seven massive reference volumes, doing a book of commentary on the late Josh Kirby's artwork, and soaking up alcoholic freebies as a guest at the Discworld conventions I'd utterly failed to predict would become regular events.

The great thing about Discworld is that it keeps changing and mutating. Ankh-Morpork has developed from your bog-standard fantasy city into a kind of 19th-century hotbed of industrial revolution. As Terry told me at the time of book 25, "it has to evolve to keep going. If I'd written 25 versions of The Light Fantastic by now, I'd be ready to slit my wrists."

He's a notorious workaholic who plunges into new book projects within hours of finishing the previous one. Nothing seemed to slow him down, despite occasional unconvincing claims that he's taking a rest – usually by writing a children's novel or going on a long, gruelling signing tour. Then, at the end of 2007, came the bad news that "I have been diagnosed with a very rare form of early onset Alzheimer's ..."

There is hope, though, and Terry not only remains determinedly optimistic but is fighting back with a million-dollar donation to Alzheimer's research. Watch for his little placard saying I ATEN'T DEAD. Good luck to him ... and many more anniversaries.

David Langford forgot Algernon Blackwood's occult detective John Silence, whose exploits were collected in 1908.

Later: almost as soon as I'd delivered this column the "Match It For Pratchett appeal" was launched, and I asked for a last-minute substitution as below. But it didn't get into the magazine:

David Langford just donated via the fan initiative to match Terry's largesse: see www.matchitforpratchett.org.