Random Reviews: “The Hades Business,” by Terry Pratchett
Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.
I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I role several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing. This week, I rolled 14,780 which turned out to be Terry Pratchett’s short story “The Hades Business.”
One of the things I’m hoping to get out of this series, from a person point of view, is to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I’m also hoping to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.
“The Hades Business” is a story that I’ve not only read before, but at one time attempted to reprint. Originally published in the August 1963 issue of Science Fantasy, it was Terry Pratchett’s first published short story. In the early 2000s, when I was editing the anthology Magical Beginnings, which reprinted the first published short stories by sixteen fantasy authors, I reached out to Pratchett and asked for permission to include “The Hades Business” in the book. His response was an emphatic “no.” He viewed the story as juvenilia, unworthy of being reprinted and had no plans to see it in print. Just as Sean Connery learned “never say never again,” Pratchett changed his mind and in 2004, the short story was reprinted in the NESFA Press collection Once More with Footnotes. It would see print once again in the posthumous collection A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction.
The question, then, is whether Pratchett’s opinion of the story is accurate. Although he allowed it to be published in Once More with Footnotes, his introduction makes it clear that it is only including it for completeness sake and would prefer that it not be read or that he had a chance to re-write it well.
The story is a satire in which the Devil decides to hire a PR firm to help promote Hell, because it isn’t anything like what Dante depicted in The Divine Comedy and it hasn’t had any visitors in thousands of years, leading to the demons all taking jobs as tax collectors on Earth. There are elements of Pratchett’s portrayal of Lucifer that give an indication of his eventual portrayal of Death in the Discworld series or Crowley from Good Omens, although it a much more rudimentary form.
Although the story starts out well, with the interview between Crucible, the owner of the PR company, and Nicholas Lucifer, once the deal is concluded, Pratchett loses his way a bit. The story jumps around and the satire is a bit haphazard, with different paragraphs taking on different targets, hardly in any depth, but merely to mention them in slightly askew manner. He introduces many of the topics which he would come to satirize in his novels over the years, although there is little bite to the satire in “The Hades Business.”
As a first short story, especially one written by a thirteen year old, there is nothing to be embarrassed about in “The Hades Business.” It stands up well, not just to first stories, which often show a lack of maturity that the authors will eventually achieve, but also compares favorably to a lot of the humorous science fiction and fantasy that is published by authors who have a more established career.
Steven H Silver is a nineteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.