Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam – Uncollected Thoughts

It’s, what, thirty years ago since I bought The Colour of Magic as a Corgi paperback, back when it looked like someone doing a Douglas Adams-job on fantasy, as opposed to SF. Bought it, read it, thought it was ok but couldn’t really see wanting to read it again so moved it on in the way you did with unwanted books before eBay. And it’s still that, what, thirty years ago since I was on holiday in the Lakes, and faced with an evening in a Keswick guesthouse with nothing to do or read and limited options in picking up a book before bedtime, so I bought The Light Fantastic, knowing it would keep me going for the evening and I could always move it on.

Except that it was very much more entertaining, a lot funnier, more enthralling and altogether the work, it seemed, of someone who’d sat down with his first book (we didn’t know better then) and looked at it hard until he’d worked out what he’d done wrong and had used it to make the second book work.

Raising Steam is the fortieth book in the Discworld series (counting Young Adults but noy Diaries, Almanacks and Cookbooks) and it’s thirty years on, and as I’ve already said more years back than I’d prefer to remember, against all the odds of series fiction, the books are still brilliant (insert number of years here) later, and indeed many of the later ones are the best, well, I’d have been sceptical, to a very high value of sceptic.

Raising Steam is also, to be technical, the third Moist von Lipwig book, as well as being the fourth to be written since Terry Pratchett announced that he was suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s. It was published last Thursday but I’ve held off reading it until today, as a present to myself.

And now I’ve read it, what are my first impressions of it and how it matches up with the oh-so-often splendid array of its predecessors?

Raising Steam has a curious feel to it. It’s very different from the ‘usual’ Discworld book, in that it is focussed upon its theme, almost to the exclusion of its characters. Each book is gifted with a clear and present central idea – it is part of Pratchett’s immense skill that he has found so many distinct and individual ‘abouts’ to build a story upon – but in all cases prior to this, the story has played out through the central characters, whose fates and fortunes are bound up in the resolution of whatever threat may be about to unbalance the Discworld, or some discrete part of it.

In Raising Steam, there are two such forces. The first and most obvious of these is the discovery of steam power and the creation of the Railway. This arrives courtesy of Dick Simnel, the Discworld’s first Engineer (and a self-evidently translated Lancastrian – as opposed to Lancrastian) and his Goddess of controlled Power, Iron Girder. The power of Steam comes to Ankh-Morpork, the fulcrum on which the Discworld’s balance swings, and it is accepted, welcomed and in every way facilitated, to transform the world in a way more radical than any such idea before it. Where the clacks system brings people together mentally, the railway will bring people together physically. In one single idea, Pratchett changes his creation to the greatest extent, pushing science to the forefront of the world and magic to the back in an act that, more than anything else, makes Discworld more correspondent to our own Roundworld.

This is because, instead of translating a Roundworld notion into Discworld terms, what Pratchett has done is to bolt the Railway in the very form we know it to be, on top of his fiction. Discworld has now had the Industrial Revolution, and just as that changed our world out of all recognition, so too is Discworld changed. And the thing about change is that it doesn’t have to be for the better, or for the worse: it is Change, and it can’t be undone.

The real problem with this in terms of the novel is twofold. Whilst most Discworld books take place in a relatively short compass of time, the actuality of steam and rails occupies years: though Pratchett tries to play this down, time plays a greater part in Raising Steam than in any other (apart from Thief of Time, of course). The story takes over a year to play out, and most notably of all, there are for the first time references to previous stories having taken place at identified intervals in the past. The increasing prominence of goblins is specifically dated to two years ago (in Snuff) and the Low King’s election in Uberwald (in The Fifth Element) is specified as eight years ago.

Discworld in this book, acquires a concreteness that cannot help but change the nature of the books.

The biggest problem, however, is that there is no conflict. Steam arrives and, apart from a couple of diversionary conversations early on, everybody’s ready for it, everybody wants it, everybody welcomes it, everybody gains from it. Which makes it a most  unconvincing vehicle for Moist von Lipwig (subliminally reinforced by the absence of Chapters, signalling that everybody’s favourite ex con-man has been absorbed into mainstream Discworld). Lipwig has no uphill struggle, no enemies of any significance, no obstacles to overcome to drive his latest task into acceptance: instead, he’s surfing a tidal wave, whose objectors have no substantial power to resist, on a road where whatever (briefly) threatens to get in the way is overwhelmed by others, not Moist’s special ingenuity.

I mean, he’s even married to Adora Belle now, so he’s not fighting her, and whilst Moist occasionally drops the pet name in, it’s significant that the book usually calls her Adora Belle, not Spike.

In a way, it’s only a Moist von Lipwig book because he’s primus inter pares: whilst he’s the only one whose head we really get into, the book is as much about the Patrician, Harry King (of the Golden River), Dick Simnel, the goblin Of the Twilight the Darkness, Rhys Rhysson, Low King of the Dwarfs and Sam Vines as it is about Moist.

The secondary force of the story does constitute opposition. Indeed, it’s nothing but opposition. This is the revolt of the grags, the dwarf hardliners/priests introduced in Thud!, who are trying to overthrow the Koom Valley Accord and the growing peaceful relationship between dwarf and troll (mainly in Ankh-Morpork), and to drag the dwarfs back down into the darkness that they believe is their spiritual home.

The grags start off trying to destroy clacks towers, an ineffectual approach that only earns universal opposition, and they go on to ‘overthrow’ Rhys Rhysson when the Low King is out of Uberwald. This is where the railway saves the day, delivering the Low King back to his kingdom, against all the opposition of the grags.

This provides the ‘opposition’ that the railway badly needs for the book to fully function as a book, but the problem with that is that although opposition to the Railway is as fundamental to the grags’ being as is hatred of clack towers, it isn’t integral to the railway. The grag opposition is coincidental, in that it’s happening at the same time, and that opposition is directed not at the railway but something larger and less definable, of which the railway is only an incidental symbol.

The two are not direct opponents, and Moist’s success in getting the railway through is a lesser triumph besides Rhysson’s resumption of her throne, which deprives the book of its necessary triumph. Indeed, Moist’s greatest battle is not with the grags’ attempt to derail Iron Girder, but with the natural obstacle of a gorge and a bridge unable to support the train’s weight.

This may be in bad taste to mention, but I’m sure it’s a common trait amongst those of us for whom each new Pratchett is a highlight, especially now we are aware that the time is definitely coming when Pratchett’s condition will end the delight we’ve had these, what, thirty years. Put crudely, it is: Can he still do it? Or is he beginning to fail?

So far, the answer has been fervently No. Indeed, I Shall Wear Midnight, and Snuff have been two excellent novels, as was the non-Discworld story, Dodger. But to me there’s a sense of a waning to this book. There is no one, lineal story to which everything, no matter how discursivve or digressive, is ultimately related. Instead, there are a succession of buffers, each quickly knocked down, too quickly. And I find myself seriously worried that Raising Steam is so open about the natures of both Moist von Lipwig and the Patrician. They each tell each other too much about what they do and why, acknowledging it instead of it being a matter of half-sentences and indirection. There is an entirely too large amount of Tell, and much less Show, especially about Lord Vetinari, who goes around explaining all those little things that people used to speculate about, worriedly.

I hate to think this, and I so desperately want to be proved wrong by next year’s book, whatever it is, that the Pratchett mind, that source of invention and wit, that has so many times used these things as the architecture and construction of very serious nd very important tales, is still focussed, still sharp, still faster than most everyone of us.

But Raising Steam has raised doubts, that we are now seeing the the onset, seeing what pessimism has thrust before us since the announcement of Terry Pratchett’s condition, and those doubts are desperately sad.

Ultimately, though these criticisms are making it sound as if Raising Steam is a failure, it’s not. It’s not up to Pratchett’s high standards (and I should know as I’ve been re-reading a lot of the books recently, concentrating on the ones you don’t automatically turn to as being the ‘great’ ones). Indeed, it lacks a lot compared to them, even as Pratchett slips in a lot of ideas from Roundworld, not to mention cameos from people like Ridcully, Captain Angua and, less likely, Lu-Tze and Feeny Upshot. But that’s down to the problem of Pratchett’s standards being so very high, because this is still going to be better than most stuff out there on the market.

Which isn’t as assessment I anticipated making after reading The Colour of Magic, what, thirty years ago.

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