In Praise of Pratchett: Raising Steam


I’ve already written about this book once, an ‘Uncollected Thoughts’ an immediate response to completing reading it for the first time, which you can read elsewhere on this blog. Now, after the marathon of re-reading and commenting upon all Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, it’s time for a reappraisal.
With Judgement Day before it, and The Shepherd’s Crown to follow, I was really fearful about approaching Raising Steam again. But in truth, for all its flaws, it is an oasis of sanity, of clarity, of the authentic Pratchett voice.
In the classic manner, Raising Steam is divided into two stories, that merge in the latter half of the book, and it continues, on an impressive level, the theme of Redemption that has been Pratchett’s main concern since he began the sequence of books written in the knowledge that each may be the last.
The front story, as it were, is the coming of the Industrial Revolution to Discworld, in the form of Engineer Dick Simnal – a Lancastrian to the tips of his railwayman’s boots – and his locomotive, Iron Girder. And it’s the most massive, and uncharacteristic change Pratchett could have made to Discworld. It might only be the Railway, which spreads like wildfire, but already every associated industry is spreading with it, and with the Steam Engine harnessed, the full scope of the Revolution will follow.
It’s a change that cannot help but alter Discworld irrevocably, because it brings in Science, with the capital S. The change has been coming for years, as invention succeeded invention, each subtly shaping the Discworld closer to the norms we associate with Roundworld, with our Earth, but this is the one that changes the very ground upon which Discworld stands.
So fundamental is the level on which this changes everything, that Pratchett could only introduce it now, so late. Had there been stories to follow this, had we been guaranteed another decade, another dozen books, those stories would have been changed beyond all recognition. Like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, like 9/11, the world turns over and we are in a time with new rules.
The understory is the determined resistance to change of the grags, the Dwarf ‘Priesthood’ set on reversing history, of taking it back to where it once was, at the behest and for the benefit of a tiny group that are unable to accept the passage of time, who insist on darkness, ignorance and the gathering into their hands alone of anything that represents freedom.
It’s an apt juxtaposition of ideas: the onset of history versus the clinging past, the expansion of knowledge and freedom versus its contraction, and in both sides of the story the future wins hands down, as it was bound to do.
Which is the great flaw of Raising Steam. As I observed on a first reading, and which remains true in re-reading, there is simply no credible opposition in either part of the story. The Railway arrives whole and entire and everything falls into place for it. The Patrician makes the early point that he can stop everything in its tracks by bumping Dick Simnal off, but there’s no sense that he ever seriously intends to.
Instead, he puts Moist von Lipwig in charge of it, but the truth is that it’s a waste of Moist’s considerable confidence-man abilities when all he has to do is negotiate contracts with supposedly slippery land-owners. Moist’s not up against anyone with a serious interest in stopping the railway. Hell, he isn’t even needed to sell the sizzle because there’s just too damn much sausage to go round.
It’s a procession, and Moist is mainly a passenger on the footplate, watching the new world spring up around him, selling to itself without needing him to supply more than the occasional nudge in direction.
As for the grags, not even they are sturdy opposition. They begin by attacking clacks towers, putting themselves on the wrong side of everybody else immediately. They attack a wedding reception and kill the bride, which is like calling themselves Sir Jasper and twirling their moustaches. And even though they supposedly depose Rhys Rhysson, the Low King, when he’s a fortnight’s coach ride away, they are losers from the very moment they appear.
Because what they are is Racial Prejudice, naked and insupportable, the Ku Klux Klan, the National Front, locked into the confines of their own heads, a tiny, stupid fraction of ourselves that history will roll over, leaving not even a tidemark on the beach. There’s isn’t a moment’s doubt, not a second of tension over whether or not the bad guys can do it.
The biggest obstacle in the whole story is a bridge over a chasm, and ever since Making Money, Moist von Lipwig has the deus ex machina to end all deus ex machinas: the golden Golems.
It’s best to be honest. In so many ways, Raising Steam falls short of what we expect from Terry Pratchett. For a number of years, we’d been led to believe that Moist von Lipwig’s next appearance was to be in Raising Taxes, but I think that that had become a book beyond the capability of someone with Pratchett’s condition. Instead, we got the subject of a little boy’s dreams, Steam Engines, an altogether more adolescent and engagingly simpler subject.
But still we smile, and enjoy the book for what it continues to gets right. Best and biggest of all is that other irreversible step that comes at the end of the book, as Rhys Rhysson redeems the Dwarves by openly stating that he is not he but she: Rhys is female, she is Queen, not King, and she is with child. What was begun by Cheery Littlebottom as far back as Feet of Clay, is turned at the last by Terry Pratchett into a tide no more stoppable than the Railway. At a stroke, by dividing Dwarfdom into two visible genders, Rhys Rhysson unites it more powerfully as a single race than it has ever been before.
The Goblins, too, come into their own, after their moment on the stage in Snuff. They became of age and acceptance through music, beauty and art, but between books they have proved themselves naturals to the clacks industry, and the same goes for the Railways. The Goblins have not merely been emancipated, they have discovered their niche, and whilst we may allow ourselves a moment’s wincing at their apparent destiny as the factory workers of the Industrial Revolution, they have succeeded in a glorious ascent from nowhere.
But what makes Raising Steam the book we will still welcome, despite its weaknesses, despite its over-reliance on Tell, and not Show, especially between Moist von Lipwig and the Patrician, is that it is still, mostly, written in the voice of Terry Pratchett. We hear Moist von Lipwig and we believe we are listening to Moist von Lipwig. We hear Havelock Vetinari, and we believe we are listening to Havelock Vetinari. The same goes for Sam Vimes and, to a lesser extent, the less familiar Harry King.
It is not so in Adora Belle Dearheart, who only in a few places is Spike.
But it is there often enough, and long enough, for us to hear and see, as it wasn’t in Judgement Day. As it isn’t, painfully so, in Terry Pratchett’s very last book.

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