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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Raising Steam: the Close of Discworld?

In 2010, Sir Terry Pratchett, author of forty Discworld novels, supplementary materials, and multitudinous other works, was diagnosed with Post-Cortical Atrophy, an unusual form of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Besides having come out swinging as an advocate for sufferers of dementia, his creative output has not visibly flagged.

Discworld’s great virtue is that for all its immensity, you can, with little difficulty, experience it in any order, and have several more-or-less independent casts of characters to choose from. I’ve never been able to muster the energy to tackle the continuous epics like Wheel of Time and Song of Ice and Fire, so Discworld’s more open structure, to say nothing of its eclectic intelligence, and utter hilarity, is a very fine thing indeed.

Sir Terry has long foreseen the end of Discworld as when it reaches the point of having run out of room for more stories. And that time must neccessarily be nearly at hand. My holiday reading included the newest Discworld novel, Raising Steam, the fortieth, which, though it may not, could well serve in the office of the final Discworld novel.

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In the city of Ankh-Morpork, a young up-and-comer brings a new development: a steam-powered locomotive. He seeks investors and gets Harry King, waste management tycoon, and Moist von Lipwig, the city’s Postmaster General and de facto Chairman of the Royal Bank.

As his invention spreads across the continent, interconnecting cities and beginning an economic revolution, the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, has a crisis to resolve: the dwarfish community in the mountains is threatened by a fundamentalist faction that is sabotaging the railway and semaphore networks, and murdering its workers in an attempt to start a holy war with the human/multiracial community of Ankh-Morpork who has ‘contaminated’ their traditions with modern and liberal values.

Moist must join forces with Commander Vimes of the Watch and the young engineer to use the railway on a mission to maintain international peace and keep innocent people safe.

This book is weird; it doesn’t chime with the Pratchett ambiance. Usually, a central character – be it Moist, Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Rincewind or whomever, plus their comrades – engages in a personal adventure, with attendant introspection, leading to a resolution of the personal aspect of a larger problem of magic, politics or crime.

The striking thing about Raising Steam is that it isn’t structured like that. It reads more like a political thriller. Like the later-period Honor Harrington novels (albeit far better-written) it intercuts between characters: Moist is the main point-of-view character, but his wife, Adora Belle, Commander Vimes, Lord Vetinari, William de Worde, Archchancellor Ridcully, the King of the Dwarfs (Pratchett is unusual among fantasists in that he doesn’t use Tolkien’s plural ‘dwarves’) and his confidant Gragg Bashfulson all get scenes, along with a number of minor characters often introduced just to have something horrible but instructive of the larger situation occur to them.

Moist has some character development, but his total POV time is relatively small, so that he, as well as Vimes, start as they go on.

This bears on the other odd thing about Raising Steam: for all the political goings-on and characterization to make much sense, you really need to have read, at minimum, Going Postal, Making Money – Moist’s first two books – as well as Thud! and Snuff, the two latest Vimes-and-the-City-Watch novels as well. Reading Unseen Academicals, Men-at-Arms and the Fifth Elephant wouldn’t hurt either. This isn’t usual for Discworld books: I read the Watch sub-series almost exactly backwards and had no significant trouble with it, but that wouldn’t work here.

Given that one of Pratchett’s great strengths is his vibrant and memorable characters, their deployment in a mainly action-driven story that skips over months at a time as the plot requires, it seems oddly flat in the personality department. The plot itself feels a little bit like two books smashed into each other; there’s a real sense that the plot vacillates between the special magic of history and animism the Discworld embodies with regards to the new invention (much as happened in Men-at-Arms and the Truth) on the one hand. On the other, the political landscape and the themes of progress, tradition and pluralist society that inform a lot of Watch books periodically takes over, so that neither one seems to be the main point of the story.

And while intensive plotting is a great speciality of his, this one’s exceptionally dense compared to a lot of his recent stuff. The way the character moments seem rushed or painted on the plot, I can’t help but wonder exactly how much editorial input Sir Terry had – indeed, is capable of having. For a while, the title promoted for this book was Raising Taxes, and the end of Making Money foreshadowed Moist’s next adventure being to work over the Ankh-Morpork tax service the way he’d done for the Post Office and the Bank. This, rather late change suggests that Pratchett has skipped ahead, creating this rather skimmed-over feel in the book, possibly in recognition that he’s running out of time…

To all appearances he’s still relatively healthy, though. Thus the other construct I can put upon this is that Raising Steam is intended as at least part of a conclusion. There was none of the fanfare you’d expect had Raising Steam actually been meant as the last Discworld novel. It could, however, stand as the last Ankh-Morpork novel. Granny Weatherwax, Susan Sto Helit and her grandfather Death, none of whose stories are particularly dependent on Ankh-Morpork’s setting, could yet have some more adventures in them. Possibly Rincewind could too, though he does appear very briefly in this book also.

For Ankh-Morpork and its colourful cast, this seemed like an all-in wrapup. Almost every character in the Moist and Watch novels plays some role, and his two most central characters, Moist and Vimes, join forces. Vetinari, the borderline omniscient Patrician, faces a genuine challenge to his plans. The decay of the traditional ‘medieval stasis’ of Ankh-Morpork, overseen by Sweeper the History Monk, seems to have peaked with the arrival of the trains. The political and social conflicts that have run through most of the Watch books (where geopolitical issues have the most significance) see some genuine resolution. It’s almost too tidy at the very end, which is startling given the lighthearted cynicism Sir Terry usually expresses.

On a similar note, there’s a hardness in some parts of the story which, likewise, is a little shocking from Sir Terry. Moist at one point is moved to use deadly force against the fanatics attacking the railway workers, astounding, and a little hard to accept from the nonviolent showman. All sense of absurdist comedy or humanist regard for even the most deranged enemy goes out the window at a few points in the plot and it becomes a kill-or-be-killed conflict, which is very unusual for Sir Terry to do without at least some twist or subversion. The loathsomeness of the ultra-traditional dwarfs isn’t spared. Sir Terry, like Phillip Pullman, is highly critical of religion and superstition and that forms a theme of several of his books. Maybe he’s taking the gloves off while he has the chance, but this seems uncharacteristically hardline

For worldbuilding, Raising Steam is a triumph, tying together swathes of threads from across the Discworld canon. But it is a peculiar change of the style, suggesting, to me anyway, a slightly rushed search for closure. The characters are taken for granted as being developed and are simply sent into action, in a plot much bigger in scope and timeframe than is normal; it reads a bit like a dramatized history book. If Discworld’s conclusion is at hand, this is a fine way to bring it about, but it is trying to do an awful lot all in one book. And it’s still hard to shake the sense that he’s relinquished a lot of editorial control over this one and that other hands have gotten hold of the text. Still, at the end of the day, it’s Pratchett, it’s Discworld, it’s historically and politically resonant. And to see all these characters come together is like one last get-together with old friends before saying goodbye.

I wouldn’t mind if this wasn’t goodbye quite yet, but it was one heck of an adventure…

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Posted by on January 31, 2014 in Book

 

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Time Snatchers and Found: Teen Time Double Feature

I’ve always found it fascinating – and occasionally rather distressing – the way that a smash hit can open the market for lots of stories with similar themes. Vampire fiction had a high point in the last decade. Pity it can be traced to Twilight. CSI kicked off the modern police procedural.

A recent chance discovery at the library makes me wonder whether Doctor Who isn’t going to have a similar impact. I was poking around the young reader sections – where, let’s face it, a lot of the really good books are to be found – and discovered two novels – Time Snatchers by Richard Ungar, and Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix – both of which deal with adopted youths whose lives are affected by time travel.

Haddix’s Found is the older of the two, published 2008. Jonah is in seventh grade, dealing with the usual issues of tests, his annoying little sister and his boring parents. He isn’t particularly hung up about being adopted, apart from enduring a certain overweaning curiosity from his best pal, Chip. Except that he and Chip start receiving strange, menacing letters about their being ‘one of the Missing’ and ‘they are coming for you.’ At first sure it’s a prank, Chip’s sleuthing leads him to discover he is also adopted, which his parents, unlike Jonah’s, have kept from him.

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Chilled, Jonah asks to know more about his adoption. His inquiries lead them, unexpectedly, to a threatening confrontation with an FBI agent, a disgraced airline worker and a mysterious janitor who seems to appear at the strangest moments and do impossible things. Through further sleuthing, it is revealed that Jonah, Chip, and dozens of other babies adopted in the area were plucked from the past by a decadent adoption agency of the future, got stuck in the Twenty-First Century and are the objects of a contest between the forces that want to exploit the past and those who want to mend it – at any cost.

Time Snatchers, published 2012, features Caleb. Living in 2061 New York, he is a thirteen-year-old Snatcher. He is one of several adoptees of Uncle, the eccentric and sinister mastermind who holds a time travel technology and sends his ‘children’ into the past to carry out contract thefts. Just as Caleb begins to long for a real family and life out from under the manipulative thumb of Uncle and the bullying of his rival Frank, he’s horrified that Uncle intends to start recruiting more, younger snatchers from throughout history, whether they want it or not. His partner Abbie and he begin a game of cat-and-mouse through history to save Uncle’s victims.

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Despite the common theme of adoption gone wrong, neither book seeks to bash adoption. Uncle in Snatchers is clearly exploiting the institution, and it’s implied that the US government, including Social Services, has decayed badly by 2061.

In Found, Jonah is typically angsty for his age, but at no point is it suggested that there’s anything false about his family life. Indeed, Haddix brings across very well that under his adolescent frustration with his parents’ touchy-feely fussing and his sister’s snark, Jonah loves them very deeply, and they him. The story does seem to object to not telling your kid they’re adopted, though. All the same, Chip’s increasingly conflicted home life seems to have more to do with his parents being under-involved and/or in denial than the simple fact of his adoption.

Likewise, neither book treats blood relations as being the ideal to aspire to. Caleb doesn’t have any kind of family, and is delighted to be accepted into the home of one of Uncle’s abductees. He just wants somewhere where he belongs and is genuinely loved, regardless of his relationship to the people in that place. Jonah and the other Missing were all stolen from other points in history and adopted by various American families, but when a kind of ‘temporal conservationist’ movement tries to take them back to their original points in history and their blood families, it’s made clear that for many that isn’t going to be the better option (and may in fact be a death sentence for some) and Jonah stands firmly against being taken from who he sees as his real family.

Found seems like it has more to say of a political nature. The two sides of the conflict over the adoptees are Interchronological Rescue, which brings children of the distant past forward in time, de-aging them and giving them a new start in (from ours and Jonah’s point of view) the future, and what appears to be an activist or oversight group trying to stop the damage to time this is causing. All this seems allegorical of the scandals that come up in international adoptions and the trafficking and corruption that can run through them. In Time Snatchers, it’s mostly just a framing device for Caleb’s quest for justice, freedom and love.

Being both time travel stories, the matter of how they treat Time and the effects of moving through it are a big part of their effectiveness, and on this score Found has the better part of the argument, thus far. It is mentioned that Uncle in Snatchers has to be careful about selecting his new recruits, carefully checking their family trees to minimize changing history. But it all seems a bit out there. The amount of detail he seems to have on the geneaology of ordinary people from centuries ago is, to someone with a background in history at least, a bit of a stretch. Caleb creates a big scene in the middle of the 1967 Montreal Expo during a mission, and this doesn’t seem to have any impact on history at all, undermining the drama. Indeed, the rules of the ‘snatches’ are mostly things like how to dress, how to act, and not being seen. If your profession is theft, it hardly takes time travel to make that good practice. Even the phenomenon of ‘time fog’ after spending too long out of your own time is suddenly waved off partway through. The only aspect with much time (ha, ha) spent on it is the different cultures experienced on each trip, which is indeed fascinating. Even so, predictions for the year 2061 seem a bit generic and unimaginitive, but then our hero isn’t a politico, so he simply might not be noticing.

In Found, time travel forms a much more active plot element. Some of the rules, like the de-aging effect of time travel only affecting children, are a bit arbitrary. Others are vague. Only at the cliffhanger ending to we get to learn about the dangers of time paradoxes and causality ripples, and damage to time that restricts when you can travel to. These are not clearly defined, but they cast a mystique and sense of danger over the proceedings. Crucially, where Time Snatchers builds a story based on people who, historically speaking, won’t be missed, Found gains more punch by building a time continuum in which nobody is unimportant.

Jonah in Found definitely seems more like a person I can understand; the author captures the psychology of a kid his age deftly. Caleb in Time Snatchers’ journey is a little more idealistic, more generic. He’s still a good person in a bad situation, with issues and horomones, but Jonah seems a little deeper. Of course, Caleb’s life and background are far more unusual than Jonah’s, but he seems oddly self-aware, commenting on the workings of his own mind in a way that takes me out of the moment on occasion.

I couldn’t stop thinking as I read that the Doctor would come down on either Uncle or Interchronological Rescue like a ton of bricks. Funnily, Time Snatchers includes a memory-wiping drug suspiciously similar to the Retcon drug in Torchwood. Both books tell some fascinating stories of suspense, adventure and coming of age. Both have well-written if slightly generic everyman main characters. Time Snatchers subverts my hated love triangle by making the leading lady a cunning, even devious but still steadfast good guy. Found goes more for the Harry Potter dynamic of a boy and his best pal and his sister – albeit more literally than in Hermione’s case.

Found treats Time as a force of the Universe, whereas Snatchers defines it mainly by the contents of history books. The psychology of the characters is very believable and the stakes are genuinely disturbing. It wouldn’t take much for Found to become a horror novel. Although a very dark thread moves through the premise, Time Snatchers is a little more fantastical, archetypal and smaller in scope. It does have the slightly jingoistic upside of being written by a Canadian, and a title that actually sounds like a title, as opposed to a single, rather ordinary word.

Having expected to choose between them, I think I’ll try to read both books’ sequels – Ungar’s Time Trapped and Haddix’s Sent, to start – while Haddix’s is a bit higher grade, both are good stories with imagination, good writing, and that element of darkness that only the really good kids’ books have.

Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2014 in Book

 

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