Raising Steam: the Close of Discworld?

31 Jan

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.


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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