TERRY PRATCHETT Raising Steam. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
This new novel is an exuberant celebration of the endlessly changing Discworld.
In Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett’s 40th book set on the Discworld, Ankh-Morpork, the most exciting and vibrant – but grubby – city on the Disc, is nearly a decade older than when we last encountered it in Snuff, the 39th book in the series. Over time a certain degreeof sophistication has set in, and the citizens are beginning to enjoy, and demand, better quality comestibles: for example, fresh seafood from Quirm, a town on the Circle Sea with a distinctly French ambience. Dick Simnel, a self-taught mathematical and engineering genius, is responsible for these modernising developments, as he has invented the steam engine in the form of Iron Girder, a sleek and beautiful engine that impresses all who see her:
And as Harry led the Patrician towards his office, Moist ran his hand over the warm living metal of Iron Girder. This is going to be the wonder of the age, he thought. I can smell it! Earth, air, fire and water. All of the elements. Here is magic, without wizards!
Lobsters are speedily on the menu.
Dick Simnel asks Sir Harry King, the powerful and rough entrepreneur, to go into business with him by providing the funds, and their deal is sealed by an urbane troll lawyer, Mr Thunderbolt. The fact that a troll is a lawyer at all emphasises the changes in Ankh-Morpork . Admittedly, he is not just an ordinary chunk of rock, but a diamond troll. However, this shows how culturally integrated the various tribes and races of the Discworld have become since the early days when having a vampire or a dwarf in the Watch – the police force – was anathema to the Chief Officer, Captain Vimes. Multiculturalism is definitely working. Even the goblins, who were freed from lives of abject poverty and indeed slavery in Snuff, now virtually run the clacks (a vast series of towers that can send coded messages via light, which has been reorganising the communication system successfully for some time).
The Patrician, aka Ankh-Morpork’s tyrant, Havelock Vetinari, is not absolutely convinced that the time for the railway has come but he is prepared to see if it can be as successful as the clacks:
Lord Vetinari dribbled a last drop of brandy into his glass and said cheerfully, ‘Madam, only a fool would try to stop the progress of the multitude. Vox populi, vox deorum, carefully shepherded by a thoughtful prince, of course. And so I take the view that when it is steam engine time steam engines will come.’
He bullies Moist Von Lipwig, the ex-scoundrel who is now head of the Bank and the Post Office, into making sure that the railway is greased into place with charm and perspicacity. This is fortunate because the quasi-religious grags, dwarfs who resent the changes occurring in the lives of the dwarfs of Uberwald and who represent aspects of fundamentalism, attempt to overthrow the King of the Dwarfs and destroy the railway and the changes it brings.
If this summary seems a little breathless and compacted it is because there is a great deal of Discworld business in this novel, much of which is the culmination of the previous 39 books. Most of the characters are already well known and many readers will have met them before and enjoyed the affection and folksy insight with which Pratchett portrays them. As usual, many of them can be expected to act in predictable ways. Readers will also be used to the appalling but appealing jokes.
That said, there is a certain change of tone in this book. It is really a joyful celebration of many things. Among them: the modernising pace of the invention of the railway, the possibility of a decent kind of capitalism, the uneven movement of humanity towards peace and acceptance of ‘the other’ and the triumphant survival of Ankh-Morpork, ruled by its philosopher king Havelock Vetinari. Some characters are a little different from earlier books – Vimes and Vetinari are unusually loquacious – but above all, this is a celebration of Terry Pratchett’s storytelling skills.
The narrative is not particularly gripping. It is satisfying, but the real buzz in this work is the way the advent of the railway opens up Discworld to the future. We see the changes wrought by increased communication, the impact on the lives of ordinary people, the way in which it can inspire creativity, often shown in canny new financial dealings. There are several little vignettes with new characters, demonstrating how the railway enhances ordinary lives. I loved the story of the troll and the dwarf who meet by accident in a railway station café and spend hours discussing their work in libraries.
Pratchett’s love of language is also on show here. He wryly details Vetinari’s problems with crosswords, and the names he gives the goblins are a poetic pleasure: ‘Shine on the Moon’, ‘Of the Twilight the Darkness’, ‘Of the Chimney the Bones’, ‘Tears of the Mushroom’ and many mellifluous others. His ability to invent irrepressibly striking names has enchanted me for years and his ability to convey the excitement wrought by the advent of the railway had me scuttling to Wikipedia to find out more about the history of steam trains.
This book is indeed a celebration of Discworld, and it is rather elegiac and perhaps valedictory, so many characters from the earlier books get a mention. This is a worry; the number 40 seems ominously rounded and most readers know that Pratchett is ill. Perhaps this is meant to be the last Discworld novel, although his illness doesn’t seem to have impaired his amazing ability to write. I am heartened by the fact that it is not a total omnium gatherum: many of the usual characters are mentioned but Captain Carrot and Granny Weatherwax, among others, do not appear. So one can hope that there will be more books for the vast numbers of old and new fans.
Terry Pratchett Raising Steam Doubleday 2013 HB 384pp $45.00
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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