A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is Terry Pratchett’s 40th novel, in the Discworld series that began 30 years ago. In Discworld there are many lands, creatures, characters, and magical phenomena, so there is something for everyone, and the Discworld novels, over time, have developed into sub-series. You want witches, feminism, and self-belief? You can read the novels about the witches of Lancre, who are crotchety all-powerful mystics standing no nonsense, especially not from fairies or vampires; or the four novels about Tiffany Aching, the witch of the Chalk, who’s a witch of the new breed, taking responsibility seriously because no-one else will. For wizards and magical instruction, the best one is Unseen Academicals, which is also about football, mob violence and bigotry. And then there are the novels of Ankh-Morpork, part-Chandleresque thrillers, part detective series, and part entrepreneurial high-jinks. In Going Postal, conman Moist von Lipwig was ordered to resurrect the Post Office or die. In Making Money he was offered the same deal for the Mint and the banking system. Raising Steam is his third appearance.
In Raising Steam Pratchett follows his usual practice of soaking a theme in satire, with a good slosh of brilliantly-realised jokes and sly cultural references. Here we watch how inventions change societies, and how society adapts rapidly to make money out of it, or just enjoy a pleasanter existence. Dick Simnel invents steam power after years of obsessive tinkering, and takes his engine – the slightly sentient Iron Girder – to Ankh-Morpork looking for a financial backer. When the Patrician realises that iron rails are a lot more comfortable, and faster, than pitted and potholed dirt tracks, he appoints Moist von Lipwig to keep an eye on the enterprise, and keep it running to Ankh-Mopork’s benefit. The tracks proliferate, trade improves mightily, as do the supplies of fresh fish and veg to the vast, stinking, hungry city, and then politics intrudes. There is trouble from the conservative forces of resistance – in this novel they’re dwarfs, but in other novels humans, and vampires, have been just as murderously dogmatic if it suits them – and the railway has to be extended in a hurry to get up north to Uberwald, where the Low King of the Dwarfs is about to be deposed.
It’s a good solid novel, perfectly Pratchettian in plot, structure, style, jokes, and blatant silliness. It’s one of the longer novels, I think, and drags a bit in the first half, picking up speed when the train gets going on its rescue mission to Uberwald, when (at last) the multiple plot lines finally work together to create the necessary tension. Well-known railway-linked cultural references are not so much nodded at as kidnapped and remodelled: Brief Encounter, The Railway Children, and possibly also Davy Crockett. The birth and early development of the train spotter is duly recorded. Lonely goatherds stand high on a hill watching an outbreak of dirndls in the crowds as the train passes by. Trolls are delighted to be offered railway bridges to look after, complete with billy-goats. The equivalents of the Victorian, Edwardian, Beeching and Virgin Trains eras flash by in paragraphs, which is an opportunity for well-matured jokes that have not yet found their own temporality in Discworld, such as the town of Big Cabbage, with its tourist attractions of Brassica World and the Cabbage Research Institute.
But …… but. There’s something different about this Discworld novel. Part of the change is due to Discworld society changing so much and so fast that it now resembles our own. The magic – in the literal and metaphorical senses – is dissipating. The jokes are rarer, but they’re still good quality. When he’s in a fury Commander Vimes goes totally librarian. A talking golem horse, that is tireless and can navigate itself, is called NagNav. ‘The demons of critical path analysis swarmed about his brain’ is a classic quelling of the anachronism by linking the literal meaning directly to a magical environment. Try this for a more advanced Pratchett joke: ‘déja fu, a discipline where the hands move in time as well as in space’. Geddit? Oh never mind … In the earlier novels every instance of jargon or management-speak works purposefully to ridicule, or treasure, bland and meaningless language. But in Raising Steam horrible phrases like ‘limited shelf life’ or ‘the attitude of dwarfs when it comes to gender’ are used, and ignored, without any comment, or even a joke. Which is terribly sad.
But my main criticism of Raising Steam is in how the story is told. Long-standing characters have lost their characterisation, and their unique voices. There is no way that the severe Adora Belle of Going Postal – called Killer by her brother, and Spike by her husband Moist – would babble nothing-saying phrases like ‘I must say’, ‘I can’t believe’ or ‘and thanks again’. Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, the most terrifying tyrant on the Discworld, seems to have more lines in this novel than in all the others put together, making his personal fear-factor diminish exponentially, since he produces terror by simply not saying anything, or very little. Vimes is a lot less intriguing told in the third person than he is from his own head, which is why his rare appearances in the third person (as in Monstrous Regiment) kept him impressive. Here we see far too much of Vimes from the outside, and he shrinks.
Why did the author of the existentially beautiful ‘Him diamond’ poem in Thud write this? ‘He lay back on his seat and started smoking one of his cigars, every so often chatting to one or other of his chums about the escapades they had had long ago’. (Underlining added.) Such vagueness might work to characterise the focalising voice (jargon for the mind’s eye that the reader sees out of), but here it’s just baggy storytelling. Too much is told, rather than shown. This didn’t happen in Snuff, the immediate predecessor to Raising Steam, or in Dodger, a recent non-Discworld Pratchett novel, so I can only conclude that something serious has changed in the editing, or with Pratchett’s own intentions for his style.
The elephant in the room here is that Pratchett is living with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. His website tells us that he works with his assistant Rob Wilkins to shape the story from his dictation, and that his cognitive faculties appear to be relatively unaffected compared to his motor skills. I adore his novels and admire and respect his phenomenal capacity for invention and literary creativity. I encourage my students to study his fiction because Terry Pratchett is the greatest living British satirical novelist. He is a genius and I love the stories he tells. But, things have changed, and the savage, sharp, critical voice of anger at intolerance and stupidity that used to drive the Discworld novels has changed as well.
There’s also a sad sense that many characters have only been brought into this novel for a farewell appearance. Captain Angua, the only werewolf in the Watch, only appears in the story to remark about the mess left after a skirmish. Sergeant Colon and Nobby Nobbs are not favourites of mine, but their comic potential deserves better than wasted scenes where they only tell each other, and the reader, what’s going on. We return to Uberwald, the very frightening home of traditional vampires and werewolves, and yet we experience none of the terror and medievalism of The Fifth Elephant. The dwarf caverns are not inviolable, the grags have lost their silent menace, and as, at least one online fan site has noted, wasn’t it implied that Ardent died in an earlier novel?
Raising Steam is a paean to train-lovers, and the lore of the track. But it sometimes forgets to be funny in its eagerness to be instructional. Maybe if you read this as a trainhead, the things I grumble about won’t be so annoying. Maybe it’s just me because I love Pratchett’s storytelling almost more than the stories. But this is not a classic Pratchett novel.
* This review was written with the intention of being comprehensible to non-Discworld readers, but some things are just untranslateable.
Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam (London: Doubleday, 2013), £20, ISBN 978-0-857-52227-6, available in hardback, audio and (shudder) as an e-book, and probably later in 2014 as a paperback.
Kate has podcasted enthusastically about Terry Pratchett’s novels The Truth and I Shall Wear Midnight on www.reallylikethisbook.com.