Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam is the latest instalment of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. While, like all the Discworld books, it is a self-contained story, I think long-time Discworld fans will get more out of it than newcomers to the series. It builds most on the goblin plot line in Snuff and — as will be obvious from the blurb — the earlier Moist von Lipwig stories, Going Postal and Making Money. None of them are required reading, especially if you're already familiar with Discworld, but I think it would help. Also, this review contains some spoilers of varying degrees for the aforementioned books and minor spoilers for some of the Watch books.
To the consternation of the patrician, Lord Vetinari, a new invention has arrived in Ankh-Morpork - a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all the elements: earth, air, fire and water. This being Ankh-Morpork, it's soon drawing astonished crowds, some of whom caught the zeitgeist early and arrive armed with notepads and very sensible rainwear.

Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work - as master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank his input is, of course, vital... but largely dependent on words, which are fortunately not very heavy and don't always need greasing. However, he does enjoy being alive, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse...

Steam is rising over Discworld, driven by Mister Simnel, the man wi' t'flat cap and sliding rule who has an interesting arrangement with the sine and cosine. Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs and some very angry dwarfs if he's going to stop it all going off the rails...
To me, what the most recent Discworld books have really been about, especially the Moist books, is progress sweeping through Ankh-Morpork. Starting from Going Postal, which was about reviving the postal service, the clacks (semaphore communication) system made a serious appearance and brought fast communication to the Disc. Although the previous Moist books have been ostensibly about Vetinari forcing Moist to reform and run various useful services (post, bank, mint and his wife runs the clacks), Raising Steam has Vetinari throwing Moist in on the ground floor of the budding rail system.

It seems obvious on the surface that the fast progress made in these books is mirroring, to an extent, the rapidity of progress in the real world. I don't know if we'll get it, but the next logical step might be a full-blown industrial revolution with Vetinari steering the ship. Progress, as they say, marches on. The evolution of Ankh-Morpork (and the Disc) is even more obvious if you look at the Watch books alongside the Moist books. The general arc of the Watch books is Vetinari getting Vimes to clean up first himself and then the Watch, turning it into a well-run machine. We see some of the after-effects of Vimes' leadership in Raising Steam when watchmen in faraway places are noted as being trained in Ankh-Morpork. Especially if we look at the past depicted in Night Watch, it is evident that Ankh-Morpork is becoming more modern and safer (for a given definition of "safe"). I hope we do get to see a few more books in this vein. Progress in the Disc is not remotely identical to Roundworld's history, despite various bits in one being analogous to bits in the other. I want to see where Pratchett takes it.

Speaking of comparisons with other Discworld novels, Raising Steam also put me in mind of Moving Pictures. Both are about new technologies being developed — and are about the technology as much as the people — and both are arguably before their times. However, where everything goes horribly wrong in Moving Pictures, it works out well in Raising Steam. I am left wondering whether it was Vetinari's oversight that made the railway a success or whether it was the fact that the railway is built on physics and careful measurements whereas Holy Wood had a much greater reliance on more esoteric elements. (And I feel like a rift in the spacetime continuum was involved, but it's been years since I read it, so I'm not sure.)

Key characters in Raising Steam other than those I've already mentioned are Simnel, the engineer who invented the steam engine train, Harry King and his wife Effie who have been previously featured in their role of running the nightsoil empire (well, mostly Harry has appeared in earlier books), and Of The Twilight The Darkness, a goblin who might have appeared in Snuff but I can't remember. Surprisingly, Drumknott, Vetinari's secretary, played a larger role than he has previously. Also, many old favourites made appearances, especially Vimes, Angua, Detritus and Cheery Littlebottom.

The Low King of the Dwarfs, who we most recently saw in Thud! (I think) is an important minor character as part of the plotline concerning grags fighting against modernity and Ankh-Morporkisation. On the one hand, the grags and their recruits struck me as having strong parallels with religious terrorists, on the other hand, the more interesting dwarf subplot was the continuing discussion of dwarfish gender. For part of the time while I was reading I found myself wishing there was a more in-depth discussion of dwarfish gender, but then I don't think that would have been very Pratchetty. (There was also a period of confusion when, in tiredness, I misread a pronoun and thought someone was gay for a while when they really weren't, but that wasn't the book's fault.)

The dwarfish expression of femininity seems to be (still) mostly confined to chain mail skirts and makeup which I don't really get (since I am female and wear neither skirts nor makeup very often). On the other hand, there was more discussion about why a dwarf's gender is secret until they want to reveal it. While my first thought was that surely genderless dwarfs meant that there was a reasonable amount of equality for them, what I didn't consider until it was pointed out in this book is that by marking all dwarfs as male by default, they were culturally erasing women, not equalising them. It was a case forcing women to pretend not to be, whether they wanted to or not. It's a far cry from Angua introducing Cheery to lipstick and heels and it might not look like feminist progress on the surface, but in this context, turns out it is. Aside from one minor twist which I picked up on before it was revealed (albeit only because I was flicking back through the book in my pronoun confusion), I didn't quite see the nuances of the dwarf-gender discussion coming. It made for a more satisfying ending than I had been expecting on that front.

Obviously, if you are a fan of Pratchett, you should definitely read Raising Steam, especially if you are otherwise up to date. If you haven't read Pratchett before: goodness, why not? But this probably isn't the book to start with. There are a lot of places to start, though, and most of them don't include the very first book. I recommend googling around. The Discworld series has evolved in style since Pratchett started writing it in the 80s (as you'd want to hope it had) so the very early books and the middle period books aren't very similar to the latter period books. A good and particularly standalone example of a latter period book would probably be Monstrous Regiment and a good place to start if you want a lead-in to Raising Steam would be Going Postal.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Doubleday
Series: Discworld, apparently book 40 (It seems like only a couple of years ago book 30 came out, but I'm pretty sure that was when they weren't counting the YA Discworld books as "proper" Discworld books. Progress marches on.)
Format read: Hardcover, oh my!
Source: A RL shop! I think it was a Dymocks.

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