Title: Raising Steam – A Discworld Novel
Author: Sir Terry Pratchett
Year of publication: 2013
Raising Steam marks the 3rd appearance of Moist won Lupwig, the 40th Discworld novel & the 30th anniversary of the launch of the monumental satirical fantasy series. &, it must unfortunately be said, possibly the final appearance of the spacefaring tutle Great A’Tuin & all who dwell upon it (the turtle’s sex still yet undermined by those foolish enough to attempt to study it) due to Sir Terry Pratchett’s well documented failing health.
So, is Raising Steam a fitting conclusion of an always wonderful series or does it leave you wanting -nay hoping- for yet another final hurrah?
Well, yes & yes really.
As a contained story within a 30 year legacy, it satisfies that things can end most happy but it still leaves chances for progress -either by Sir Terry or by (Om & other gods forbid!) another suitable author (though Sir Terry himself said that will most likely be his own daughter Rhianna, who is a writer in her own right). Whilst the novel certainly ends, leaving the plot nicely bundled, the narrative world, much like the Great A’Tuin itself, can continue ever onward. Either on page or in our own unfettered imaginations.
Yet, what of the story itself?
I have to say, as a long term reader, it is an interesting beast to say the least:
The steam engine & all the power & possibility that comes with it, has arrived upon the Disc, courtesy of young Dick Simnel (son of Ned Simnel who first appeared in 1991’s Reaper Man) & he has seen fit to build proper trains. Seeking financing from Sir Harry King (who first appeared in 2000’s The Truth), the Patrician soon involves the slippery hands of Moist von Lupwig, who has grown bored with running the Post Office, Mint & Bank, into directing the new enterprise into being beneficial to the city of Ankh-Morpork. Parallel to this new Disc changing venture, there is trouble with the dwarves. Grag (see Thud!) fundamentalist, are stirring young naive young dwarves into destroying the Clack Towers & attacking anything that they consider “undwarvish”. Setting them for a direct collision with the rapidly modernising world & Dick Simnel’s prize Iron Girder locomotive.
I’ve been reading the Discworld series since about 1993, when I first got my hands on Small Gods, & I’ve been an avid fan ever since. So, for me, this was one of the most difficult books of the series that I’ve read. No, it wasn’t difficult or badly written in any way, but its contents are dense, whilst still being a ‘light’ book & is structured unlike any previous Discworld title. The story is present more as a selection of vignettes, often showing characters of little or no relation to main plot but are there to show the changing nature of the Disc as well as the conflicts caused by the dwarf grags.
As a whole, Raising Steam deals with some very heavy issues concern views of modern fundamentalism -especially in light of such events of the British soldier- but it casts all such extremists, no matter what they are extreme about, as being forces that should be removed from society but also understood so such acts never happen again. Ideas of how such people can strives & recruit others to their causes underlie all the dwarf vignettes but the book also shows the positives of people of all racists, former enemies & untrusted minorities, can work together once you get passed ingrained prejudices.
Raising Steam is carrying on many themes & plots points that were started in the previous Discworld novel Snuff, with the goblins now coming into society & showing people their true value. This theme does overshadow many of the other plot points but its still handled deftly. In the hands of a much lesser author than Sir Terry, you’d be constantly batter over the head with them but he weaves them into character’s perspectives, allowing the reader to see how people can transform within the minds of the character whom you are reading upon the page.
The other thing which makes the novel a tad more difficult to read is the language. That is: the language used by the characters themselves. Raising Steam is far more accent heavy than previous works, with Dick Simnel speaking in a proper Lancastrian/Yorkshire tone with clipped words & missing H’s. Other minor characters present different regional accents from across the real U.K. which can prove troublesome for those who are unfamiliar with them (not so much to an old accent impressionist such as myself). This stylised use of dialogue couples with the heavy themes & the shorter, less action driven segments does make reading a bit slower but in no way detracts from the story.
As always with the Discworld novels, the characters are the true centre of the story. And so many previous characters get their chance upon the stage, even if but a brief mention. The Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully & all the Unseen University staff (including Rincewind but strangely & sadly no Librarian), Lu Tze (Small Gods & The Thief of Time), Commander Vimes & the City Watch (minus Captain Carrot) but unfortunately only a mention of the Lancre Witches -most likely being Nanny Ogg & her like for teasing young men. There are many known characters in play but they are all in orbit to the bright star that is Moist von Lupwig.
Whilst not as bombastic as his previous appearances in Going Postal & Making Money, he still proves to be the Scoundrel’s Scoundrel. Clever, adept & able to see opportunities where others may not. He, as a character, also allows for other characters to show through, such as the developments of the self made man Sir Harry King & the new character of Dick Simnel, as well as his relationships with existing characters like Vimes & the Patrician.
Moist could just be another flawless, loveable rogue but Sir Terry allows for him to grow, so depth & compassion through his interactions with the goblins -mainly his ugly little doppelganger Of the Twilight the Darkness- & everyone whose lives the railway touches. He has insight & genuine compassion beyond making a quick buck or being the centre of attention but everything he does is rooted in his need for excitement, to live life at the edge & risk everything for an even greater reward. Again: in the hands of a lesser author these would all be annoying traits yet Sir Terry manages to make Moist sympathetic & relatable after a fashion, because who doesn’t know someone like that?
Yet, with such well used characters & scenarios, it all seems both to much & lacking in parts. Too many characters are entered & then quickly brushed aside, mainly as references to other figures in life & literature. Many as little Easter Eggs, fun to spot & hunt, but still feels empty & strange.
Perhaps the strangeness comes from the change in formula for the book. The aforementioned vignettes but also a lack of clear adversary like so many of the other books have. With so many other Discworld novels we are given a antagonist to boo & jeer, where as in Raising Steam, while we have the dwarf Ardent, but the main adversary seems to be novel seems to be Fear & Ignorance. Things that cannot be so easily combatted or even readily recognised.
Also, unlike other Discworld novels, the steam engines & Iron Girder herself aren’t seen as forces of menace that need to stopped like the Moving Pictures (Moving Pictures), The Maul (Reaper Man) or Music With Rocks In It (Soul Music) lest they destroy the Disc.
This actually makes for a very pleasant change & gives a positivist’s edge to the forces of modernity. Whilst not needing to be feed as fiercely as The Press (The Truth) or as complex as Hex, Iron Girder still sits as a near mystical technology & focus of worship that changes the lives of all who encounter her, even with the negatives that come from steam power. It’s all about connection, as with the Clacks, & people being able to go beyond their comfort zones to explore new places & possibilities.
That seems to be the heart of the novel: being able to reach out to people & form an understanding or accord with them. That the world gets smaller but if we keep packing ourselves into tinier & tinier spaces, whether they be physical or merely of the mind, the people we harm most are ourselves before out ignorance causes us to lash out at others for having the affront to show us what is different.
While not my favourite of this long running series, Raising Steam still has some laugh out loud moments (scaring both my cat & my housemates) & clever little jokes to keep you entertain whilst you dwell on the deeper issues within. It is a thematically ponderous tome, as are all the recent additions to the series, but that does not in anyway detract from its majesty. It’s truly worthy of the Discworld title & a fitting possible end to Sir Terry’s illustrious 30 year run. Yet, we all pray to Blind Io that shall never be the case.