Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #88: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Reviewing late books in a long-running, popular series is a mug's game -- what can you say about book #40 that will change the minds of those who haven't read it before, or make the fans think any differently? But, since readers and publishers both demand the same thing over and over again, there are Book Forties out there, and they need to be faced.

Raising Steam is the fortieth novel in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, though there's an immediate asterisk there: that total includes two shorter, heavily-illustrated books (Eric and The Last Hero) which haven't always consistently been included in the "main" series listings, and also includes five books published as Young Adult novels (The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the Tiffany Aching books), which have chapters and also sometimes aren't included in the main sequence by particularly nitpicky Discworld fans. Outside of that list, there are also around two dozen "non-fictional" books about Discworld written or co-written by Pratchett, from a series of yearly desk diaries to three editions of an encyclopedic guide to Discworld to four books mixing real-world science with a Discworld story to Nanny Ogg's Cookbook to a series of books of maps of its regions. So, depending on how you want to argue, you could call Raising Steam pretty much anything from the thirty-third to the sixty-fifth Discworld book, and have at least some justification for doing so.

That's a lot of words and a lot of story and a lot of world-building that comes before the first page of this novel; a lot of expectations and characters and situations and long-running jokes that most of the readership for Raising Steam starts out having at the front of their minds. Even if Pratchett wanted to do something radically different, would even he be able to steer the colossal Discworld vessel more than a few points either way? (In my metaphor, it's a uniquely large post-Panamax container ship; just go with it.) In any case, he evidently didn't: Raising Steam runs cleanly along the rails laid down in the last dozen or so books of the series, in characters, plots, and themes.

The recent Discworld books have mostly run to a type: a New Thing comes to Discworld, and It Is Disruptive, and Bad People Are Against It, but it Increases Diversity and Opportunity, and so It Is Good and It Wins In The End. Sometimes the New Thing is a race of previously-overlooked sapient beings -- zombies, vampires, Nac Mac Feegle, goblins, trolls, golems -- and sometimes it's a piece of our own modern society, like a central bank, telegraph, or postal service. But it always makes society better, both by increasing economic activity and by giving new jobs to people who are -- in that way only fantasy novels can quite achieve -- absolutely perfectly suited for that job.

(New Things used to have a more mixed reception in Discworld; remember Moving Pictures? But these days, the march of Progress is both unstoppable and, by authorial fiat, entirely Good.)

So Pratchett's Discworld has been going through a pseudo-Victorian phase, though one seen entirely through the rosiest of colored spectacles: no farms are being mechanized, no agricultural workers thrown off their land, no children made to work in dark satanic mills until their fingers are maimed, no misery or loss or destruction. The New Things in Discworld are all entirely additive: they never replace anything that already exists, but only add new possibilities and jobs and opportunities, as far as Pratchett ever mentions. Capitalists are entirely upright, honest citizens who are happy to pay their employees fair wages, and government is incorruptible, with a hand precisely as light as necessary in all things. Pratchett is positively Panglossian in his optimism and positive thinking.

In Raising Steam, that new thing is the railroad. Presumably, the almost-immediate spread of the Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygenic Railway must be throwing dozens of coachmen out of work, sending possibly hundreds of horses to the knacker's yard, and destroying the livelihood of a thousand small coach-houses and inns now left on disused roads. But Pratchett only cares about Progress and Opportunity, so you won't even think about any of them until the novel is over. (And probably not then, if I know how most of you think.)

Raising Steam is a novel of episodes, since even at Pratchett speed, it takes months for the railroad to be created, rails to be built, and the world to be won. We don't know how much time, since he never dates anything more specifically than centuries, but this novel may take place over a year or longer. In that time, the brilliant but unworldly inventor Dick Simnel brings his amazing prototype Iron Girder to Ankh-Morpork from his workshop in the bucolic town of Sheepridge; he is bankrolled by the nicest capitalist in the world, Sir Harry King, who made his first fortune in waste management; he wins the approval of the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, because "it is steam-engine time;" he has the remarkably bland Moist von Lipwig, Discworld's man without qualities, added to his organization to fix all problems and overcome all obstacles; and he builds railways first to the not-France city of Quirm and then along the vastly longer and more dangerous stretch to Uberwald's twinned capitals, Bonk and Schmalzberg. For most of that stretch, Pratchett just has episodes for us -- Dick tinkering, Vetinari plotting, Moist negotiating at high speed, and occasionally someone else doing something else, for local color.

The core plot, such as it is, concerns another group of reactionaries -- they fill the role of necessary villain in late Discworld as the vague supernatural force of destruction did in middle Discworld and the now-forgotten creatures of the Dungeon Dimensions did back in the early days. These particularly reactionaries are dwarfs -- the grags of the deepest caverns, who think pretty much everything newer than two centuries ago is evil and are willing to murder and destroy and overthrow their Low King to combat that evil. For most of the novel, they're a background annoyance, showing up only in the scenes that don't have any of the main characters in them. But, eventually, they gather up their forces and make their big move, one which can only be countered by the awesome power of the railroad.

Pratchett clearly loves trains, and loves Progress, and has a lovely vision of tolerance and peace and justice and prosperity for all. And he's always been a wonderfully entertaining writer and storyteller, crafting lovely scenes and amusing character interactions for more than three decades. So Raising Steam is pleasant and enjoyable on every single page, and only a very rare reader would actually argue with any of Pratchett's theses. But, nevertheless, Raising Steam is a thin book for all its length: it's central characters, particularly Moist and Dick, are dull and have no real internal life, the plot is standard and predictable where it even rises to visibility, and it spends all of its energy propping up platitudes and knocking down straw men.

If you want a novel that's smart about trains and labor and complication and real moral choices, the book you want is China Mieville's Iron Council. Raising Steam is, by comparison to that and to a thousand other books (a number of them by Pratchett) lightweight and undemanding. But there's nothing wrong with undemanding in its place, and Raising Steam is a well-crafted entertainment engine, and I expect every one of its readers will be very happy to turn every single page. I certainly was.

(I've wrestled with Discworld and Pratchett a few times before here: in reverse chronological order,  the non-Discworld Dodger, Snuff, I Shall Wear Midnight, Unseen Academicals, the non-Discworld Nation, and Making Money. Before that, I read and acquired his books for many years for the Science Fiction Book Club.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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