Saturday, August 27, 2016

Full Steam Ahead

I had complex feelings heading into Raising Steam. Excitement, caution, happiness, melancholy. This was one of the last books Terry Pratchett wrote before his passing, and was written while he was deeply suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The fact that he wrote it at all is a small miracle, and the fact that he kept on writing for his fans during his final years is a huge testament to the guy’s big heart. Still, I worried that it wouldn’t be up to “Snuff”, as it were, and would end my relationship with Discworld on a sour note.

Fortunately, it ended up being a great read. I’d probably place it on the top half of my list of Pratchett books. It bears the classic hallmarks of Pratchett: clever dialogue, groan-worthy-yet-enjoyable puns, deep affection for all its characters, and a fundamental, abiding humanism. As with many of Pratchett’s recent books, it has fairly obvious analogues to real-world social issues and struggles, using the medium of comic fantasy to get at some weighty topics.

Best of all, it’s a Moist book, through and through. Most von Lipwig is probably my favorite character in the Discworld universe, which is saying a ton considering that the Discworld universe also contains Sam Vimes. Moist is a fantastic character, unique and very likeable. Raising Steam continues the “industrial revolution” theme that’s been present in several Discworld books but particularly the Moist books, introducing Victorian-era technological innovations into the classical medieval fantasy setting of Ankh-Morpork and seeing how it alters the status quo.


The innovation here is, of course, steam power, specifically the railway. This is probably the most obviously “modern” of all the advances shown thus far. Previous institutions, like the Post Office and the Mint, arrived on Earth more recently than we generally think, but conceivably could have been existed at any time since antiquity. The Clacks is in many ways even more modern, with strong parallels to the Internet, but is also a unique authorial creation and primarily fictional.

Steam power, in contrast, is exactly the same on Discworld as on Earth, and requires a series of innovations: not just the observation that a boiling kettle attempts to lift its lid, but also advanced metallurgy techniques, mathematics, and supply chains. The presence of a railroad links Discworld to Earth more closely than anything else has before.

What’s uniquely endearing about this is that it’s generally presented as a benign link. Modern fantasy exists in the shadows of J. R. R. Tolkien, who infamously disliked factories, machinery, and other hallmarks of his modern world. Previous to Raising Steam, the closest example I can think of depicting the introduction of steam power to a medieval fantasy setting is Saruman in Lord of the Rings. Saruman has “a mind of metal and wheels,” and chops down the forests around Orthanc in order to build and power his machines. This is wholly evil in the context of Lord of the Rings, which is in keeping with Tolkien’s tendency towards nostalgia: a belief that things used to be simpler, better, purer in the past, and that humans tend to muck things up when we innovate.

I adore Tolkien, but I find Pratchett’s alternate perspective really refreshing; it reminds me of Philip Pullman’s philosophy expressed in “His Dark Materials,” albeit in a gentler and less polemic way. Pratchett treats the disruptions of modernity respectfully, and in ways that mirror our own: Vetinari worries about rising unemployment in sectors of traditional conveyance, those who live near proposed lines have concerns about the noise, etc. There’s no discussion of, say, ancient tree spirits rising up to drive the metal blight from their lands.

Pratchett’s take on steam power is ultimately a mature one: it can bring problems, but also brings benefits, and ultimately the advantages outweigh the harms. Swift transport means that fresh fish can be conveyed from seaside Quirm to inland Ankh-Morpork before it spoils. It allows citizens to live in bucolic settings but work in the city. It enables people to quickly reach their destinations in comfort and with fewer bandit attacks. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s just fun: multiple pages are devoted to the childlike joy people experience in the presence of the steam engine, chasing after it along the track or pulling its whistle or dancing on top of the cars.

I saw something at the front of Raising Steam that I haven’t noticed before: a map of the Discworld. I’m not sure if this has been around before and I’ve just missed it or if it was created specifically for this novel, but as I read deeper into the story, I realized that it’s more appropriate now than ever before. In the past, the limitations of medieval transport have meant that most stories - heck, most lives - are lived in relatively small places. People can live entire, fascinating existences without ever leaving Ankh-Morpork. The witches can mostly stay put in their world. If someone goes on a journey, then that journey is the adventure: the terrain is the place where everything happens.

With the advent of steam, though, the world shrinks. Suddenly Quirm is not a mysterious foreign power: it’s practically a suburb to Ankh-Morpork. Sto Lat becomes an extension of the city. Even far Uberwald, once thought of as impossibly distant, is now a feasibly destination. Of course it makes sense to make a map: the world is now full of possibilities, with a multitude of places to choose and travel between. Steam makes the world small, and brings everything within reach.

Pratchett himself is pretty clearly in favor of this change, but it has opponents within the story. The most serious are reactionary dwarves, who fear the advancing modernity of Ankh-Morpork: primarily for the social disruption it causes, but also because they fear being left behind economically as others ride the wave of innovation. It was really interesting to see dwarves cast in this somewhat-villainous light, especially in the wake of my own storyline in “The Caldecott Caper” (for the record, Raising Steam was published first, though obviously I hadn’t read it before now). Pratchett may have had the same thought process and motivations as I had: dwarves aren’t a classically “evil” race like orcs or goblins, so it’s more surprising and thought-provoking for them to play an antagonistic role. They are also believable as reactionaries, since dwarves are vaguely portrayed as traditionalists in many fantasy settings - often just for flavor, so it’s interesting to dig a bit deeper (heh) and unpack those tendencies. (Of course, Pratchett also avoids overgeneralizing: he makes clear that the hostile wing of dwarves is relatively small, and provides multiple personal examples of “good dwarves” who aid the heroes and oppose their counterparts.)

The “bad dwarves” are often referred to as “grags”, and I actually needed to look up that word to remember what it meant - I think that Pratchett might have previously introduced the grags in Thud!, which is one of my favorite Discworld books but which I haven’t read in a long time. The grags are roughly analogous to the priest caste in dwarven society. They keep traditions, remember the histories, instruct younger dwarves, and generally serve as the link to the past.

Modern Discworld books frequently tie in to the real world, and I think there’s a pretty explicit connection between the grags and radical Islam. These include madraas-style education, indoctrination of an impressionable and disadvantaged youth against the threat of a liberal and modern foe, rhetoric of just war united with cowardly acts of terrorism, and so on. It was a bit disconcerting to read about “terrorist attacks” within Discworld, but that’s what Pratchett is concerned about, and he faces it head-on.

To be honest, the grags lacked the subtlety that I’ve come to appreciate from Pratchett villains. He’s usually good at making you feel sympathy for the antagonists, but here the grags are mostly faceless, interchangeable, and wholly irredeemable. There is a distinction he draws between the leaders, who seem wholly evil, and those who actually carry out their will, who come across as lesser victims. Again, I think that this just matches Pratchett’s own beliefs, and if he doesn’t want to mount a spirited defense of religious terrorism, well, he doesn’t need to.

This quasi-religious element was an interesting addition to the Discworld canon, and cast the existing dynamics of Ankh-Morpork in an even more interesting light. Ankh-Morpork has, of course, always been a stand-in for London: both the city itself, and as a representative of British society; in Raising Steam, it can more broadly be read as the entire modern Western world. Ankh-Morpork isn’t static, and over the course of dozens of novels, we’ve seen it evolve from a simplistic autocratic fiefdom into a complex, diverse, generally multicultural and integrated society. It’s still technically a dictatorship, but Vetinari has always known that the city runs best when it doesn’t feel his heavy hand.

Anyways, what really struck me in this read was how many of those modern civic virtues (tolerance, diversity, creativity) were explicitly linked to greed. Goblins are welcomed members of society: not necessarily because people suddenly grew bigger hearts and saw the personhood in them, but because goblins tend to be hard workers and resourceful and are valued employees of the Clacks system. Over time, this brings them into contact with more humans, who gradually become familiar with these erstwhile monsters and come to like them. Likewise, Ankh-Morpork used to fight wars against its neighbors; in more recent times, though, it has discovered that trade is far more profitable, and so it now generally promotes peace: not because the city is intellectually devoted to pacifism, but because its primary virtue is making more money.

The greed of Ankh-Morpork has been a running joke ever since the earliest Discworld books; we admire and laugh at the boundless optimism and tenacity of characters like CMOT Dibbler, who will do anything to make a buck. By the time of Raising Steam, it seems like greed is the defining characteristic that elevates Ankh-Morpork and has done the most to improve life within it. It’s… kind of weird, to be honest. I feel like the one thing that unites both left and right in our world is a shared vocal disdain for the primacy of free-market capitalism: it’s amoral, or even immoral, ignores the value of individuals, and really has no values or goals except for promoting itself.

I don’t think Pratchett would disagree with any of that, and yet… while entrepreneurship doesn’t explicitly contain any humanist values, he portrays it as creating a space in which humanism can flourish. It’s a shared neutral value, but the fact that it IS shared allows it to unite diverse groups. Traditional Troll teachings tell us that dwarves are ruthless and evil and must be stopped. Traditional Dwarf teachings tell us that trolls are stupid and evil and must be stopped. If both of those teachings are abandoned in favor of the belief that making money is good, and a Dwarf and a Troll are both useful customers and suppliers… well, is that really so bad?

It’s one of the few defenses I’ve ever read in fiction of our dominant form of Western free-market trade obsession, and showing it as essential for, rather than in opposition to, our supposed values of peace and diversity. I thought that was interesting!


The overall themes of Raising Steam were great, and the writing was strong throughout, but the overall plot structure felt a tad weak. The good guys kept on winning, endlessly. Nearly every threat that arose was squashed within a page or two of its introduction; in the few cases where real damage was done to the course of steam, Moist was able to very quickly overcome it, avenging the victims and turning the setback into a fresh advantage.

This deprived the story of tension, but also helped make it a pleasant read, which I was very much in the mood for. Part of it may have to do with Moist’s character: one of his defining characteristics is how sharp and quick on his feet he is, so he isn’t the sort of person who will sit around and agonize about the problem he’s facing: he’ll be struck with inspiration, or just open his mouth and start talking, and quickly get things back on track.

The ultimate climax comes in the form of a long overland train ride from Quirm through Ankh-Morpork and on to the dwarf caverns in Uberwald, with the crews desperately attempting to finish the line even after the engine has departed. This attempts to tie together the railway construction primary plot and the dwarf insurrection side plot, with limited success. The weaknesses of the dwarf characters become pretty obvious here: apart from two sleeper agents who somehow got on board this heavily planned trip, we mostly see endless waves of anonymous and disposable grags who mount a series of increasingly audacious but completely ineffectual assaults on the magnificent Iron Girder.

There is an interesting plot twist late in the game, where it’s revealed that Rhyss Rhysson, the King of the Dwarves, is actually a Queen. This touches on some of my interests, particularly the gender portrayals of traditional Tolkienesque dwarves; while doing “research” for Caldecott I was reminded of Dis, the only named female dwarf in Tolkien’s legendarium, and was delighted to discover a trove of amazing fan art  about that character. As we are told in Lord of the Rings, dwarf woman are visually almost indistinguishable from dwarf men; this idea has some really interesting implications in how individuals relate to the world in different settings.

This isn’t exactly new ground, of course - Cheery Littlebottom paved the way long ago in the Watch. Still, in light of the modern conversation around transgender issues and people coming out for their gender expression, the scenes in Raising Steam struck me as more resonant: I remember Cheery’s revelation as being primarily comic, and a little sweet; here, it’s more deeply satisfying and significant, both for Rhyss personally and dwarf culture as a whole. I was also reminded of Monstrous Regiment, which increasingly seems ahead of its time: Pratchett has been playing around with gender and promoting the values of expression and autonomy for a long time now, and it feels like society is catching up to where he was long ago.

Finally, as a random note: Death is back! He doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but it was kind of nice to see him again after he was missing in action for Snuff. It's sad, but also encouraging, to realize that Pratchett has had such a warm attitude towards Death throughout his career, and makes me think that he was ready to move on to whatever comes next.


It's a little sad to have more or less finished the Discworld books (excepting only the YA entries) and know that there will not be any more. I really like how he's wrapped them up, though, and the legacy he left behind was incredible. I believe that Pratchett will be remembered as the Jonathan Swift of our era, and his novels place him on the right side of history in their satirical-but-heartfelt examinations of contemporary social questions. They've always been entertaining fantasy romps, but for most of his career they've been much more than that, and it's great to see that he managed to go out on such a high note. Toot, toot!

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