While we’ve got used to the Discworld statistics stacking up over the years, the arrival of the fortieth novel in the sequence still seems like an appropriate moment to pause to take (rolling) stock. Especially as it’s also 30 years since the inept wizard Rincewind first fled screaming from danger in The Colour Of Magic.
Throughout, the quality of the novels has never wavered. Plenty else has, though. Whereas the first few books were essentially powered by the lampooning of fantasy tropes, which produced a new kind of magic unique to Pratchett’s work, the Discworld has changed. A medieval world has morphed into what’s essentially a 19th century society, albeit one where humans co-exist with such people – and they’re presented as fully rounded people, it’s important to note – as trolls, dwarves, golems and now even geeky goblins.
Raising Steam marks a completion, of sorts, of this process, because such a world can’t rely on the magic of the Middle Ages for its forward momentum. No, it needs a new power source: coal-fired steam. Step forward Dick Simnel. It would be easy to mistake Simnel for a straightforward, even simple lad, but that’s to overlook the fact that he’s an engineer. And not just a glorified blacksmith, but someone who’s learnt the mysteries of the sliding rule, an innovator, a lad with a shed who knows how to use it.
Through careful experimentation and occasionally blowing stuff up on a more-or-less controlled basis, Simnel has tamed the steam. Having done so, he’s made his way to Ankh-Morpork, and meetings with Harry King, Piss Harry (a man who accumulated his fortune dealing with the city’s waste products) and Moist von Lipwig, con artist turned senior city servant at the bank and post office, and just the man to sell a new idea to the masses. When the duo see Simnel’s locomotive, Iron Girder, they also see the future. What follows is Pratchett’s take on the railway fever that gripped Victorian Britain at the excitable zenith of industrialisation. Despite the misgivings of the city’s tyrant, Vetinari, tracks will be laid.
Which isn’t to say that’s wholly what the book is about at its core. Sure, Pratchett has plenty of fun with vignettes drawing on railway history – Moist’s encounter with nascent travel writer Georgina Bradshaw, for example – but this can also be read as a novel about what progress, for want of a better word, should mean for the wider population.
To unpack that idea a little, a recurring theme in Pratchett’s work is that he’s all for live-and-let-live freedom. But how do you practically go about ensuring people have the opportunity (Pratchett is an old-fashioned moralist in that he likes his characters to earn whatever rewards they get) for such freedom? The railway, which brings people together, opens up possibilities and certainly helps, but it’s also a potent symbol of change for those who don’t want change thank you very much. And at the extreme end of those who don’t want change lie the fundamentalists, the violent naysayers, the people who prefer to blow stuff up on a more-or-less uncontrolled basis.
How to counter such a mindset is the overarching preoccupation of the second half of the novel, as Vetinari orders that Moist, Harry and Simnel build a railway all the way to Uberworld. Why? Without giving too much away, it’s because certain dwarves can’t accept being at peace with traditional enemies. (Note to fans: Koom Valley, Vimes the Blackboard Monitor and all that are revisited.)
If that makes Raising Steam sound rather worthy, relax, it’s laugh-out-loud funny too. Who else but Pratchett, for instance, would dare to offer us a Frenchified noble called the Marquis des Aix en Pains? Or bury a sly Thomas the Tank Engine gag in a footnote? A chuffing wonderful book. Jonathan Wright twitter.com/Jonathanw101 in SFX
This is Terry Pratchett’s 40th foray into Discworld and, despite that productivity and the author’s widely-publicised diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, his creation hasn’t run out of steam. Indeed, 30 years and around 75 million copies in, Sir Terry appears to be expanding his scope.
In this latest novel, Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s principal city, continues its evolution from quasi-medieval settlement to bustling industrial metropolis, and over a wider canvas, and longer time-frame than previous books.
Dick Simnel, undaunted by the fact that his blacksmith father vanished “in a hot pink cloud”, completes his plans to harness steam and construct a locomotive, the Iron Girder. Moist von Lipwig and Harry King, the night-soil magnate, take charge of the numerous business opportunities the new technology offers. There are sly nods to the history of railways and a cheeky reference to The Railway Children. Most aficionados, however, will be on the look-out for in-jokes and references from previous novels — of which there is no shortage. There are supporting roles for Sam Vimes and other members of the Watch, and some surprising developments amongst the dwarfs, who initially have a Luddite objection.
Raising Steam is certainly less pacy than the earliest books, and its diversions on social history, the threat of new technology to traditional industries, and even terrorism and sabotage, can be fairly dark. But Discworld’s success, like that of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, has never been driven by the plots, no matter how laboriously worked out. It is at the level of the sentence that Pratchett wins his fans.
There are fewer truly tremendous verbal pyrotechnics in Raising Steam than in others in the series. Some of the humour is rather laboured but Pratchett fans will find plenty to like as well. And the closing words of the book suggest more to come. Andrew McKie, in The Times
The advent of the steam train keeps Discworld nicely on track
I like my fantasy novels to have maps; I’m old-fashioned that way. Not coming up with one indicates a certain lack of commitment by the author to what JRR Tolkien called “the act of secondary creation”. A good map of a fantasy world – like its real-world counterpart – tantalises us with the possibilities. What we might see, where we might go.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have never included maps. Maps exist – you can buy poster-sized versions to hang on your wall or get them as an app for your iPad (I’ve done both) – but they’ve merely been an afterthought. Pratchett has always been adamant that the Discworld was “a place where stories happen”, and that drawing a map would be too constraining. So I was a bit surprised when I opened my copy of Raising Steam, the 40th book in the series, and found a beautiful map spread across pages eight and nine.
But the inclusion of a map doesn’t mean that the Discworld has finally succumbed to the iron conventions of the traditional fantasy novel. Because this is a railway map, and it marks the world’s triumphant arrival into the modern era.
The series started as a satirical journey through the conventions of the fantasy genre. It painted its world in broad outline and great splashes of colour, although, from the first, the novels demonstrated Pratchett’s eye for telling detail and the absurdities of the human condition. As the series progressed, a strange thing occurred – the Discworld, created as a setting for humorous stories, began to take on a certain solidity, as if it were striving to become a real place. It’s a conceit that would have pleased Borges.
This process was taking place not through the deployment of the traditional fantasy map but through the replacement of archetypes with solid three-dimensional characters.This started, surprisingly, with the character of DEATH, but he was soon followed by the Witches, Lord Vetinari, Captain Vimes and the Archchancellor of the Unseen University, Mustrum Ridcully. These personalities got their feet under the table, as it were, to the point where their fictional demise would prompt national mourning and, possibly, death threats to the publisher.
Thirty years on, the Discworld has grown so solid and so weighty that any new novel has to exert a great deal of narrative power just to get that world moving at a decent pace. So it’s just as well that the latest book concerns the arrival of the Discworld’s very own steam locomotive.
Raising Steam tells the story of what happens when steam power is added to Ankh-Morpork’s already febrile industrial revolution, with predictable results – screams, explosions and people running into the night. In response the city’s ruler, the Patrician, pitches former conman Moist von Lipwig, his number one troubleshooter, into the confusion to bring, if not order, then at least some level of control. Meanwhile, conservative factions among the dwarves, fearing that this brave new world might destroy thousands of years of tradition, take violent action against the accoutrements of modernity.
The genius of Pratchett is that he never goes for the straight allegory. Yes, the arrival of steam travel parallels the development of the railways in Britain, not least in the sudden elevation of Swine Town (Swindon) into a major industrial centre, and the fact that its pioneers are a mixture of self-made entrepreneurs, northern engineers and fast-talking conmen. But it is also heavily influenced by the unique “reality” of the Discworld, including trolls, goblins and, of course, magic. Likewise, if you squint a little, the extremist factions of the dwarves could be seen as an allegory for militant Islam – but only if you ignore how they resemble evangelical Christians, or luddites, or just people who are afraid of the pace of change in the modern world. Pratchett’s themes are the big ones: the threat and promise of change, the individual’s search for meaning within their own society, and the fine moral judgments that have to be made between competing rights and freedoms.
If sometimes the mighty engine of Pratchett’s prose skids a bit on the upslope – a tad didactic here, a little heavy-handed in its moralising there – we can forgive him. Not least because he remains one of the most consistently funny writers around; a master of the stealth simile, the time-delay pun and the deflationary three-part list (1). On the morning of its release, I could tell which of my fellow tube passengers had downloaded it to their e-readers by the bouts of spontaneous laughter. Not something you see very often during rush hour.
(1) Not to mention the strategic deployment of a well-placed footnote.
“A tree can not find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time.”
So wrote Charles Fort in Lo!, coining a phrase that historians and SF&F writers love. Well, steam-engine time has come for the Discworld, whether the History Monks like it or not. In Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett takes his turtle-borne world full tilt into its own industrial revolution.
The key moment comes when an astute young man named Dick Simnel manages at last to harness the power of steam, thanks to mental precision and attention to detail that his father before him lacked, leading to his father’s disappearance in “a cloud of furnace parts and flying metal, all enveloped in a pink steam”. He bottles this power into an engine on wheels that he dubs Iron Girder, which he brings to Ankh-Morpork—“the place where things ’appen”. It doesn’t take long for the mercantile minds of the city to see the potential in this invention, and it soon falls to Moist von Lipwig, postmaster, banker, and barely-reformed scoundrel, to expedite the laying of steel tracks of the Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygienic Railway.
Progress is never easy, however, and the most determined opposition comes in the form of the grags, fundamentalist dwarves who don’t hold with the modern business of machinery or the clacks (the Discworld version of the telegraph), and who rail against young dwarves going to live in the city, where they might actually befriend trolls. The internecine conflicts amongst the dwarves soon spill out beyond their mines, and eventually draws Moist and the railway right into the middle of an attempted coup d’état.
There is, in fact, quite a lot going on here, and lot of people involved as well. Just about everyone who’s anyone in Ankh-Morpork shows up in Raising Steam: the Patrician, of course, and his clerk Drumknott (who finds an unexpected passion in the new railway); Watch stalwarts Nobby Nobbs, Fred Colon, and Commander Sam Vimes; and correspondents from the Ankh-Morpork Times. Lu-Tze of the History Monks, Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully, and even Death get cameos. And there are payoffs for a number of setups in previous Discworld novels: the dwarven conflicts are a direct consequence of the dwarf-troll treaty that ended Thud!, and the goblins introduced in Snuff have made themselves thoroughly at home in the Ankh-Morpork economy. An easy jumping-on point for the new Discworld reader this is emphatically not.
Indeed, there’s a sense of the Discworld having reached a tipping point. What began with a farcical satire of pseudomedieval fantasy has become a Dickensian mirror of contemporary western society, such that at times it barely even feels fantastical anymore. The grags have their own obvious parallels in nearly any fundamentalist movement going today (some readers are inevitably going to interpret them as Islamic, but conservatism and fear of change ultimately knows no religion or nationality). There are acts of terrorism, political gamesmanship, and capitalism in full flower.
Not that the magic has gone out of the place entirely, though—this being the Disc, Dick Simnel’s care and the admiration of the populace invests Iron Girder with a kind of divinity, even consciousness, which perhaps speaks to our own relationship to technology. “I am no longer just an artefact put together by clever engineers,” Moist is informed by a rather spooky voice near the end of the novel. “I am an idea, a something made of nothing, whose time has come to be. Some might even call me ’goddess’.”
Tonally, Raising Steel [sic] continues in the darker vein of the likes of Snuff, which may not be to the taste of all Pratchett fans. The humor is drier, and a lot of minor or unnamed characters end up dead or pretty badly injured. Pratchett takes his time in getting to the collision between the railway and the crisis amongst the dwarves, and as the railway rambles its way across the Sto Plains and the tension rises in Uberwald, for a good long while it’s hard to see exactly how they’re going to come together. Disparate as the two plot threads are, it should be noted that both are emphatically concerned with the forward momentum of history and society, and the ways in which those who refuse to move with the times will get quite thoroughly left behind. Ankh-Morpork and its people—human, dwarf, troll, goblin, werewolf, or other—are the scions of liberal progress and tolerance, and it’s pretty clear where Pratchett’s chiefest sympathies lie.
Raising Steam leaves the Disc thoroughly transformed, with more changes plainly on the horizon as a goblin introduces Vetinari to a contraption consisting of “two wheels held together by not very much”. Knowing what one does about Pratchett’s “embuggerance,” one might feel a twinge of dread that this novel could be a swan song to the Disc. It’s probably better not to speculate along those lines, though. More importantly, Raising Steam is the latest transformation of a remarkable fictional world that has evolved and grown with its creator—and it shows how, in the way of many things invested with devotion on the Disc itself, the Discworld has taken on a life of its own. Karin L. Kross, in Tor.com
Are you okay with puns? You’d better be okay with puns. Also: silly names and stinky smells, vermin and venality. And jokes about the French.
Welcome to Discworld, a flat disc populated by humans (and also dwarfs, goblins, vampires, nymphs and golems) that sits on the backs of four large elephants standing on the shell of an enormous turtle. “Raising Steam” is Terry Pratchett’s 40th — yes, 40th — Discworld novel, and it won’t disappoint fans of the earlier 39.
Those who haven’t read a few — or a few dozen — Pratchetts need only check out the map at the start of this new book for a hint of what’s in store: places with names like “Bad Schüschein” and “Aix en Pains.”
For those who have visited before, what’s new? Steam power has arrived in Discworld, thanks to a young man named Dick Simnel. He may seem like a simple country boy, but he’s a master of the slide rule and the creator of Iron Girder, a steam engine whose abilities seem to transcend the mechanical. Simnel brings his invention to the big city, Ankh-Morpork, whose denizens flock to see the newfangled contraption. Also interested are those who stand to make piles of money from it: the waste management magnate Sir Harry King, the scheming functionary Moist von Lipwig and the great and terrible Lord Vetinari. That is, if a burgeoning fundamentalist dwarf movement doesn’t send the whole enterprise crashing round the bend.
Salted among all the treacle miners and nascent trainspotters are some serious ideas about technology and the irrevocable changes it brings. Pratchett’s noir police commander, Sam Vimes, muses on what Discworld’s version of the telegraph has meant to society: “Here is the new thing and here it is. And yesterday you never thought about it and after today you don’t know what you would do without it. That was what the technology was doing. It was your slave but, in a sense, it might be the other way around.” As on our spherical world, some folks embrace the change, while others are deeply suspicious.
And perhaps they should be. Why is it Dick Simnel who figures out how to harness steam power, and why now? “It was as if there had been a space waiting to be filled,” Pratchett writes. “It was steam-engine time, and the steam engine had arrived, like a raindrop, dripping precisely into its puddle.” He’s alluding to that remarkable phenomenon on our own planet when certain technologies spring up simultaneously at a particular historical moment — often in more than one place. Is Simnel a genius or an idiot savant? Or is someone (other than the author) manipulating these trains behind the scenes? Perhaps book No. 41 will tell us.
While exploring questions about the unintended consequences of technology, Pratchett also blasts fundamentalists who resist all progress. But mostly he seems to be having fun with words in the very British strain of absurdist humor that he has made his own. And 40 books in, why not? Sara Sklaroff, Published: April 15E-mail the writer, Washington Post
Background illustration © and by courtesy of Paul Kidby