Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett
Along with the death of Iain Banks, the Alzheimer’s of Sir Terry Pratchett is one of the biggest recent tragedies in the world of genre fiction. Happily, fans who were concerned that Pratchett’s horrible illness would heavily impact the quality of work have been proven wrong in Raising Steam, the 40th Discworld book and the 3rd in the Moist Von Lipwip subseries. It’s a flawed piece of work, but one which shows that Pratchett is still capable of delivering some of the smartest, funniest and most relevant fantasy around.
Raising Steam, although following the enterprising former conman Moist von Lipwip from Going Postal and Making Money, it is in many ways a sequel to the Commander Vimes starring Thud!, dealing as it does with the fallout of the Koom Valley Peace Accord between the Trolls and the Dwarves. It also has a strong link to the most recent Discworld book, Snuff, which saw equal rights given to goblins, who play an important, funny and oddly moving role in this book. Mr. Simnel, an amusing Yorkshire parody engineering genius, has created the Disc’s first locomotive, and Lord Vetinari recruits Moist von Lipwig to run the business for the benefit of Ankh-Morpork, with funding from the ‘King of Shit’ Harry King. This is a time of huge change for the Disc, but not all are celebrating this brave new world. The grags, conservative dwarves who oppose integration with humans and trolls, have been launching terrorist attacks on the Clack Towers, and the new trains make an attractive new target.
Although the central narrative about the creation of the train is funny, it was the Dwarven element of the narrative which I enjoyed most. The parallels between the grags and Islamic fundamentalists are too obvious to ignore. Pratchett has never shrunk away from dealing with heavy subjects, in fact the theme of multiculturalism and the fight against bigotry has become the prevailing theme of the series. In Raising Steam, Pratchett makes one of his boldest and most dangerous parallels, but he pulls it off brilliantly and with sensitivity and respect. The reaction of the Dwarven King to the terrorist actions of his subjects is actually really powerful and moving. Of course, it wouldn’t be Terry Pratchett if alongside all this insightful social commentary was also a really funny story about trains! The train narrative is a bit weaker, but once it fuses with the Dwarven narrative the whole thing improves significantly.
There are some problems; Raising Steam feels slightly sloppier than his other books, and is edited in a really strange, jarring way. It’s not necessarily that any of the writing is bad, it just sometimes feels like paragraphs are placed in seemingly random order, and it takes a while for the plot to gel together into something coherent. The second half is significantly better than the first.
In some ways, Moist feels like a guest star in his own book during Raising Steam, but he still stands as one of Pratchett’s best Discworld protagonists. Raising Steam contains plenty of cameos from figures that we’ve come to expect in Discworld books, such as the City Watch, the Wizards and Death, but also a few that caught me by surprise. Simnel is a great new character, and one I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing again, and the Dwarven King Rhys Rhysson emerges as one of the most sympathetic and interesting characters in the series. Above it all, Lord Vetinari remains one of the best politicians in literature.
Raising Steam probably isn’t Pratchett at his best, but nonetheless it is a lovely book and one that all Discworld fans should read. Pratchett is an author so prolific that it’s hard to imagine that one day we won’t get any more books from him, but tragically that day is getting closer and closer, so let’s enjoy every single moment that this national treasure is still writing for us.