Raising Steam

Posted on January 10th, 2014
Raising SteamRaising Steam by Terry Pratchet
Series: Discworld #40
Published by Doubleday in 2013
Pages: 381
Location: Discworld
Mode of travel: Train
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three-stars

*** This book will be available in the US in March ***

To the consternation of the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, a new invention has arrived in Ankh-Morpork - a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all the elements: earth, air, fire and water. This being Ankh-Morpork, it's soon drawing astonished crowds, some of whom caught the zeitgeist early and arrive armed with notepads and very sensible rainwear.

Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work. As master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank his input is, of course, vital... but largely dependent on words, which are fortunately not very heavy and don't always need greasing. However, he does enjoy being alive, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse.

Steam is rising over the Discworld, driven by Mr Simnel, the man wi' t' flat cap and sliding rule who has an interesting arrangement with the sine and cosine. Moist will have t grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs and some very angry dwarfs if he's going to stop it all going off the rails...

Verdict: Flawed but ambitious

I can’t say this was my favorite Discworld novel but I’m impressed by what Pratchett tried to do. Essentially, he wanted to show a process of historical change, brought about by technology, and its consequences. He takes us from the invention of the steam locomotive to the creation of railway companies, cultural change resulting from the railways and the political consequences of being able to move the Low King of the Dwarfs around at great speed (what happened to broomsticks?). The thing is, it’s just too much, and he didn’t quite pull it off. Plot, character development, and that special set of very human values Pratchett usually infuses into his books all suffered.

Railway culture – I bet Raising Steam might be quite a nostalgia trip for some British people. One of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers worked the railway. The other side of the family talked a lot like Dick Simnel. By sheer coincidence, I now live in a railway cottage just like the ones described in the book: ‘they were quite small, which put some strain on the accommodation when there were children and grandparents as well’. That’s the ones. I often put my feet up in the tiny living room, sip a glass of wine and think of my great grandmothers raising all the children they could keep alive in tiny places like the one I live in now.

Real life models for Dick Simnel?

RS Trevithick_Richard_Linnell RSGeorgeStephenson RS-Robert_Stephenson_by_Maull_&_Polybank,_1856

Locomotive pioneers Richard Trevithick, George Stephenson and his son, Robert Stephenson. In our world the development of rail travel was driven not by the desire to convey people and perishable items, but by the needs of the mining industry.

As for the travel side of railway culture, the situation is conflicted. On the one hand, passengers barely experience the world they pass through: ‘To travel by the railway was to see the world changing, as trees, houses, farms, meadows, streams, townships that Moist had never heard of before and barely recalled now – like that one there, Much Come Lately according to the sign – whizzed past a railway speed. But who lived there and what did they do, Moist wondered?’

In a way, Raising Steam is just like that. It tries to do a lot, more than it can. I’ve always admired the way Terry Pratchett gets you right inside the humanity of even his secondary characters, but in this book, they are overwhelmed. One who appears on the scene then vanishes into the crowd is Mrs Bradshaw, the Discworld’s first guidebook author who dispenses advice like this on scented paper: ‘High Mouldering, on the Sto Plains, boasts wonderful salt water baths from a pleasantly warm spring, and the owner and his wife give hygienic massages to those who would like to enjoy the benefit… A welcome break for the tired at weekends, with excellent meals. Highly recommended.’ I wouldn’t have minded getting to know her better, but that’s the thing about speeded up travel. You don’t.

RSG_BradshawThe real Bradshaw mostly produced timetables but in 1866, he turned out a Handbook for Tourists in Great Britain and Ireland. It says some very funny stuff. Turning to a page at random, I discovered Crick, population: 999, distance from the station: 3 miles, telegraph station at Rugby 6.5 miles, money order office at Weedon: 5.5 miles. The entry begins ‘The village of Crick lies to the north of the station and is a place of no importance…’ Judging by Crick’s Wikipedia entry, not much has changed. Sorry, Crick.

Even the main characters are swamped by the sheer scale of Pratchett’s attempt to depict the process of historical change across a whole world with accuracy. They cease to function as people and become mere personalities. And so it seems that as much as the railway brings people together, it forces so much complexity it also drives them apart. I didn’t enjoy this feature of the book, though I admit that it also says something about real life. I’ve usually looked to Pratchett for a cure to all that.

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