Thursday, April 24, 2014

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Back in the year 1991 in the novel Reaper Man, a tinkerer by the name of Ned Simnel had invented a steam-powered harvesting machine that was somewhat unceremoniously disposed of by Death, who didn’t exactly approve of industrialized reaping.  At the time, Death was working as a farmhand and his preferred method was to scythe each blade individually; it’s those personal touches that matter.  Anyway that’s sort of beside the point since Ned only appears posthumously in Raising Steam; he continued to tinker with steam engines and discovered the wonders of boiler explosions.  Terminally.
But his son Dick is following in his old man’s footsteps – or mostly so, given that he’s really, really big into safety testing before getting everything up to full pressure – and he’s ready to move on to the big city with his new invention and just incidentally kick off the Discworld industrial revolution.
I find myself very torn about this one.  I’ve read most of the Discworld novels by this point; many of them are great, and a majority of them are at least better than average.  But there have been some stinkers in there too, although there is some disagreement about which those are.  If I had to rank this one, it would probably go somewhere in the middle of the pack, but at the same time I’ve got some issues with it that I’ve never had with one of Pratchett’s books before.

Ever since Pratchett has received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and switched to dictation, his writing has been noticeably different.  It wasn’t clear if that was related to shock or just ongoing mental changes.  The shift continues here, to a larger degree than I can recall in any of his previous works.  It actually reminded me somewhat of the prose style of The Long Earth and The Long War, his collaborations with Stephen Baxter.  So although there’s no co-author credit on this one, I wouldn’t be surprised if Baxter or perhaps Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna polished some of the chapters before they went to press; or perhaps his style has simply changed.  Nonetheless, there were parts here that just didn’t sound quite right.

There’s also something slightly off about the plot, as well.  Simnel moves to the city of Ankh-Morpork to sell his idea – which makes sense, that’s where everyone ends up eventually.  And he manages to sell his idea to Harry King, who has been an important if minor presence in some previous Discworld novels.  He’s got the capital, Simnel’s got the idea, and then they start building a railroad.  Vetinari, the dictator of Ankh-Morpork, can’t let something as potentially destabilizing as this be handled by just anyone, so he puts his number one fixer Moist Van Lipwig onto it.  Oh, and the dwarfs are having a looming civil war.

Unlike most of the Disc books which take place over one particular crisis (with prologues and/or epilogues that occur at various lengths afterwards), this one is somewhat more sprawling.  I’m not entirely sure how long this one takes, but it isn’t less than two years and probably no more than six or so.  Building a railroad doesn’t happen overnight, even in fiction.  Lipwig has to do a bunch of things, like oversee construction, order materials, and negotiate rights of way.

Vetinari motivates Lipwig by threatening to have him killed.  And while that’s technically been the basis of their relationship from day one, it’s a little jarring for Vetinari to issue naked threats like that.  He normally doesn’t.  And here, he does it repeatedly.  Vetinari also personally and openly kills some people in this book, which is not something that I can recall him doing since he became Patrician, although he was an Assassin in his younger days.  This is part of what I am saying about how things don’t seem quite right.

There’s a lot more description in this book of events that the book does not show.  At one point, Lipwig has to fight some guys.  He psyches himself up, but the battle itself is not described.  The aftermath, however, is gone into in some detail.  This is not infrequent throughout the book.  We’re told what’s going to happen, then we’re told what’s happening, and then told what happened.  For instance, Vimes prepares to interrogate some prisoners.  We’re told that Lipwig is impressed by the interrogation.  Then they talk about how good an interrogator Vimes is.  Notably, we don’t get details of what was said.

I don’t use these examples trivially, since they basically mirror other, better scenes in previous Disc books.  Lipwig fought the banshee hit man Mr. Gryle in Going Postal, one of the more exciting scenes in all of the Disc canon for my money.  And Vimes’ interrogation of the hapless dwarf Helmclever back in Thud! was important in examining Vimes’ character.  Those scenes were both detailed and awesome.  In Raising Steam there are a bunch of callbacks like that which require you to know and remember previously exciting scenes in prior Disc books, and there are walk-ons by characters who you will only know if you’re familiar with the series, and who don’t do anything either.  So unlike some previous Disc books that basically were mashups of too many plots, this is almost like a meta-Disc book – it tells you about a Disc book but isn’t actually one.  Or rather, it requires you to bring your own emotional reactions from previous novels to bear in similar situations, rather than actually establishing and following through on its own merits.

What we do get could use some editing.  There are a couple of scenes that are basically verbatim, thematically if not exactly, such as repeated scenes of Lipwig coming home from work tired and then having a nice dinner with his wife.  One such scene is character building, two makes you wonder where the red pencil got to.  And the goblins, introduced in Snuff, continue to be too good to be true.  All of the various species that inhabit the Disc have their flaws and foibles, but the goblins are turning out to have no downsides at all, other than possibly a musty smell.  For that matter, the tension in this book continually gets drained by the narrative reassuring us that everything’s going to work out.  Simnel and King reach a ludicrously mutually beneficial business deal, Lipwig has little trouble getting the better in negotiations, and things in general go pretty smoothly.

The dwarf civil war is also uninspiring.  There have been hints ever since back in The Fifth Elephant that the tensions between the modern dwarfs and the traditionalist dwarfs would inevitably lead to bloodshed.  And I suppose that it does, sort of.  They say it’s a civil war.  But it’s also made pretty clear as to who is going to win – all the Low King needs to do is get back home.  Pretty convenient that there’s a new, speedy mode of transport, isn’t it?  It also helps that the traditionalists have become full-on villains here.  That’s not entirely unprecedented; after all, they did use suicide assassination squads as long ago as Thud!, but here they’re just completely evil and have no nuance.  Dwarfs of good will easily change their minds here.  Dwarfs who don't change their minds are not of good will.  This is a considerable variance with previous novels which have established that the traditionalists do have some valid points even if they do tend to be assholes.

So I approach this one with some hesitation.  It’s not bad, not by any means.  But it just has a sense of wrongness about it.  Even the railroad is a little strange to have in a Disc book.  If they’re having a straight-up industrial revolution then it’s becoming more and more like our world all the time, which is maybe the point.  And it absolutely does not stand on its own; if you’ve never read a Discworld book then this is not for you.  So if you’re a Disc fan and want to have a potentially bittersweet book that’s probably the end of an era?  Check it out.  Otherwise?  Go read Feet of Clay.