Terry Pratchett’s most recent novel is going to be one of his last, and that’s a big problem for me. See, I’ve been reading his novels almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I don’t want that state of affairs to end. I don’t have a choice in the matter, though, because, soon enough, his Alzheimer’s will eat away one of those witty brain cells too many. After that, he will either decide that enough is enough and take his own life, as he has been threatening to do for years, or he will wither away and a die a different man from the one who has written 40 novels in this series alone. Either way, it’s stupid, and I don’t like it. I do like Raising Steam, though. Let’s talk about that.
For those of you who have never read a Terry Pratchett novel before, let me get you familiarized with the landscape. Picture a world. No, that’s already wrong. Picture a sea turtle swimming through the ocean. Got that? Good, now, remove the ocean, and replace it with space. On the back of that turtle, imagine four elephants, and, on their backs, a pizza-shaped world that has continents instead of pepperoni, a great mountain instead of the little white three-legged thing they put in the middle to keep the box from touching the cheese, and magic instead of garlic pesto sauce. Now, use a little finger spreading movement on the smartphone of your mind to zoom in to an area midway between the crust and the disappointingly undercooked middle part, and you will see the great city-state of Ankh-Morpork. That is where most of Mr. Pratchett’s stories take place, and, most importantly, the story that I’ve spent 300 words, mostly involving suicide and pizza, getting around to telling you about.
This book, at its heart, is about trains. Also, at its extremities. It’s basically all about trains. The age of the horse and cart are over, because, for the second time in known history, steam power is coming to the Disc. Owing to its volatile nature, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, the preeminent city on the Disc, puts his top con artist in charge of making sure it doesn’t explode in everyone’s faces. This is the third book in the saga of gentleman swindler and all around smartass Moist von Lipwig, who, in his first appearance in the Discworld series in the novel Going Postal, was forced into the service of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Havelock Vetinari, on the threat of a second hanging. It’s complicated, I know. As Tommy Wiseau would say in reference to any conceivable negative event, “Don’t worry about it.” Actually, he would say, “Dohn worreh uhbowt eht.” All that you really need to know to understand this book is that times they are a-changin’, and not everyone is happy about it.
Terry Pratchett has always contended that, though his Discworld novels are pure fantasy, they have always been written to mirror the world in some way. An accurate portrayal or not, Raising Steam certainly paints a picture of how Terry views the world, today. The moral of this story is built out of the previous Discworld novel, Snuff, which is basically about racism. Or, well, species-ism. However, whereas Snuff was about treating another race as inferiors, Raising Steam is about applying a set of guidelines to your own race that, if a member of said race fails to follow, makes them different enough to hate or even kill with impunity. A small group of Luddite Dwarves have decided what it means to be a Dwarf, and any Dwarf who disagrees is immediately labeled as “not Dwarf,” an enormous dishonor for Dwarves. This pressure to conform to the opinions of a small but vocal minority under threat of violence certainly speaks to issues happening in the world at large, today, but, unlike the real world, almost none of the Discworld inhabitants have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. No one blames all Dwarves for the terroristic actions of that vocal minority. If only we were so understanding.
The racial tension doesn’t really drive the story for the first two-thirds of the book. Instead, it serves as a nervous backdrop to what, at first, you assume to be the main story, namely starting a rail road. Moist von Lipwig, ever the one to be caught up in a new enterprise, exchanges his begrudging attitude toward the rail business for one of boyish enthusiasm as soon as he sees the power that trains have over people. Moist, in an ever unclear role as the representative of the city, basically takes control of the first fledgling rail company, owned by the inventor Dick Simnel and angel investor Sir Harry King, a man who both literally and figuratively clawed his way up from the muck. Moist forsakes his other responsibilities at the behest of the Patrician to complete a rail line to the seat of political power in the vaguely Transylvanian nation of Überwald, home to the heads of many races including the Low King of the Dwarves, for a vague reason that isn’t really revealed until the third act.
The story maintains a driving pace that keeps it interesting even when the narrative wears a bit thin. In spite of its rather serious subject, it never fails to be funny. Moist von Lipwig is, as always, the hero he didn’t realize that he was, and the Patrician, who plays a wonderfully large role in this book, is enigmatic and somewhat sinister while never even hinting at leaving the side of the angels. The characters are fun, the message is clear, and the humor is consistent. It harkens back to the older Discworld novels of the late 90s and early 00s. If this were the last book Terry Pratchett were to write, I would be content. Not happy. Content.
Featured Image: “The front cover of the book Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett” by Terry Pratchett – Terry Pratchett. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Raising Steam via Wikipedia