Reading Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, has been a surprisingly emotional experience. Setting aside the quality of the book, which I’ll come to in a moment, it made me realise how much of a hero Pratchett is to me, and how hard it is to have mixed feelings about our real life heroes.
Raising Steam is the 40th of Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Like several recent Discworld stories, it’s about characters facing the march of progress. Steam trains are coming to the Discworld, just as modernity is sending ripples through the ancient culture of the dwarfs. One of these changes leads to excitement and delight, the other to resistance and civil conflict. But Moist Von Lipwig, sometime conman and now a big mover in the city of Ankh-Morpork, has the task of managing these changes, or at least their practicalities. It’s either that or back to the hangman’s noose…
The march of progress
Progress might seem impersonal at times, but the reactions of the Discworld characters are very personal. Dark clerk Drumknot becomes a train enthusiast. Lord Vetinari sees a problem to solve and a tool to achieve it. The conservative dwarf grags see their traditions being undermined by outsiders. Simnel just sees the thing he is building.
In a similar way, our reactions to Pratchett’s ever-evolving writing style are very personal. I suspect that they’re primarily shaped by which of his books we started with.
I started reading Discworld when there were less than a dozen books. My attention was grabbed by Pyramids, Guards! Guards! and Small Gods. As this world grew deeper and richer, and Pratchett’s philosophising more central, I was absolutely sucked in. But somewhere after the twentieth book he started drifting away from the things that I’d loved. There were less laugh-out-loud moments, more direct focus on adventure and social commentary. Those were good things but the balance wasn’t what I wanted any more.
The stories that once made me laugh out loud now made me think, and as a British lefty who had now grown past his teens, the thoughts weren’t terribly new. I know people who’ve come to his work later and consider his recent works the height of Pratchett brilliance. But me, I seem to be turning into something of a grag, and for a while I’ve been dwelling on the flaws in the Discworld.
Now we come to Raising Steam, and it’s not just age that is shaping my view. I have experience as a writer that I didn’t before, a knowledge of plot and structure that colours the way I read, that allows me to dissect the things I find problematic. Because readable as it is – Pratchett’s prose is still light and easy to absorb without becoming completely weightless – there are a lot of problems with this book.
I don’t want to dwell too long on any of this, because it breaks my heart to say it, but the plot is a damp squib. The characters are never really challenged, overcoming their problems too easily and without any risk of consequence. The initial promise, of a story about the development of the railroad, leads to a payoff that’s actually about the politics of the dwarfs. While the two have thematic connections, this still means that the book’s end doesn’t match its initial promise, which is deeply unsatisfying. Progress happens because its time has come, not through human effort and struggle, and this sort of pre-destined progress really gets my back up, robbing characters of their agency.
There’s also a problem with the dialogue, and it’s not just Simnel’s Yorkshire accent. Many characters have many great lines of dialogue. The problem is that they’ll deliver six of these great lines at once, turning snappy one-liners into speeches, becoming repetitive, slowing the pace and sucking the sense of action from a scene. It’s a real lesson in less is more – on their own these lines would have been classic quotable Pratchett, bundled together they’re a weight dragging the story down.
Keep reading Pratchett!
As I said, I’ve been finding this post hard to write. Pratchett is a huge hero of mine. An inspiring writer of dozens of books who has helped to popularise fantasy. A campaigner for the safety of orangutans, one of the most distinctive of the apes I so love. A man who is publicly battling to live in dignity as his mind gives way, risking public exposure to raise awareness of mental health issues. The man is an absolute legend. If the fantasy community can have national treasures then he is one.
And just as change has, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, affected both Pratchett and his Discworld, so I’ve changed as a reader. I can now do what I couldn’t a decade ago. I can live with the mixed feelings I have, not needing to hold the writer and his works up on a pedestal or to cast them aside.
Please, go out and read something from Pratchett’s Discworld. Read Wyrd Sisters or Pyramids or Guards! Guards!, or anything from about book six through to book 20. If you like those then read the rest. Even on an off day, Pratchett’s usually one of the better writers out there. He is worth your time and worth your admiration.
Just save Raising Steam until last. And when you get there remember that you’re reading for what’s come before, not for this story. Because progress is inevitable, and it can be great, but it isn’t always kind.
This book may not be great, but Terry Pratchett is. Sir Terry, I salute you!