Reading Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam

Posted: March 13, 2014 in lessons learned, reading
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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

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.

Raising problems

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!

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Comments
  1. glenatron says:

    I read a lot of early Pratchett and got tired of the gag-a-minute stuff so I pretty much stopped. When I picked up one of the more recent ones – probably Night Watch – I was blown away by it. Since then I have caught up on many of his newer books and in general I certainly prefer his more narrative storytelling and in particular the way his characters have grown in depth and got better at subverting expectations in ways that are both clever and entirely consistent. When he tells a good story he tells a really good story and I almost prefer the Tiffany Aching books where he is excused from some of the jokes to the main Discworld stories, but any author with so many books to their name is going to hit and miss somewhat and as you say, with a legacy like that it’s easy to ignore the few occasions when the writer’s eye is off the ball.

    • I think his usual strength with characters was why I found this book so disappointing. Even when his books didn’t excite me so much with their humour, there were interesting characters being developed – Moist von Lipwig being a prime example. But in this book it felt like he was trying so hard to cram in existing characters, and to make them all a bit more reasonable, that they became less interesting and well developed than usual. Though again, I may be in a minority on this.

  2. skudssister says:

    Oddly, I have just finished reading this too and was in two minds about what I thought of it. I think the best way for me to describe it at the moment is that, in this book, he isn’t really writing for plot but about the characters.

    And this reminds me I must think harder so I can get a review up on my blog too….

  3. Ender's Shadow says:

    I would agree that ‘Raising Steam’ isn’t one of the greats – the holes in the plot are just TOO big – but I’d disagree with you lack of enthusiasm for some of the later books; Going Postal and Making Money are both superb, both rightly attracting Nebula nominations (i.e. from fellow writers) but not the fan driven Hugos.

    But I am amused at your willingness to cope with the fascist organisation of Ankh-Morpork – run by the corporations (guilds) under a dictator… 😛 Terry doesn’t seem to approve of democracy!

    • Ha ha ha, I’m not sure that Terry’s Ankh-Morpork would reflect his real world political views – interesting point though, might see if he’s ever discussed his politics in an interview. Maybe with all the other modernising changes he’s made to Ankh-Morpork he’ll bring democracy before he finishes? That could be interesting, and bring an end to the original version of the city that’s entirely in keeping with the trend of his writing.

      • Ender's Shadow says:

        Yes, a plot line of the introduction of democracy to Ankh-Morpork is a great idea. From a political science perspective, the city has some of the requisites of democracy – a vibrant civil society and a free press, but lacks any visible judiciary: at the moment Vetinari calls the shots. One suspects that the Argentinian experience of democracy post WWII would be the model – a populist leader using his power to achieve his objectives to the long term detriment of the economy.

        http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21596582-one-hundred-years-ago-argentina-was-future-what-went-wrong-century-decline

        Argues the case!

        • Interesting comparison. I’d have thought there’s a lot that could be drawn from the experience of the English Civil War as well – not exactly a battle for full-on democracy, but certainly a conflict against an individual wannabe-tyrant.

          • Ender's Shadow says:

            Vetinari is really an example of the medieval monarch successfully balancing the interest groups in their kingdom and so being able, within quite severe constraints, to rule as they want. Charles I – along with Richard II, John and Edward II all lost their thrones because they let too strong coalitions to be built against them and they lost the ensuing wars. Vetinari by contrast has mostly avoided that fate (barring the occaisonal temporary overthrow)…

          • glenatron says:

            Isn’t this a part of what Night Watch is about? That seemed to me to be very much Pratchett looking more at the politics and governance of the city through a French Revolution type of lens. Although there isn’t much talk of judiciary there is a lot of concern with policing, which leads one to wonder why we never hear much about what happens after the watch have apprehended people…

            • I’d forgotten about Night Watch – you’re right, that touched on some of this stuff, though there’s still a lot more that could be explored, and I think it might be more powerful if addressed in relation to a well established character like Vetinari.

              On reflection I realised a weakness in my initial comparison between Vetinari and Charles I. While Charles, and other unpopular kings like John and Edward II, were in inherently strong positions where it took a huge weight of resentment to trigger revolt, Vetinari is in a much more precarious position, as he doesn’t have such a weight of tradition and heredity behind him. I think it would be far easier for Ankh-Morpork to descend into political turmoil. Or ascend, depending on your perspective.

              (I could probably contemplate this all day. A third of my final year undergrad was taken up studying the politics of Edward II’s reign, and my masters thesis was on John – love those failed English kings.)

  4. John Moley says:

    No other literary phenomenon has had nearly as much impact on me as the Discworld novels. I received my first, Small Gods, in the summer of 1992 and promptly spent the better part of a week in France sitting in the car reading it. Not only was I amused, thrilled and elated, but I also rethought much of what I believed, especially in terms of the individual’s relationship to power structures. Needless to say, I was an instant fan. I bought Lords & Ladies and took it to school to read on the bus. Fortunately, a friend spotted what I was doing and bragged that his brother owned the whole series. Between him and the public library, I was able to borrow and read everything from The Colour of Magic to Soul Music (except Eric and Good Omens, which looked oddly un-Discworldly). Like many people I became rather attached to Sam Vimes, but my stand-out favourite book was Reaper Man – even at 14 I felt the world was moving too fast.

    1994 was also the year I encountered the Pratchett fandom. At lunchtimes and after-school I often worked as a student librarian. In spite of my school’s total technophobia and computer illiteracy, there was a dial-up modem on the library computer. Nobody was supervising me and not a single member of staff knew what “browser history” meant. So I did the only thing that made sense; I started lurking on alt.fan.pratchett and chuckling like a maniac. By 1995, my side of the bedroom was decorated with Discworld maps and I’d read five of Pterry’s non-Discworld novels, but I’d also started referring to 1991-93 as his Golden Age. In 1996 I bought the Pratchett Portfolio and decided that, while Josh Kirby artwork chimed perfectly with the style of the first five Discworld novels, Paul Kidby’s art depicted MY Discworld; the post-1991 Discworld.

    In 1998, I went to uni and told everyone who’d listen that they had to read Pratchett. This was also the year that I lost the ability to read books to myself. Not sure what happened, probably mental illness, but it’s a skill that I miss profoundly. In 2001, Josh Kirby died and I felt oddly guilty about it. I took to audiobooks, listening to Thief of Time, Carpe Jugulum, Last Continent, Fifth Elephant and The Truth. In an attempt to teach myself to read again, I laboriously dragged myself through Night Watch and Monstrous Regiment. I loved them, dubbing everything from The Truth onward as Pterry’s Silver Age, but I wondered where the non-Vimesian Discworld had gone.

    Since 2003, I’ve kept collecting Discworld novels, but I only dip into them occasionally; enjoying a short from Blink of the Screen, or reading extracts to the children from Thud! or The Amazing Maurice. Does anyone agree with my younger self, about the Golden Age and the Vimes-dependent Silver Age of Discworld novels? I’m aware that my opinions may be jaded by my experiences with reading in general, but I’m interested to hear that Andy’s appreciation of the series has fluctuated too.

    tl;dr
    Essentially, I love the Discworld, but I think 1991-93 was the best period and there was a renaissance in the year 2000, but it was largely Vimes-dependent. What do you think?

    • Ender's Shadow says:

      Great post. My favourite character has got to Gaspode the talking dog, though I agree with Terry’s decision to fade him out as there isn’t a lot more to do with him. I think the first to Moist von Lipwick novels ARE the best ever, though perhaps not 100% accessible to a Discworld newbie. As someone’s who’s not really into detective stories. I don’t find Vimes stories that interesting, though their political components do peek my interest; on the whole I find Death more fascinating as such, though there’s enough of Rincewind in me to enjoy his tales!

    • Great description of your relationship with the Discworld John – you really should start blogging again. And it’s nice to see someone else having that same passionate experience with these books that I felt.

      I tend to agree with you about that initial peak – though my favourite books are slightly earlier, he was still improving as a writer. I liked the later Vimes resurgence, but I felt that came more from fondness for the character than a return to his peak writing form.

      • Oh, and as for favourite character, I’d probably have to go for Vimes. He was interesting from the start and has had a great character arc. Him and the librarian, for all the reasons given in my post about genre apes.

  5. […] picked Crowley from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, a character whose defining quality is that he is struggling […]

  6. […] and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much […]

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