May 22, 2014


Raising Steam. By Terry Pratchett. Doubleday. $26.95.

     Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are frequently excellent choices as summer reading, even if, as is the case with Raising Steam, they are winter releases (in the UK) or spring ones (in the U.S.). Just how excellent this particular novel – Pratchett’s 40th foray into Discworld – will be at the beach is, however, a matter of opinion.  The answer largely depends on each individual reader’s expectation of the author and the world he has created: a flat one that perches on the backs of four elephants that in turn ride atop the endlessly swimming-through-the-void Star Turtle, Great A’Tuin.

     Readers who have journeyed through the entire Discworld series will know how it has changed from a rather lighthearted sendup of typical fantasy writing (including parody of specific series) to a more-serious, subtler but still generally hilarious exploration of all sorts of sociopolitical issues. They will know how the world’s overall medievalism has moved in recent novels into a time analogous to the Industrial Revolution. And they will be familiar with the “Lipwig subseries,” in which Moist von Lipwig is the central character in stories relating to banking, postal service and communication in general, and – now – railroads. They will likely have high expectations for Raising Steam – which will be, to some measure, dashed.

     Readers less intensely involved with Pratchett and Discworld will have a better time with Raising Steam simply by virtue of the fact that it is a well-paced, entertaining book with a plot (actually two major plots and many smaller ones) that moves smartly along and features reappearances by a number of Discworld characters who may or may not be recognizable, depending on which books these readers know, but will be pleasant acquaintances or reacquaintances to make.

     Readers who have not encountered Discworld before had best not choose this particular portal as an entry point, because it does have a lot of reappearances, if not exactly resonances, from earlier books, and may be a) confusing and b) not well-written enough to show newcomers what has caused all the decades-long fuss about Pratchett. It will be, not to put too fine a point about it, rather difficult to make sense of Raising Steam if you have not visited this vicinity before.

     Much of the pleasure of reading Pratchett’s Discworld books comes from the unfurling of prose that darts down byways every so often, frequently through word play (including often-atrocious puns) that turns out, on reexamination, to have considerable significance. The Lipwig books (Going Postal and Making Money) have had less of this than other Discworld novels, and Raising Steam has still less. The lack of twistiness will dismay longtime Pratchett fans but make the newest novel easier for sometime readers to follow, at least where its style is concerned. The same is true for a lot of other elements that are more-straightforward and will therefore seem less “Pratchettian” to those deeply committed to Discworld: the language and characterization are forthright and thus seem a bit “off,” the humor seems a trifle forced, and the book does not grab you from the start and hold you thereafter – in fact, the first 100 pages or so can be a bit of a chore to absorb. Even after getting more involved in Raising Steam, readers may wish for deeper characterization of the protagonists, in particular Dick Simmel and Harry King: in earlier books, readers have really felt they know Sam Vimes, Tiffany Aching, Granny Weatherwax, Lord Vetinari, Mustrum Ridcully and others, but Raising Steam is less character-driven, more focused on a sheer multiplicity of personages than on slowing down enough to pay close attention to any of them.

     The two primary plots here will interest more-casual Pratchett readers more than they will attract those strongly committed to the whole Discworld ethos. Magic, a prime mover of many Discworld books and a fascinating element throughout because of the highly nontraditional ways in which Pratchett explains and exploits it, has little to do with Raising Steam and little to do in it. The development of steam power is the main focus here, with Lipwig being assigned by Lord Vetinari to manage it and Harry King determined to conquer it from a businessman’s perspective. The advent of steam also exposes significant fractures among the dwarfs, whose political issues – essentially progressivism vs. a Luddite mentality – make up the book’s second major plot strand.

     Actually, there is considerably more here. Pratchett has long had a genius for sneaking in major social and societal issues so, well, sneakily that readers scarcely realize what he is doing until he has done it. This time, though, he seems determined to introduce those issues with figurative exclamation points: Feminism! The treatment of minority groups! Political maneuvering! Psychology! Social expectations! The result is a more-intellectual, somewhat more heavy-handed book than many earlier Discworld novels, but a less-charming one; more pedantic and less quirky. Again, occasional readers of Pratchett’s work will enjoy this approach more than ones deeply immersed in Discworld likely will.

     Raising Steam is a book in which Pratchett – who has in recent years been creating through dictation rather than by actual writing, a result of his being diagnosed in 2007 with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – seems to be insisting that he has important things to say and important messages to deliver, and genuinely wants them to come across clearly to readers. And he does have much of significance to impart, plus a wonderful way of seeing our world that makes the thoroughly implausible Discworld seem almost, if not quite, possible. In the past, though, Pratchett has seemed content with a “come what may” attitude toward his observations, putting them out there so entertainingly that some would pick up on them and some would not, to the author’s apparent indifference. For whatever reason, he is more concerned now with putting those thoughts across, and Raising Steam is, as a result, a touch more didactic and a touch less freewheeling than most earlier Discworld books. Whether readers think it has greater maturity or displays a slightly flagging sense of creativity will depend very much on how familiar those readers are with a sequence that reaches back to The Colour of Magic in 1983. And that means that the decision on whether to read or reread Raising Steam during steamy weather will depend on whether one sees it as progress down a new, broader if somewhat flatter Discworld byway, or as the start of a summing-up of the wit and wisdom and weirdness of all that has come before – as progress or as legacy.

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