Reviews: Raising Steam

  • Roo
  • 9th Mar 15
  • 5

Better Than Its Reputation

A lot of people have denounced this book as "terrible," "not worthy of Pratchett" and "the sad end of an era." I happen to disagree; I find that this book feels like a very natural progression of what has gone before.

The Discworld has always been a world that cheerfully avoided Medieval Stasis (even if certain books like Moving Pictures might fool you into thinking otherwise for a little while); it's a world in progress. From semaphores, to newspapers to paper money, not to mention the Dwarven Female Movement, the introduction of the Boy/Girl Scouts... the steam engine is just the latest in a long line of developments, and is implemented about as well here as the other developments have in the past. Pratchett's enthusiasm for the subject also clearly shines through in every sentence, making it fun and interesting to read.

It's also really nice to see so many previous people and places revisited — yeah, it's pure Fanservice, but it's still pretty cool to find out that Ridcully and Lu-tze are friends, or that Nanny Ogg chats up semaphore operators. I don't know why people say the characters don't feel like themselves here; I had no problem recognizing them as their old selves. The only thing that really struck me as odd was Moist's sudden willingness to use violence, which he had meticulously avoided before — but since he was under the influence for most of it, it's not as jarring as it might have been otherwise.

Is it Pratchett's best book? Not by a long shot; it isn't even in the Top Ten. It panders a little and takes rather too long to get to the point — the real plot doesn't really kick off until half the book is over, and Pratchett has definitely done a better job of intertwining different sub-plots in past books. It also gets a little preachy at times, though this is nothing new; Pratchett's been getting more Anvilicious in later years. And let's face it, after forty books, the Discworld does not feel as innovative and subversive as it once did.

It's still a fun and funny experience, made all the better by being a veritable Continuity Cavalcade, as befits a fortieth book in a series. And the audiobook is a treat; Stephen Briggs's reading makes the text even more enjoyable.

Good, but disappointing

Is it possible for something to be good but still be disappointing? That's what Raising Steam is to me.

I like and enjoyed this book. I thought it was funny and clever. But compared to what I was hoping for, and what might have been, and what the Terry of just a few years ago was capable of, it is a disappointment.

The pacing is baffling. Entire segments could have been excised with no harm done to the surrounding book; they were there to drive the point home, of course, but most simply weren't needed. Two entire sections were adverts for a tie-in piece, Mrs. Bradshaw's Handbook, and done much clumsier than Thud!'s There's My Cow, which integrated the merch into the book's very plot.

The characters' voices are gone. Almost every character had the same diction and cadence; only Dick Simnel sounded unique, and even that was as much due to the Oop North accent as to any real differentiation. There might as well have been a framing device revealing Dick was telling the story to his and Emily's children.

The continuity with other books is there, with dozens of little ShoutOuts, but at the same time not, with no logic for this to be Ankh-Morpork's next evolution. This is an Ankh-Morpork book dealing heavily with dwarves; where is Captain Carrot? What happened to Vetinari's Undertaking, with the magical subway, that he's been setting up for since, it was implied, at least the end of Thud!?

And even for those of us who find Pratchett's sudden fascination for trains charming, those of us who like his politics were looking forward to a book of his about taxation, as so heavily hinted at the end of Making Money (and indeed Raising Steam's original title, Raising Taxes), with his usual wit and insight. If anyone could make taxes funny, it would be him. It's unsettling to realize the reason might be even he doesn't think he can tackle such a thorny least, not anymore.

It's hard to think of another Discworld book as clumsily done as this—even as far back as Mort, Pratchett had started to find his feet. It is still enjoyable, worth your time and money, but perhaps only in comparison with the great masses of books out there that aren't, not with its fellows.

It's painful to say, and I've tried to avoid saying it, but it's hard to imagine Terry writing his book even five years ago.

In one word: Depressing.

This book drives home one terrifying, heartbreaking and soul-shattering truth:

Terry Pratchett as we knew him is already gone, never to return.

It is a disjointed mess with strange pacing, massive amounts of character derailment (somewhat ironic, given the subject...) plot threads vanishing into thin air, inconsistencies both with earlier books and within this book itself...

It's readable, barely. Occasionally it manages to elicit a smile.

But that's it. The rest is...depressing. It has none of the spirit, none of the subtlety, none of the cleverness. When I read Snuff, I wondered what amateur they'd found to ghost-write it, because surely Terry Pratchett couldn't have produced something this bad. After this, I found myself wishing they'd gone with that guy again.

I wish I'd never picked this up. I wish I could still dream of things getting better, of maybe another good book. I can't do that anymore.

All that's left now is mourning, and the knowledge that we'll always have Pratchett's older works.

I want my money back.

Better than Snuff, which isn't saying much.

Established personalities once again take a gigantic step back in favor of how awesome the goblins are, even as the book bends over backward to showcase how sad and pathetic they are.

Moist, a man who makes a point of never using violence, ingests a goblin made potion that turns him into a killing machine, allowing him to take on an entire squad of delvers, all of them trained warriors, and come out with nary a scratch and yet the goblins are somehow unable to prevent random bandits from eating their children who, just because the goblins are that sad and pathetic, taste like chicken.

Vetinari breaks character yet again to be a smug twat about making the crossword puzzle lady quit and threaten Moist to prioritize a railway to Uberwald, implicitly because it would make his booty calls with Margolotta more convenient. Also he's apparently secretly a legend in the railway business. A business which has existed for like...three months...moving on.

The dwarfs have become more blatantly religious. Where previously Tak was "Just some guy that made the dwarfs and that's cool and all but you're just some guy and there's gold right here and gold > you, so bugger off" now he is the almighty font from which all good things flow.

The plot cuts out at random points to showcase characters from previous books which have literally zero effect on the rest of the book, most notably when Feeney from Snuff takes five pages for Pratchett to tell us that cultural assimilation is wrong, you guys. He's super cereal.

Moist has been completely neutered. No more the ne'erdowell from the previous two books, now he's just a vaguely Moist-shaped hole in the story who does things.

The actual plot doesn't even start until like three quarters into the book and it's okay. Not great. Not even particularly good. But okay. Solid. Unobjectionable. Harry King has always been an enjoyable character but he's not really main character material. But he manages with the help of...the train guy...forget his name...and they are solid. Not great but they get the job done.

Overall, it was a terrible book. The "good" parts are weighed down by the bad parts and completely not worth the fifteen dollars. Avoid it unless you think Pratchett can do no wrong. I want a refund.

It said Pratchett on the cover.

Having started Disc World with Going Postal and Making Money, I learned after that these stories were in fact, not typical Discworld fare. I read THUD, Unseen Academicals and Snuff and enjoyed them, but when I went back to read the earlier novels such as Guards, Guards, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Hoggfather, The Light Fantastic and the Color of Magic, I realized there was a shift in the later books. Fine, Discworld is a mega series that stretches decades.

Of course, it must be known that Sir Pterry's mental health is in decline, and that a suitably established author can sell a subpar book on name alone. Raising Steam is this in action. I don't know if anyone would have bothered with it if this hadn't been a Discworld book. I cannot tell if he only did it for the paycheck, or if he genuinely enjoyed writing a boring story.

There is very little of interest. A few jokes that haven't been used before, and its nice to see some character development and references (Mr. Nutt, it seems as though the goblins are more interesting than you). However, what little there is to enjoy is damned by the derailment of other characters, some heavy-handed philosophizing, and most ghastly, the lack of any plot or conflict or even danger. Just train rides and logistics, and not in an entertaining way like the first two Moist novels. Just characters with the names of characters we've seen do more interesting things in other stories. In Snuff, this was acceptable, as Vimes only has to go do Lawful Good things in the direction of tyranny to be a good character. Moist von Lipwig's strength was being a liar and a conman with an adrenaline addiction working as a civil servant. Here he was just a civil servant doing boring government work; all the stuff Moist raged against becoming in Making Money and Going Postal.

I remember finishing Mostly Harmless many years ago and wishing that Mr. Adams hadn't ended the story on such a note. I suppose, now that Discworld is in a similar situation, I'm getting what I want. I'm just not sure if that's a good thing at all. If Sir Pterry has another story in him, I hope its more adventurous.

The Future Is On Track

The Discworld has always been going places. One of the best things about following this series is that it has a subtle lasting continuity throughout. Each book is set roughly a year after the last and people change and the culture and environments they're in change with them. We've slowly seen the trolls and the dwarves come out and become integrated and the society develop and grow. A bunch of drunks become a professional world-leading police force, and it's leader with it. Types of people, like Moist von Lipwig, who never could have existed before bring with them institutions and ideas. And all the while more and more people fight for their to be accepted and to be the people they want to be. Inequality and racism have been issues that the residents of the Disc have had to struggle with step by step book by book.

But the industrial revolution is where everything changes. Everything is ready and suddenly the time is now, the steam has built up and nothing is going to stop this ride. You can get aboard or be left behind, it's too late to stop the world changing, it's already changed. All that's left is to find yourself a seat. And trains embody that for everyone.

This is a special book. It's where the Discworld wins. Will racism go away? No, but it will never be in a position of power again, the people spouting its tenets mark themselves as irrelevant with the words that come out of their mouths. No-one has time for them, there are too many things happening.

It's not just racism that's stopping people from being who they are either. A hundred years ago a farmers son would know his field and nothing. What use is a cellist a hundred miles from anything resembling a cello? What use is an engineer a hundred years before the engine? The industrial revolution is where all that end, people can be who they are meant to be. The horizon is no longer a restriction, it's a destination and the train stops at timetabled intervals.

And it's capped off through a harrowing journey through treacherous territory practically building the tracks as they go and a deliciously deliberate anti-climax.

Terry Pratchett has done what he does best, capturing the spirit of an idea, and this idea reflects on his books as a whole. If this were to be the final destination, it felt like all the characters we love got their ticket.

On and Off the Rails

After the agonizing moralization of Snuff, it is refreshing to see the series make a return to a more free-spirited setting, with the return of Moist von Lipwig as the leading character. There are a lot of callbacks to older Discworld novels such as Reaper Man and The Fifth Elephant, but the setting and presentation are very much like the contemporary novels.

Moist von Lipwig is very much wasted for the purposes of the story. There are no enemies to confound, nor there are many obstacles that truly require daring or sleight-of-hand. There may be a jolt here and there, but for most part things go smoothly. There is never really a sense of urgency from the threats that our heroes face, with the story's only antagonists coming across as laughable caricatures of conservative extremism.

It is therefore unsurprising that the climax is not particularly climactic. There are a surprisingly large number of altercations and struggles throughout the story, but the "good guys" always come out unharmed and completely intact. For a story that centres on progress, it is downright baffling to see that the plot or characters undergo almost no development at all.

Moreover, the story tends to rush through a lot of places without really describing them with the same level of detail as most other Discworld novels. Oft-mentioned but unexplored locations like Quirm are mentioned, but only touched upon for no more than a few pages. For a story that is so heavily centred on how we get from point A to point B, lack of attention in this area is somewhat disappointing.

Overall, Raising Steam is possibly the only Discworld novel that I would actually avoid putting on my shelf. For all the complaints leveled at recent Discworld novels, they deal with serious issues while convincingly exposing them as evil as they are farcical. In this case, the issue happens to be conservative idealism, but the story does not effectively link this to the main engine of the plot, nor does it address the matter with credibility.

The End of An Era

Ser Pratchett has been dealing with failing health for some time, and no where is it more apparent than this book. He has written a story that is not, in any sense, bad. This book is amusing, and it has a fantastic sense of pace that will entrance you until the end.

But it is still a sad thing.

The cast has changed.

The story is no longer as engaging.

It is with this book that we, the fans, are forced to admit that Sir Terry Pratchett is not going to get better.

But back to the book. In this story, Moist Von Lipvig, as master of the mint and post master (along with bank manager) has created a smooth operation. Which is perfect timing; in a far corner of the Sto Lat plains, an engineer called Mister Simnel has built the first train. Adn this invention changes everything. But far underground, the Grags refuse to accept the changing times, and hav3e resorted to terrorism in an attempt to stop what they think of as the end of true dwarves.

The story is quite well written, with many aspects that will grasp your attention and not let go. You will find yourself amused by this, reading it and loving the ride. Old hands, however, will realise that the sings of the author's health shine through. Vimes and vetinari, most notably, no longer act like themselves, leaving old fans dissapointed and confused as to what is going on. Sometimes, the story gets a bit lost and wanders for a while before getting back on track and becoming enjoyable again. The villans are not so much villans, as rather some nebulous force, an ideal that threatens to destroy everything in some vauge way until the very end with a climax with faceless goons.

The jokes are not clever at all, but they can still get a chuckle. Gone is the insight that populated older books, but it does not make the book unreadable with it's absence.

To put it plain, this book signals the end of an age, and is more bittersweet with what it signifies to old readers. New readers will like it, but it is not worth rereading. Read the older books of you can.

Better then Snuff

I don't know if I would say this was the best Discworld novel. However after Snuff it is defiantly a good sign.