Change is afoot in Ankh-Morpork – Discworld’s first steam engine has arrived, and once again Moist von Lipwig finds himself with a new and challenging job.
To the consternation of the patrician, Lord Vetinari, a new invention has arrived in Ankh-Morpork – a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all of the elements: earth, air, fire and water. This being Ankh-Morpork, it’s soon drawing astonished crowds, some of whom caught the zeitgeist early and arrive armed with notepads and very sensible rainwear.
Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work – as master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank his input is, of course, vital . . . but largely dependent on words, which are fortunately not very heavy and don’t always need greasing. However, he does enjoy being alive, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse . . .
Steam is rising over Discworld, driven by Mister Simnel, the man wi’ t’flat cap and sliding rule who has an interesting arrangement with the sine and cosine. Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs and some very angry dwarfs if he’s going to stop it all going off the rails . . .
I purchased this novel in 2014 but did not read it until last month. This was not because I did not have the time—I always make time in my schedule for Sir Terry Pratchett and Discworld novels—but because I knew I would love it. I know this sounds strange so let me explain . . .
I have been a fan of Terry Pratchett’s work ever since college. I majored in English and was reading massive amounts of Victorian era novels, Elizabethan era plays, literary criticism of said works, and writing papers about all of it. Although I enjoyed it, I liked to take a break from reading “schoolwork” and read science fiction and fantasy. (Only people who love books truly understand reading something “fun” to take a break from other reading.) It was during this time that I first encountered Good Omens, by a friend who decided that I “needed” to read it. (She was right.)
After that I read everything by Pratchett (and his co-author for Good Omens, Neil Gaiman) that I could find. Discworld is still my favorite out of Pratchett’s series, and up until Raising Steam I read them as soon as I purchased them. But I held back . . . even though it’s the story of how the railway comes to the Discworld, a fictional world that evolved over 41 books from a rural, agrarian sword-and-sorcery type world with Elizabethan era influences to a pre-industrial Victorian era setting which was missing only the advent of the ingenious mechanical devices to make it a steampunk playground.
I held back from reading it . . . because it would probably be the last chapter of the story. In 2007, just years before he was granted a knighthood for services to literature, Terry Pratchett announced he had been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Despite this he continued to write. Raising Steam is the last adult novel set in the Discworld universe. In 2015, The Shepherd’s Crown, the last volume in his Young Adult Discworld series, was published posthumously: It was not complete at the time of his death. So Raising Steam is the last full work ever to be published in the series and, having read all of the novels except for The Shepherd’s Crown, it does seem to be in part a farewell to many of the characters of Discworld.
It is important to stress the fact that you do not need to have read any of the Discworld novels in order to enjoy Raising Steam. It is the only book in the series that can be considered steampunk, but if you enjoy a neo-Victorian fantasy setting of the grittier-sort, the books set in the town of Ankh-Morpork may peak your interest.
Pratchett focuses the narrative on two fronts—the creation and development of the railway in the Discworld’s major city-state, Ankh-Morpork, and the attack on inter-species progress by dissident dwarf groups.
The railway is developed first by Dick Simnel, the son of Ned Simnel who was featured in a previous Discworld novel, Reaper Man. Ned had created the Disc’s first steam-powered combine harvester, but died in an explosion. Dick was determined to learn from his father’s mistakes and worked with steam-powered machines until he created Iron Girder, the Disc’s first steam locomotive:
“You learn by your mistakes, if you’re lucky, and I tried to make mistakes just to see ‘ow that could be done, and although this is not the time to say it, you ‘ave to be clever and you ‘ave to be ‘umble in the face of such power. You have to think of every little detail. You have to make notes and educate yourself and then, only then, steam becomes your friend.”
Lord Vetinari, ruler of Ankh-Morpork, has the opportunity to stop the advent of the railway. He explains this to Moist Von Lipwig, the reformed conman who Vetinari employs to run such notable city institutions as the Post Office, Royal Mint, and Royal Bank:
“Some might say that it would have been easy for me to prevent this happening. A stiletto sliding quietly here, a potion dropped into a wineglass there, many problems solved at one stroke. Diplomacy, as it were, on the sharp end, regrettably unfortunate, of course, but not subject to argument.”
But Vetinari refuses to do so. He has worked over the course of the series to make Ankh-Morpork into a strangely benevolent dictatorship—one that encourages diversity and new technology that is beneficial to society.
“Mister Lipwig, I feel the pressure of the future and in this turning world must either kill it or become its master. I have a nose for these things, just as I had for you, Mister Lipwig. And so I intend to be like the people of Fourecks and surf the future. Giving it a little tweak here and there has always worked for me and my instincts are telling me that this wretched rail way, which appears to be a problem, might just prove to be a remarkable solution.”
The game is afoot after the railway receives Ventinari’s support. Simnel joins forces with a wealthy and influential member of Ankh-Morpork society, Mr. Harry King, and Moist finds himself not only negotiating for land rights for the railway but also working to develop the entire enterprise: Food, hotels, shopping centers, platforms—all of these aspects must be considered, and they are given the Discworld twist. Some of the dishes that are prepared for railway travelers, like Primal Soup, even sound quite tasty by our standards, and some, like Rat-Onna-Stick, do not (even if the rat is battered and fried).
But progress is not embraced by everyone, as Vetinari mentioned. Clacks-towers, which are Discworld’s answer to telegraph lines, are the first target of the dissident dwarves until they perceive the threat that the railway offers to their plan of overthrowing the Low King (the title for the ruler of the Dwarves.) The clacks-towers can only send messages; the railway has the ability to connect people everywhere. Some of the dwarves are up in arms against the modernization of the society, and people are being injured, and killed, in the battles.
It is interesting to note that Vetinari, who is a tyrant by his own words, believes that everyone is equal. There is no slavery in Ankh-Morpork; everyone—human, dwarf, troll, vampire, golem, goblin, and other assorted races—only answered to the law.
In Ankh-Morpork you can be whoever you want to be and sometimes people laugh and sometimes they clap, and mostly and beautifully, they don’t really care.
But this is not true of the entire Disc—and this is where the railway is headed. It is up to our heroes to make certain that the enterprise of steam is not derailed.
Raising Steam is a must-read for anyone who is a fan of the Discworld series, and I think it is a must-read for anyone who loves steampunk as well. It is a wonderful story full of twists and turns, humor, adventure, magic, neo-Victorian imagery, and, of course, the steam technology fans of the genre love so well. I will let Terry Pratchett have the last word with a short description of the main steam locomotive in the story, Iron Girder, and the beauty of her departure as the railway heads out across the Disc and into whatever the future has in store:
And the driver made his magic and the firebox opened and spilled dancing red shadows all around the footplate. And then came the rattle and jerk as Iron Girder took the strain and breathed steam for one more turn around the track as the goblins whooped and cackled and scrambled up her sides. And then came the first chuff and the second chuff and then the chuff bucket overflowed as Iron Girder escaped the pull of friction and gravity and flew along the rails.