Monday, March 31, 2014

Raising Steam - A Book Review

The basic principles of steam having power enough to move things are well known to anyone who ever had the lid blow off of a boiling kettle.  But no one on The Discworld had ever thought of trying to harness such power.  Nobody, that is, except for a canny lad by the name of Dick Simnel, who dreams of steam-powered engines and a brave new world.

Unfortunately, there are many in the cowardly old world who take to change as readily as a duck takes to lava.  And even The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, while not the sort of tyrant to stand in the way of progress, is likewise not the sort of tyrant to allow the status quo to be altered without certain assurances.  Or, at the very least, a suitable amount of taxable revenue.

Enter Moist Von Lipwig - Master of Ankh-Morpork's Post Office, Mint, Royal Bank and Vetinari's top scoundrel.  Moist is all too eager to throw himself into the exciting new business of organizing everything springing up around Simnel's Iron Girder... especially once Vetinari makes it clear that the alternative involves being thrown to the kittens.  Of course Moist is a firm believer that a life without danger is not worth living and he'll find danger aplenty apart from his execution-minded employer trying to keep this new "rail-way" on-track.

Raising Steam - despite nominally being about the discovery of steam-power on the Discworld and the joy of trains - is perhaps the most topical book Sir Terry Pratchett has ever written. No stranger to tackling controversial issues, Pratchett's previous works have explored such heavy topics such as gun control (Men At Arms), the role of women in the military (Monstrous Regiment) the perils of mindless nationalism in a time of war (Jingo) and the battle between organized religion and spirituality (Small Gods).  Even Pratchett's earlier works, more concerned with parodying the cliches of fantasy than in satirizing modern life, took a serious look at sexism and racism.

Raising Steam does not content itself with one topical issue, tackling a whole host of societal ills as the story progresses.   Change vs. Tradition.  Urbanization vs. Ruralization.  Misogyny vs Feminism.  There's even a bit that could be seen as a parable for Transsexual Rights!

Why so much societal commentary?  Maybe the master satirist has become more thoughtful after thirty years of writing?  Or perhaps his diagnosis with Alzheimer's Disease back has spurred Pratchett into action, rushing to get all his serious thoughts out into the world while he is still capable of articulating them?

Whatever the case, it must be said that while Pratchett does tread some new ground with this story, there's a lot of rehashing as well.  There are a lot of bits with various characters realizing that It Is Wrong To Judge Someone By The Color Of Their Skin in relation to their dealings with goblins, who have quickly (i.e. since the end of the last Discworld novel, Snuff) achieved a valued position in Ankh-Morporkian society by proving their worth as telegraph operators.

To Pratchett's credit, this is all written in a fairly broad manner.  Indeed, the villains of the piece - the dwarvish priest/scholars know as grags, who hate everything that might be considered undwarvish - could be compared to any number of real-world organizations from religious fundamentalists to Luddites.  Pratchett preaches not against any one group but against the attitude that all which is new or unknown should immediately be regarded with scorn.

Still, the fact that Pratchett has to preach at all is worrisome.  And the sad fact is that while previous Discworld books have made me laugh so hard I had to put the book down for a moment, I did not laugh-out-loud once while reading Raising Steam.  There are witty lines and puns aplenty but not as much high-level hilarity as in times past.

Does this mean that the book isn't worth reading?  Not on your life!  It is different, yes, but it is not bad.  If nothing else, Pratchett deserves credit for trying to examine how something so revolutionary as steam-power would change nearly every aspect of life on the Discworld and trying to bring as many of his cast of characters into play, however briefly. I should like to have seen The Librarian get a chance at driving the train but I can content myself with the footnote where Rincewind - despite spending his first train ride hiding under the seat - eventually concedes the value the rail way could offer someone seeking to run away from something very quickly.  

In the end, Raising Steam is not a great Discworld novel but it is a good book. Even the worst Discworld books are still good reads.  And while there's little that might make a reader laugh boisterously, there is still much that will make them smile.

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