This is the final novel in my reread of the Discworld series – now is not the time to be to revisiting the bitter-sweet The Shepherd’s Crown .
Raising Steam is a Moist von Lipwig story. The previous Moist novels (Going Postal and Making Money) saw him take on Ankh-Morpork institutions desperately in need of modernisation, and use his street smarts and quasi-criminal abilities to achieve the impossible. Raising Steam takes a different track. The industrial revolution, already foreshadowed in the arrival of the printing press (The Truth) and the clacks (Going Postal) has now reached the age of steam. Dick Simnel, a self-taught engineer (whose father, Ned Simnel, appeared all the way back in Reaper Man), has perfected the design of a steam engine, one which doesn’t spontaneously explode leaving anyone in the vicinity a red mist. He finds the ideal business partner and investor in the King of the Golden River, Sir Harry King. from this point the railways erupt, with Moist at the heart of making sure they can go where they need to go, and that the Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygienic Railway company has the resources it needs to succeed.
The Patrician appoints Moist von Lipwig, by now (ironically) one of his most reliable employees, to represent him in the management and expansion of the railway. A line is quickly laid to the coast at Quirm, where fresh sea-food now becomes available to the diners of Ankh-Morpork. Moist negotiates with landowners for permission to build across their land, and finds alternative routes when he is refused. The Patrician pushes Moist relentlessly to ensure that the next phase of expansion, the line to Uberwald over a thousand miles away, is completed at breakneck speed.
One of the many joys of Raising Steam is in its imaginative recreation of the early days of the railways. Train spotters write “1” carefully in their notebooks when the first engine appears. Track-side catering, third class carriages, overnight sleepers and flat-bed trucks for the larger customer (i.e. trolls) are all fitted seamlessly into the narrative. Moist is at the heart of spotting the commercial potential of the railways, even down to the marketing of small train sets for (ahem) children. The novel also has its own spin-off. At one point Moist meets a lady traveller, Mrs Bradshaw, who impresses him with her independent and inquiring mind. He commissions her to write an account of her travels on the railway in return for a free go-anywhere ticket. The product of that meeting is Mrs Bradshaw’s Handbook, which is great fun, full of additional detail about Discworld and lots of terrible puns. My favourite was the description of a rat-inna-bun as a “royale with fleas”*
In Thud, Pratchett describes the signing of the Koom Valley Accord, a historic peace agreement between dwarves and trolls. But that agreement is now under attack due to the relentless rise of dwarven fundamentalism. Extremists, led by the sinister grags, begin a terrorist campaign against the most visible signs of modernism, the clacks towers. Attacks on the railroad soon follow. This is all a prelude to a coup against the Low King of the Dwarfs. In the classic tradition of these things the coup is launched while the Low King is attending an international conference in Quirm. The reason for Vetinari’s insistence on the completion of the track to Uberwald now becomes clear – the Low King has to be rushed back to resist the coup. (OK, if Vetenari was so far sighted as to realise the express service to Uberwald was going to be needed, could he not have just organised the conference at a slightly more suitable, less remote location. Or had the Low King send a deputy? No, you are right, it doesn’t really matter.)
If the first half of the novel is an enjoyable spin through the exciting early days of steam, the second half revolves around the Low King’s break-neck journey back to Uberwald. Anticipating attempts to prevent him from returning to court, the Low King sets off in disguise, decoy carriages are sent to throw the grags off his scent, and half the Watch accompany the party to provide an extended bodyguard. Moist goes along for the ride, to make sure the train arrives on time. As expected the train comes under attack almost straight away, and they face a increasingly serious series of ambushes and attempts at sabotage along the way, requiring Moist to carry off one of his trademark feats of showmanship before finally arriving in Uberwald.
There’s a large supporting cast of characters in Raising Steam. Perhaps this was some kind of farewell? Most of the Watch appear, including of course Commander Vimes who plays an important part in defending the train from the grags and restoring the Low King to his throne. Vimes fans are treated to the wonderful image of him fighting dwarves on the top of the train as it speeds along:
“The commander went, as they say in Ankh-Morpork, totally Librarian on them.”
Adora Belle is suitably acerbic, although the reader is assured that her marriage to Moist is supremely happy. Lu-tze walks on and off-stage briefly. The Patrician is the Patrician, feeling slightly rattled by the increasing difficulty of his crossword, while his clerk, Drumnott, indulges his obsession with all things rail-related. Death returns to remind people what to do when they die. Even Rincewind makes the briefest of appearances in a couple of footnotes – Pratchett could never quite say goodbye to his first wizzard.
You can’t reduce forty-one novels to a single message, of course not, but inclusion has always been at its heart, and that idea remains central to the series even at the end. The message perhaps becomes even more insistent as the series comes to a close. Social change is speeding up in Discworld – we see goblins going from vermin and prey in Snuff to valuable members of society in a few short years. The Watch continues to recruit non-humans to its ranks and spread good policing practice across the hub. There is also time in the novel to find a non-didactic resolution (of a kind) to the long-running discussion of dwarven gender identity, as the Low King is revealed to be the Low Queen.
When I come back to the novels of Sir Terry it won’t be for the jokes or the plots. It will be for his characters and his kindness and understanding. He know that technology can change society profoundly and shows us how it can be exciting and transformative rather than harmful:
“Here is the new thing and here it is. And yesterday you never thought about it and after today you don’t know what you would do without it. That was what the technology was doing. It was your slave but, in a sense, it might be the other way round.”
This will be the final time I say this, having said it far too many times already, but please do read some Terry Pratchett. It is all quite wonderful.
*little nod to Pulp Fiction there if you hadn’t spotted it.