When The Shepherd’s Crown, the final novel in the late Sir Terry Prachett’s Discworld series, came out last week, it was a bittersweet moment for his fans. On the one hand they were receiving another story set in Pratchett’s unique universe, and yet on the other, it was to be the last time they would be given the chance to venture there.
Sadly, after over 30 years and more than 40 entries in the canon, it was time to say goodbye to Pratchett’s whimsical world which, despite a cast that included witches, wizards, dwarves and trolls, always told human stories that readers could relate to and laugh along with.
All of this is to say that I haven’t got around to reading The Shepherd’s Crown yet (I really should have picked up a copy this weekend), but its arrival got me thinking about Pratchett and the penultimate installment in the series, Raising Steam, a witty satire on progress, fundamentalism, and gender politics.
In Raising Steam, we’re introduced to young engineer Dick Simnel, inventor of Iron Girder, the world’s first ever steam-powered locomotive. After bringing his new invention to the city of Ankh-Morpork, he soon gains the patronage of wealthy sanitation mogul Sir Harry King, who is keen to enter a more dignified line of work by bankrolling a railway.
As public interest in Iron Girder and the railway rapidly reaches fever pitch, Ankh-Morpork’s benign despot Lord Vetinari appoints conman turned civil servant Moist von Lipwig to manage the government’s interest in the railway.
Dick, Sir Harry and most of all, Moist, soon find themselves very much in the thick of it, not only with public relations concerns over safety to deal with, but also the increasingly violent actions of terrorist dwarfs hell bent on destroying Iron Girder as a means of furthering their own political agenda…
No doubt this all sounds a bit daunting for any prospective newcomers to the series, but as with all of Pratchett’s novels, it’s actually pretty easy to get into.
I must profess to only being a casual (if enthusiastic) fan of the series, but Pratchett does a good job of providing all the necessary information needed to hit the ground running, and by the first few chapters, I was up to speed and fully immersed in his world.
And what a world it is. 30 years of worldbuilding has allowed Pratchett to to write about the Discworld universe as if it were a real place, and taken on its own delightfully off-beat terms, it feels as concrete as anything created by Tolkien or other “serious” fantasy scribes.
Pratchett has populated this world with countless memorable characters over the years, and part of what keeps the momentum up in Raising Steam is how much the reader enjoys spending time with those who take centre stage in this outing.
Loveable rake Moist von Lipwig, earnest Dick Simnel, rough diamond Sir Harry King and suave yet deadly Lord Vetinari are an entertaining bunch, as are all the rest of the supporting cast, including Moist’s feisty wife Adora Belle and her goblin servant Of The Twilight The Darkness.
Just as impressive as Pratchett’s talent for dreaming up characters is his skill at balancing a rollicking narrative with social commentary and spot-on satire of modern issues.
Pratchett stands as one of the grand masters of that old style of English humour, capable of traversing highbrow and lowbrow comedic landscape alike, and he is surely the author of some of the greatest footnotes in literary history, including this gem:
“Around the Sto Plains, as in other places, it took a while for the country people to come to terms with the indoor…facilities. A privy in the garden with fresh air all around was considered much more hygienic and, if you were careful, the tomatoes you grew would be most excellent.”
Raising Steam offers more than laughs, however. There are plenty of thrills throughout the narrative, including a heart thumping train top battle royale, which illustrate just how accomplished Pratchett is at crafting action sequences, and more than a few moments that prove disarmingly moving.
But what really elevates the story from amusing yarn into something more (not that there’s anything wrong with a simple amusing yarn, mind) is the social commentary I mentioned earlier.
Most of the Discworld novels deal with “real issues”, and if Raising Steam can be said to have a unifying theme, it would be progress.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
This idea of progress (and people’s reaction to it) takes many shapes throughout the novel.
The most obvious manifestation comes in the form of Iron Girder herself.
In a world bereft of quick and economical transportation, the advancement of steam technology to the point where this is possible allows Pratchett to explore the excitement, fear and bitterness that any game-changing technology can bring.
Progress is also clear in the form of the railway, both in its physical expansion across the continent, as well as the considerable corporate growth that comes along with it.
This isn’t depicted as a bad thing necessarily, but Pratchett does seem to draw a distinction between the romance of Dick Simnel and his ingenuity versus the less charming wheelings and dealings of Moist and Sir Harry.
Furthermore, Raising Steam throws the spotlight on inequality in society and the workplace, and links improvements in this situation with the type of freedom and forward movement provided by the locomotive.
You can see it in the issues facing the newly empowered goblins, and in Moist’s endearing attempts to improve conditions of the oblivious golems.
But most importantly, it’s apparent in the role and opportunity of women in a society, which is exemplified through the portrayal of women in dwarfish culture.
Depicted as a people struggling between the old ways and the new, Pratchett’s dwarfs are so repressive to women that gender itself is something kept hidden in their community.
At the climax of the novel, when the Low King outs herself as a woman, it’s made clear that this is just as big a game-changer for dwarfish society as Iron Girder is for the wider world.
There’s a sense that this newly liberated people, like the passengers in Iron Girder’s carriages, can now be part of a much bigger and broader future, free of the restrictions of the past.
If Pratchett is especially scathing of any group in the novel, it’s those people who seek to cling to, or worse, brutally enforce these dated ways.
His fundamentalist dwarfs, with their refusal to consider the benefits of an integrated world and multicultural society, are characterised as cowards who rely on strength in numbers and cruel intimidation to maintain a self-serving status quo, the real world parallel for which should be fairly obvious.
Yes, whilst progress, be it technological or social, is shown to have its ups and downs in Raising Steam, it seems to be the author’s contention that its preferable to stagnation, which benefits no one.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
Raising Steam is a wonderful novel. Like Pratchett’s best work, it makes you laugh even as it engages your brain, and after reading it, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to read more stories set in the Discworld universe (and you should).
I’ve written this review as though Sir Terry were still alive. This was partly out of habit, but more than that, it’s because great artists never truly die while there are still people who treasure their work.
If this is indeed true, it’s comforting to know that Terry Pratchett will still be with us for a long time yet.