Friday, November 21, 2014

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett

I love the breadth and depth of the Discworld novels, and this is the 40th book in the series. Terry Pratchett is a treasure, and his books have brought me great joy. He is also dealing with Alzheimers, joint book projects, and what appears to be some high level administration of his creative empire. If we didn't know about the illness, this book would probably get a great deal of negative review along the lines of "rushed to publication."

All of these things matter, because this book felt like a not-quite-finished draft of the book it should have been.

The expected Pratchett plot structure is certainly present. The multiple plot threads, that work at cross purposes, are there. The work of structuring the book has been done--it's the layers that live on top of the plot outline that feel not quite finished.

Someone (no one we have ever met before, Dick Simnel) has invented the steam engine (just as in past books, someone has invented movable type and the printing press, or stamps, or moving pictures) and the Discworld is not going to be the same any more. Meanwhile, the Koom Valley Accord is not accepted by everybody, and this time it's the conservative faction of the dwarves who are trying to turn the clock backwards by destroying clacks towers and stopping the railway, while ousting the Low King as well. We have schisms in the dwarf community, we have religious differences, we have conspiracy and plotting, we have political maneuvering and a chance to see all the different types of dwarves.

Simultaneously, we have the opportunity to get a history lesson told by Uncle Terry, who highlights the humorous elements of what is basically the story of How Britain Got The Railroads. And the thing about bringing railroads to Discworld, is there are many many towns we haven't seen yet. What happens when Two Shirts is suddenly only a day from Ankh-Morpork? It's kind of like a revisiting of the early novels when Rincewind (who was never a great character) used to run from place to place and we'd get a travelogue of a place that was kind of like Australia or China, but wasn't quite.

So the bones of the story are absolutely there. Three very big plot strands--railroads, political intrigue among the dwarfs, and either new locations on the Disc, or new interactions among the places we already know. Next important element is--who is our protagonist? Who is going to lead us through these various threads?

Personally, I like Moist von Lipwig. His two novels (Going Postal and Making Money) were certainly full of lots of interesting details on the nature of money and finance. Stamps are actually paper currency--well, of course they are, I just hadn't really thought about those similarities. Financial crimes are based on "the idea of money" which seems to be what Wall Street is about these days. What do you do when it costs more to make a penny than the penny is worth? So Raising Steam as a Moist von Lipwig novel means it's going to be about the way a steam engine affects the financial world, right? Questions of financing such an undertaking, fortunes made by cleverly anticipating how the railroad might be used to move people and commodities, buying up land for the right of way, negotiations of contracts and the effects of the rail gaining here rather than there.

Of course, it could be a story like The Truth, which followed William de Worde and the creation of journalism in Ankh-Morpork, in which case, it would be about Dick Simnel and how he comes to understand the vast scope of his little invention. Instead, we get a story about a bunch of things that happened that just didn't matter and in the end there is a battle that doesn't happen. Moist doesn't behave much like Moist, Dick Simnel fails to come alive as a character, and mostly the story goes too fast. It doesn't slow down for the kind of wonderfully observed details that are the reason you read Pratchett books.

The story focuses mostly on the creation of the railroad. Dick Simnel shows up in Ankh-Morpork pretty quickly with a working steam locomotive. He immediately gets financed by Harry King. Vetenari strong-arms Moist into being the official city representative, and then orders the rail to be built to Uberwald as fast as possible. This shouldn't probably take much much longer than it does, as negotiating agreements with landowners really needs to happen before they know you are desperate to get to a particular destination. Also, the creation of steel hasn't really been clearly achieved in Discworld, much less enough to build the kind of infrastructure necessary for a continent spanning railway. But Vetinari has put Moist onto the job in order to get it accomplished, and it gets accomplished. With very little memorable about the project.

Unlike in the previous Moist-centric books, he is not actually trying to achieve anything other than the success of the railroad. He has no cross purpose or ulterior motive, so we don't see him wrestling with his own divided nature--his crass desires for personal advancement and freedom against his better nature and recognition of the value of his undertaking. Instead, Moist has to make the railway work in order for the climax of the novel to happen in Uberwald, so it gets built with very little in the way of effective obstruction, or colorful characters. There is the marvelously named Marquis of Aix en Paines, but he's not memorable except for the name.

There is no real joy in the project for Moist either. Nothing like the colossal scam he pulled in Going Postal to fund the rebuilding of the torched Post Office building. Nothing like the deft handling of difficult people to his own advantage like the characters of Tolliver Groat and Stanley. He is basically an efficient executive for the building of the railroad. So, he isn't recognizably Moist.

There is a moment--just a brief few lines, where the old Moist shows up. He's on the train, expecting sabotage from the Deep Down Dwarves and grags, so he goes up to top of the cars and gets used to the motion. He dances. Compare it to the generous description Pratchett gave of Moist scaling the outside of the Post Office (was that in Making Money?) You can see what Pratchett used to put into his writing, and what is tragically missing from this effort.

There are many other elements that seem only partially completed. There is a scene where Moist goes to the maquis outside Quirm, where hundreds, possibly thousands, of impoverished goblins are barely surviving. One gives him a potion, and he becomes basically a berserker, killing several of the rebelling dwarves in a scene that is only vaguely sketched. And then he basically gets over it. But this is Moist von Lipwig who used to take such pride in only scamming people who tried to scam him first. Moist von Lipwig who never used violence, and was offended by the implication that his scoundreling could have had fatal consequences. This is a man who lived by his wits, never violence. So why make him be violent now? Shouldn't that have had consequences? But the dead dwarfs are universally treated as bad guys who deserved what they got so there are no effects of the battle. Later, as the book approaches it's climax, there are fights with dwarfs who are either killed outright, or dropped off cliffs, or apparently run over by the train. Many of these dwarfs are described as young ones who were too naive or unthinking to realize the evil of their actions (so why did they have to be killed by Moist?) or were deep downers who were just bad (but then why were they above ground at all?)

In the end, the Low King gets to Uberwald in time (of course he does! There was never really any doubt) but there is no real confrontation with the conspirators and usurpers. There is a pale imitation of the scene from Fifth Elephant, when the leading conspirator is revealed to be sad and broken. In this case Ardent is grasping for power, but his methods are pretty much inconsistent and nonsensical. Why is he suddenly a grag, when in Thud! he was an administrator for them? He is agitating for the return to the old ways of the world, where dwarfs weren't expected to be friends with trolls, and goblins had no rights, so in theory, dwarfs had more power and prestige in the world? But now tearing down clacks towers was going to undo those changes is completely unexplained. Then, by the end of the book, he is described as being so ideological that he has progress to a place "beyond sanity" but the book doesn't really show it.

Finally, Raising Steam ends with the Low King of the Dwarfs reclaiming his throne from Ardent with basically no battle, and then awkwardly declaring her gender as female and insisting on being their Queen rather than their King. This had been clearly communicated in Fifth Element, but with the practical political recognition that it was not yet time to lead/force dwarfs into recognizing gender yet. There is literally nothing about dwarf gender in Raising Steam that would lead you to think things had changed. Why would the proper response to Ardent's coup, based as it was on the diminishing role of dwarfs (compared to trolls and goblins) and the Luddite distrust of clacks and railways, why would that the the impetus for gender identity?

So many places where I expected to get some character byplay, some conversation between characters (new ones even) that would make them feel vital--and those either didn't happen, or happened only in truncated form.

Of course, I didn't initially care for Monstrous Regiment at first, and came to love it after re-reading it later. There may well be more in Raising Steam than we would get from anyone else writing this story. But it feels like a diminution of the titanic talent that is Pratchett at his best, and that is our loss.