Friday, December 5, 2014

Review of Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2013)

Dick Simnel’s has inherited his father’s fascination for steam and the possibilities of harnessing its power.  Unlike his father, he relies on a slide rule and mathematics to tame and harness it, meaning he doesn’t vaporize himself as he tinkers.  The result is Iron Girder, a train that runs on rails.  Simnel takes his invention to the great city of Ankh-Morpork, seeking the help of self-made man, Harry King, to build a railway network.  The city’s patrician, Lord Vetinari, can see the inherent potential in quick, efficient and comfortable travel, but is also aware that luddites will try to limit progress.  He thus dispatches Moist von Lipwig, master of the Post Office, the Mint, and Royal Bank, to help smooth the way and negotiate routes.  In the meantime, a different kind of revolution is brewing in the Dwarf world, as conservative extremists plot to overthrow the more liberal king and destroy the corrupting influence of new technologies and multiculturalism.

Raising Steam is the 40th Discworld book in Terry Pratchett’s hugely successful fantasy/satire series.  I’ve read all of them bar two.  All of the books are consistently inventive, warmly humorous and satirical, and full of interesting characters and plots.  Raising Steam focuses attention on two main themes and their juxtaposition -- the creation of new technologies and how they can transform societies and produce new issues, and the rise of extremist religious groups that hold highly traditional and conservative views and want to mould society in their vision.  It’s an interesting tension, but in this case the story nonetheless feels like two quite different narratives being jammed together without ever fully blending.  Moreover, while the book is in the fantasy genre, there were inconsistencies or convenient plot devices that felt clunky, some characters felt surplus to requirements, and there are sub-plots that go nowhere.  For example, despite growing up relatively poor, Simnel’s mother just happens to have a fortune in the attic to fund the initial development of an engine.  And when Simnel travels to Ankh-Morpork to demonstrate the engine he has to set up a track to do so; somehow the big, heavy engine made the journey without rails, but now needs them to run.  We’re told of a wedding massacre and a young dwarf visiting his family being attacked, but these then sink without trace.  The result, for me, was one of the weakest books in the series.  Full of nicely penned characters (and there are an awful lot them, many from previous books snuck in for small cameo appearances), and packed with snippets of railway lore, but the plot not quite running on track.

1 comment:

Anonymous-9 said...

How curious. You'd think with a name like Pratchett (whom I've loved since The Colour of Magic) they could get a great editor to catch a hole like that, and get it filled. Nice call, Rob.