Raising Steam: A Review and An Epitaph

I will be brief in my disappointment. Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam is not worth your time.

Cover Image, 2013.
Cover Image, 2013.

And now let us be downright expansive about why this is so.

Although the premise of the book–the discovery of the power of live steam and the harnessing of it to set up the known Disc’s first railway service–is not as enticing to me as the promised Raising Taxes, it begins well enough, with a discernible, though weak, Pratchett touch:

Anyone who has ever seen the River Ankh sliding along its bed of miscellaneous nastiness would understand why so much of the piscine food for the people of Ankh-Morpork has to be supplied by the fishing fleets of Quirm. In order to prevent terrible gastric trouble for the citizenry, Ankh-Morpork fishmongers have to ensure that their suppliers make their catches a long, long way from the city.

It surfaces again here and there in the book. For instance:

It is said that a soft answer turneth away wrath, but this assertion has a lot to do with hope and was now turning out to be patently inaccurate, since even a well-spoken and thoughtful soft answer could actually drive the wrong kind of person into a state of fury if wrath was what they had in mind, and that was the state the elderly dwarf was now enjoying.

However, the instances are so few, and so far between that halfway through the book, I was convinced that Pratchett’s publishers–out of perhaps charity–had allowed a tenacious but not particularly talented teen to ghost-write the bits Pratchett felt unable to pen. Unfortunately for the reader, these turned out to be nearly the whole book.

There is a fair chance a fan who has not yet read the book will believe how unPratchettish it is. Because surely, there is discretion, brand-value, editors, competent ghost writers, and all that sort of thing to make sure a popular author’s reputation and legacy doesn’t crumble to dust with his final published work. Sadly, it appears there isn’t. Here are a few samples from Raising Steam to demonstrate exactly how much there isn’t. Be warned, it’s tragic.

Far away in a small mine at Copperhead, Maelog Cheerysson the cobbler put down his hammer and tacks.
‘Look here, my boy,’ he said to his son, who was leaning on his work bench. ‘I’ve heard what you said about the grags being the salvation of dwarfs, and this morning I found this: it’s an iconograph of me in Koom Valley. The last time. Oh, yes, I was there, nearly everybody was there. We’d been told by the grags that the trolls were our enemies and I thought of them as nothing more than nasty big lumps of rock out to crush us! Well, we were all lined up facing the buggers, and then somebody shouted, “Trolls, put down your weapons! Dwarfs, put down your weapons! Humans, put down your weapons!”
‘And there we stood and we could all hear other voices in different languages and right in front of me there was this bloody big troll, oh my! He had his great big hammer ready to pulverize me. That was not to say that my axe wasn’t about to take his bloody knees off at the same time, but the voices were so loud that everybody stopped and looked around and he looked at me and I looked at him and he said, “What’s happening here, mister?” and I said, “I’m damned if I know!”
[…] ‘And then a dwarf came up to us and said, “Good fortune, lads, you’re going to see something that no one else has seen for millions of years,” and we did, I reckon. We were some way away from the front of the queue because trolls and humans and dwarfs were coming back out of the cavern, and every single one of them going past us looked as if he’d been hypnotized.
‘Now, I’ve told you about the miracle of Koom Valley before, my lad, but you haven’t seen this iconograph of me and Smack. It was took at the time just after we realized we weren’t going to be fighting that day and we all went in ones and twos into that cavern and saw the two kings: the king of the dwarfs and the king of the trolls, entombed in shining rock, playing Thud! And we saw it! And it was true! They’d been friends in death. And that gave us the signal that we needn’t be enemies in life.
…Now don’t tell me, my lad, that the grag extremists are on our side, because they ain’t. They’re the ones that’ll tell you that the dead kings have been made up in Ankh-Morpork and were dummies and so were we if we thought they were real. And, my boy, the dumb believe it! But I was there. What I touched I felt, and so did everybody else on that day and that’s why I get angry when the grags start preaching about the horrible humans and the terrible trolls.
‘They want us to be frightened of one another, thinking there must be an enemy, but the only enemy now is the grags and those poor fools like your brother, who set fire to a clacks tower and got badly burned for his trouble. They are the victims of the sneaking bastards in the darkness.’

Can even a dilettante of a fan believe something so damnably preachy and unsubtle could be in a Pratchett piece? I ask you this as an appalled fan. I once read a book by a celebrated right-wing militant Christian as an experiment in endurance, and the narrative style in much of the above extract is eerily similar: putting quotes around preachery to pretend it’s conversation. And stuff like this abounds. The narrative progresses through childish descriptions and stilted transfers of point of view.

The Low King’s bellow of rage and betrayal when the news of the massacre at the railhead arrived echoed around the state quarters and into every corner of the great cavern… ‘Dwarfs have killed railway workers!’ he shouted. ‘Ordinary men, going about their business in an enterprise that would be useful to dwarfs as well as humans.’ The King looked almost in tears and thumped a fist into the palm of his hand.
He raised his voice and shouted, ‘And this is the king of the trolls, our one-time arch enemy, but now a personal friend of mine!
He paused and glared at the growing crowd…
By the Low King’s side, Bashfull Bashfullsson picked up the theme. He looked around at the assembled dwarfs and spoke…
Glaring at the onlookers, Bashfullsson continued…
At this point a dwarf arrived in the chamber at a run and whispered something to the Low King’s loyal secretary, Aeron, who looked sombre.
‘So, the stupid troublemaker has run away,’ hissed the Low King in barely suppressed fury.

There are significant changes in characterisation as well. We have a Vetinari who has abandoned his smooth, polite terror in favour of delivering threats in raised voices, admitting to “putting pressure” on people, and declaring smugly that he understands people and the ways of the world. We have an Adora Belle who has apparently given up smoking. We have an uncharacteristically loquacious Harry King, and of course, as shown above, we have a screaming Rhys Rhysson who crashes his fists on tables. All of this felt uncomfortable, disorienting, and vaguely Bizzaro. Or, as a friend said, like seeing all the adults get drunk and dance on the table at your 10th birthday party.

All in all, a disappointment. As a fan, I feel both duped, because this clearly isn’t a PTerry book so what was the point, really, apart from money? And I also feel deeply saddened, because see all of the above. Raising Steam, and the preceding Unseen Academicals, is perhaps a very strong hint that we should accord PTerry a well-earned rest, and dismiss fond hopes of another Watch and another Witches book.

PTerry, you are leaving behind a fantastic legacy, in both senses of the word. Your rest is well earned. Tell your publishers to bugger off, lie back, and enjoy a very well-earned rest.

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