maandag 13 oktober 2014

Discworld: Raising Steam

(Just so you know, these first few posts are articles that have languished half-finished on my hard drive for a while, so they are not the most topical of texts)

Is the new Discworld novel any good? 

There was a time when you wouldn’t have to ask that question. Every book was as splendid as the last one. The biggest complaint anyone could level at them was that they didn’t feature their favorite character, but they were all amazing. But with the last couple of books people have had problems. And people know where to put the blame. The negative reviews started around the time Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. But the change of opinion among the fans was far to sudden. Alzheimer's is slow, creeping. If it had influenced mister Pratchett's writing style the decline should have been much more gradual. Which made me wonder, was the quality already in decline, but were people just not willing to admit that until there was something they could blame it on? Or did the diagnosis confront people with the fact that their favorite series will one day end, and does that knowledge influence their enjoyment of the books? Actually, I did not see much of decline myself. Granted, Unseen Academicals didn’t do much for me (but then again, it was about football) and Dodger was a real misfire, but the other recent books of mister Pratchett were still as amazing as ever, certainly the Moist von Lipvig novels and the Long Earth books.

But anyway… Raising Steam.

Personally, I enjoyed it tremendously. But I can see why people would disagree. For one, it’s not a very action packed book. There are bad guys, who do some heinous things from the very start, but the are entirely unconnected to the main plot until halfway through, and even then they remain peripheral until the climax. They never seem much of a threat, and it’s just the same guys as in Thud! and The Fifth Elephant, only this time they're more pathetic.

So what is the main plot? It’s about starting up the Disc’s first railway line. Previous Discworld book have also revolved around the starting of a new business, but there the main threat was a threat to said business. The railway though… it’s never in much trouble. Now and then it seems as if a massive pr-disaster is going to happen, but then Moist Von Lipvig just fixes it a few pages later.

Sounds pretty boring. So why did I enjoy it? Because as we follow the trains, we get a lovely revisiting of many Discworld people, locales and concepts. The traintracks pass through places not seen since Equal Rites and Mort (Both from 1987!). We get to see the result of the character development that went on with Moist, Vimes and Vetinari in the last few books. Old favorites as Nanny Ogg and Rincewind are mentioned, Death, Lu-Tze and even minor characters from Reaper Man and The Truth make appearances. And it never feels like pandering to the fans. Every mention, every cameo, every plot point makes sense. Of course the king of Lancre wants in on the railway, that fits his character perfectly. Of course the mechanic from Reaper Man is going to be instrumental in the discovery of the steam enige, he was already experimenting with steam way back in 1991! And of course Vetinari would use… no, I won’t spoil that one for you.
Perhaps the clearest example of all this is how the plot is resolved. I’ll keep it vague, but be warned, some spoilers ahead.

You see, the reason everything goes so smoothly in this book, is the result of the developments we’ve seen in the last fifteen or so novels. The easing of the relationships between Dwarves and Trolls. The emancipation of Golems and Goblins. The new international politics. The technical developments. All these come together in this book to fix to problems of the day. Which makes for a less adrenaline fueled book (which is even lampshaded in the book itself, with Moist saying he had expected a bigger final battle), but makes it a perfect capstone to the Discworld saga.

Yes, I just said capstone.

This really feels to me like the last book in the series. Perhaps that is just the way the knowledge of mister Pratchett’s disease has been influencing me, but I think even if I hadn't know that this book would feel like a finale. The last few novels were all about introducing new things. New characters, new places… the last two books each introduced a completely new species with a new culture to the Discworld! But Raising Steam is not about introducing new things, it's about using the tools in the box. All of them. There is even a reference to Scouting for Trolls, the book that mister Pratchett suggested as a future novel way back in 2005, but that has never materialized. We are given a final tour across our beloved setting, to check in on everything and everyone, and to see how all the changes to the setting have been for the better.

This feeling is strengthened by the one new thing this novel does introduce: the steam train. Back when Night Watch was released (2002) Terry Pratchett was asked about the way the Discworld was progressing, and said the following: 

"You can have quite a good steam railway in a fantasy universe. The problem is what happens next. You change the whole nature of society with one invention, and it'll change still further in ways you can't predict. That's quantum for you: you can't just change one thing."

The Discworld has been changing in major ways, at least since The Fifth Elephant (1999) introduced the clacks (the equivalent of the telegraph). While earlier novels always ended with the invention of the day, whether it's Moving Pictures or Rock & Roll, being wiped from the universe, the clacks remained. And in the following books, so did the printing press, the postal service and the monetization of Ankh-Morpork (based on the Golem Standard). Several throw-away lines have hinted at further changes, such as an Industrial Revolution based on a perpetual-motion machine (from Thud!) or the "Undertaking" (The Ankh-Morpork underground, mentioned in Making Money.) But as mister Pratchett said, change one thing and more changes should follow. And eventually you end up with a world unrecognizable from what it originally was.

That mister Pratchett invoked the steam railway as the thing that would change everything, coupled with this book referencing every previous book... it feels like a capstone. A bittersweet tour train journey past all of the Discworld features we remember, before they're changed forever. The book even ends with a "And the journey continues!" scene!

You'd think I'd feel terrible about my favorite book series ending, but we all knew it was coming. And I firmly believe that stories are better for having an ending. One day I should write a blog post about endings, and why Marvel and DC are worse off for eschewing them. It would be a shame for the Discworld to suddenly end without a proper send off. And another writer capturing the magic... Mister Pratchett has officially states that his daughter will inherrit the Discworld, but I can't imagine anyone getting his tone down perfectly. 

Part of me feels bad for writing this extensively on the end of the Discworld when PTerry quite clearly aten't dead yet, but it's what Raising Steam brings out in me. It's not a very exiting novel on its own. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but the most hardcore Discworld fan. But if you are so deeply invested in the Disc as me, it becomes a loving celebration of the series, and how much the Discworld has changed for the better over the years.

A rare case of something you never want to end ending well.

And now if you'll excuse me, I just have to reread 40 novels.

1 opmerking:

  1. My continual feeling throughout the book was that there was never any suspense, any build-up towards some great climax where the world went completely insane before a single character came to the rescue at the very last moment to save the day. Like you said, every impending crisis was solved within a couple of pages, and the train kept going on smoothly (if you pardon the pun).

    It eventually led to me not even finishing the book (with only 50-something pages to go), but that also had to do with the fact that I accidentally sat on my e-reader and destroying the upper-right part of the device. That meant that every page, I had to deduce a couple of sentences from the context. That gets old fast.