Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett.

This is what the world looks like when the Gods have
much imagination and little mechanical inclincation
Months after its debut in Britain, the fortieth of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld books has reached our shores. For those not in the know, Discworld is a series of fantasy novels set on a disc-shaped world balanced on the backs of four elephants which travel through space on the back of a great turtle. It is a world described as one created by gods with more imagination than mechanical ingenuity. Pratchett wrote the first of the Discworld books, The Colour of Magic, over three decades ago, and has been lovingly expanding his magical universe ever since. While the first three books read as a somewhat one-note parody of standard fantasy tropes, the series picked up a surprising measure of depth as it moved on, giving us the chance to see the growth of some very well-drawn and memorable characters. Has this upward trend in complexity and quality continued? How does volume 40 stack up to the rest (or to other books with which one might choose to spend ones time?)  Looking at it with a critical eye, Discworld has likely peaked several volumes ago. What we have now is, while pleasant, the literary equivalent of comfort food. It's still funny and enjoyable enough, but too much of that enjoyment stems from familiarity.

The motif of a typical Discworld book is to apply a modern and anachronistic concept to the fantasy setting and familiar set of characters. We've had the city guard and equal-opportunity hiring (including dwarves and trolls), witches and The Phantom of the Opera, trolls and rock music. Raising Steam, set in the Discworld metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, follows Going Postal and Making Money in following reformed scoundrel turned postmaster and chief banker Moist von Lipwig as he plays a part in introducing the first railroad to the Discworld after the invention of a steam engine. What conflict there is arises from a group of ultra-conservative dwarves known as Grags. We've seen them before as the Discworld equivalent of real-world religious fundamentalists. In the past, they've taken the role of maintaining the traditional culture, leaving more modern dwarves glad that someone was doing so as a sort of vague cultural pride. In Raising Steam we see the darker side of this, as heavily armed Grags engage in sabotage, assault, and even murder against elements of dwarven and non-dwarven society which they feel is inpure or non-dwarvish. They've gone from an insular religious order to religious terrorists, and the new steam engine is quite the modern target.

This should be a terrific set-up for a very exciting and interesting installment in the Discworld series, but it never quite came together for me. In the earlier novel Men at Arms, Pratchett introduced the first firearm to the Discworld.  There was not only tension but, in the final reckoning, a real cost in the death of a guardsman introduced early in the book and who we'd gotten to know. There've also been, througout the books, some real growth by several key characters. Sam Vines went from being an honest cop with a drinking problem to the commander of the watch, the husband of a rich society woman, a father, and a man who's come to understand the role of politics even if he doesn't like it. Does that sound like an interesting character arc? It is. Vimes is a terrific character, and watching his growth and development has been a treat. What else do you notice about the character arc I described? It's over. He's learned what he can learn, found his place in the world, and is both content there and almost supernaturally competent. This makes him, as a character, somewhat boring.

Near-supernatural levels of competence and decency have come to suffuse so much of the Discworld universe that the books have come to feel both too nice and too easy. Ankh-Morpork is ruled by a tyrant, which seems bad until you realize that he's an absurdly benevolent tyrant who is also utterly brilliant, a master-assassin, master of disguise, and thoroughly expert at manipulating people. His level of competency and control has grown greatly since he faced, quite a few books ago, a threat to his office.

Overall, this is sounding more negative than perhaps it should. The Discworld books remain great fun the same way a beloved television series remains fun. As it's settled down to later volumes, both Pratchett and his readers seem to have too great a level of affection for the Discworld characters to see them hurt, changed, or even much challenged. It becomes literary conflict as a Harlem Globetrotters game, in which we know the result ahead of time but come prepared to be dazzled. 

There are hints about how technology can transform the Discworld and, by extension, or own. This is one of my favorite lines of thought which, sadly, was not explored further. One of the cultural contributions of tje goblin race is potmaking. Here is one character's thought as some goblins start working on the new railway, perhaps instead of their pots: 

Sir Terry Pratchett. 
...what would happen if goblins learned everything about humans and did everything the human way because they thought it would be better than the goblin way... Will goblins really stop taking an interest in their pots and will humans learn the serious, valuable and difficult and almost magical skill of pot making? Or will goblins become, well, just another kind of human? And which would be better?

This is a lovely metaphor for globalization and a reminder that, as much as the goblins (and humans from far-flung corners of the globe!) have gained from the ability to share, there is inherent a levelling, a smoothing of sharp edges, and a loss of what makes individual cultures special or unique. I do wish that Sir Terry had taken this thought farther, and the hope that he may is as much a part of what will draw me to the forty-first Discworld book as the chance to revel in the familiar antics of the Disc's zany cast of characters. 

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