Sep. 28th, 2016

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Just finished Terry Pratchett's "Raising Steam", which is a pleasant if not outstanding read. This is late-career Pratchett, which means it's less about the funny and more about the profound.

Front and center is Moist van Lipwig, former con-man who's been reformed (forcibly) by Lord Vetinari, de facto ruler of Ankh Morpork, and who's had his criminal tendencies redirected into more socially useful pathways, including the banking system, the postal system, the clacks (telegraph) system (now ably run by Moist's wife), and in this book, steam-powered railways. Many other favorite characters return to play important roles, including Harry King, the "king of shit"* (literally, since he became rich building a business to remove the city's excrement and turn the waste into gold). The basic plot is that a plucky young Heinleinian inventor archetype invents a safe and efficient steam engine and promptly begins seeking help to turn it into a continent-wide railway; "Raising Steam" is all about the economic and cultural revolution that railways created. Harry's the financier, and Moist is the troubleshooter and problem solver. Needless to say, not everyone is happy about the new invention and troubles ensue.

* There's some interesting stuff going on beneath the surface that arises from the British class system, and the differences between those who were born to wealth and those who achieve it through the sweat of their brow. This is almost never foregrounded, but it's definitely working to shape things in ways that seem a bit strange to a North American reader who's paying attention.

The best things about the book involve how Moist (building on the work of prevous protagonists, including the beloved Sam Vimes, leader of the police) is slowly spreading the gospel of treating people like people, even if they're goblins/trolls/dwarves/whatever. It's not Utopian by any means (here, for instance, a large component of the dwarves are behaving like terrorists, and particularly thick ones at that*), but it's aspirational in a way that's rare in fantasy. Leads me to wonder aloud whether utopia are boring because there's no conflict, whereas aspirational novels (striving for utopia but not quite getting there) are more interesting because the conflict continues.

* Yes, there's clearly an Islamic vibe here (modernism vs. traditionalism butting heads and creating enormous collateral damage), played out in interesting and intensely human -- or perhaps dwarvish -- ways.

Ironically, the downside of this book results from its positive side: as Roddenberry did with the Ferengi in the Trekverse, Pratchett takes what was a potentially powerful source of conflict ("us versus the other") and tames it. Some readers won't like the result because it blunts the book's edge and in so doing, softpedals some of the very real issues related to learning to just get along and work together to make the world a better place. I'd love to read a critical analysis of Pratchett by someone (e.g., a cultural anthropologist) who really understands British culture and can explain how it's playing out in Pratchett's books. I catch tantalizing glimpses now and then, but they're definitely an outsider's glimpses. Here, for instance, this widespread and strong surface acceptance of "other races" overlying simmering and unresolved issues struck me as very British. But again, that's an outsider's view.

Not much more to say other than that even subpar Pratchett is still better than most other books. Worth a look, particularly if you like railroads.


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