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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Discworld at its best - but never write Pratchett off., 13 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Raising Steam: (Discworld novel 40) (Discworld Novels) (Hardcover)
In "Raising Steam", Sir Terry Pratchett revisits familiar themes - the world is changing, whether we like it or not; technology will out; we should welcome that, because change is good. Also: prejudice between the peoples is bad.

In this book, the new technology is the steam railway. The time has finally come to usher in the Discworld's Industrial Revolution. The prejudice is that of traditionalist dwarves, or "grags", as featured in a number of earlier books, against anything they see as non-dwarvish, but particularly against trolls. Pratchett mashes these two themes together, pitting his new railway, which has evolved rapidly, against the cabal of grags.

In earlier books, the new technology might perhaps have met more significant challenges within Ankh Morpork itself and the focus would have been on overcoming them, before it can then be used to achieve the wider purpose. Here, though, only trivial setbacks arise early on and they are easily overcome. Herein, I think, lies a problem. There is no real tension in the first part of the book. It's basically a story of triumph, as the new Hygienic Railway carries all before it. Every problem is foreseen or easily brushed aside. After all, the railway is backed by the realpolitic of Lord Vetinari, the real gold of Harry King, the silver tongue of Moist von Lipwig, and the engineering skills of Dick Simnel, master of the sine, the cosine and the sliding-ruler. If that wasn't enough, there is Iron Girder herself...

That doesn't make it dull, exactly. There is still plenty of Pratchett's characteristic humour and his sharp observation to keep one reading. For example, Moist's adept PR act, rushing to the scene of a disaster to reassure the public and the Press that all was well (maybe Sir Terry is drawing on his days working in PR for the Electricity Board?) Or the episode where a group of children stop the train by waving their petticoats. Or the development of trainspotting as a hobby (following the pin and stamp collectors). And a mini tour of Discworld (with a map! WITH A MAP!) is acceptable reading any day. But still, little really seems to happen.

In the second part of the book events do gather pace as the dwarvish Luddism takes hold. Plots are hatched and the story moves up several gears, with an extended sequence that reminded me of that old film North West Frontier. But while more serious threats come along, I still wasn't in any doubt of the eventual outcome. There is little sense of potential loss or necessary sacrifice. In this, it reminded me of the Long Earth books. Rather than our heroes being outsiders (even temporary outsiders, like Vimes in Snuff) who have to duck and dive and risk loss to get through, they are backed by endless wealth and a powerful corporation wielding advanced technology (for the time) and can hardly fail.

So, for me, this is far from the best of the Discworld books. Yes, Pratchett, even off form, still beats most authors hands down, so this is well worth reading and a must-have, obviously, for real fans. But it's a shame that the standard of Snuff and Unseen Academicals isn't maintained. Which brings me to the (6th?) elephant in the room - whether, in judging this book one should make allowances for what one might suppose to be the effect of Terry's horrible illness, putting any flaws in the book down to that (which would suggest the outlook is poor) or whether the reviewer should ignore it. It's a tricky question. I tend to feel books should be judged on their own merits, regardless of sympathy for the author's situation (and I have a huge amount of sympathy, and admiration for Sir Terry's continuing to write despite his problems).

Actually, though, I'm far from convinced that the problems with "Raising Steam" (and some others don't see them - look at all the reviews that just say "it's great!") are anything to do with the author's health, or to the fact that he has to work in a different way, or whatever. No, that's not enough. I don't believe that is the case at all, and I think assuming so may actually be a bit patronising (even if that's not intended). The Discworld books have never been even (that's one of their joys). Some are much better than others. It shouldn't be too much of a surprise to see some misses among the hits. And as I said above, the most recent ones are - in my view - among the best. I'd draw a comparison with one of my other favourite authors, George Orwell. He was dying of TB when he wrote his last published work, Nineteen-Eighty Four. It IS a gloomy book, and critics sometime paint it as Orwell's last, despairing testament, influenced by his condition. Yet I've read that after finishing it he started another work, quite different in tone. Had he lived longer, Nineteen-Eighty Four would not have been his last work. It's too easy to carry across what we know about the author into an assessment of their writing.

Even if this book isn't a "blip" it may simply be that the Discworld concept is - sorry about the pun - just running out of steam, after 40 books. Indeed, bringing in something as transformational as steam power may actually signal the end - after all, from here it must be technology all the way, mustn't it? What space now for magic and cheerful anarchy - instead we've the sliding-ruler of Mr Simnel and the railway timetable to steer us into a shiny new future. Just what Lord Vetinari has been aiming for, but possibly not so much fun to read.

That would be sad if true, though it would still leave us the most wonderful series of books since P G Wodehouse was writing. But I don't believe this has to be the end. Let's not get all mournful. Instead, let's celebrate Sir Terry's life and work (so far) and the fact that he's still writing, and hope for more - and, yes, for better - in the future. At the least, I'll be eager for the next Discworld book - a Tiffany Aching one, I understand - to see what is really going on.

Buy this book!

[Edited 28/7/14 to include a reference to the new book, which Sir Terry has mentioned].
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 14 Nov 2013 14:49:32 GMT
Kev Partner says:
I'm half way through and glad to hear that the pace will pick up soon. I wholeheartedly agree with your third paragraph from the end - I didn't enjoy The Last Continent or Monstrous Regiment and these were both written well before his illness. Snuff was a work of utter genius in my view, on the other hand, so I think it more likely that this particular book is one that simply doesn't quite hit the mark with readers such as you and I. Given that it stars Moist, I had high hopes as I thoroughly enjoyed Going Postal and Making Money but the first part of this book has been largely a documentary rather than a story - I look forward to the end being better than the beginning!

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Nov 2013 16:19:00 GMT
D. Harris says:
Thank you. I think the difference between this book and the previous Moist ones is that he's not "up against it" in the same way here, so doesn't have the chance to shine in the same way. It's all too easy.
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