Book review: “Raising Steam” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s 40th Discworld novel Raising Steam, a wonderfully witty and thoughtful book, seems to have been a very personal novel for him to write.

pratchett --- Raising Steam

For one thing, Pratchett seems to be in love with locomotives and railroading, the latest new technology to come along and wreak vast changes, good and bad, on the nature of everyday life in Ankh-Morpork (the New York City of this particular alternate reality) and a large area of the Disc.

In 1979, a German publisher issued The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, a wildly interesting look at the impact of the new technology of railroading on everyday life in our particular reality. Seven years later, it appeared in English.

Its author was a German-born resident of New York City — Wolfgang Schivelbusch.(1)

I’m betting Pratchett read Schivelbusch’s delightfully eye-opening book about how the railroad suddenly changed the way people thought of distances and speed and landscapes and each other. (2) (3)

schivelbusch combo

A thrilling, unexpected, unparalleled experience

In Raising Steam, Pratchett, in his own wacky way, puts his characters smack-dab in the middle of a thrilling, unexpected, unparalleled experience that, in his own way, Schivelbusch wrote about in The Railway Journey.

And Pratchett’s as excited as if he were one of the engineers creating a (safe) locomotive or one of the small boys running along the tracks or one of the housewives and shop-keepers standing in line pay a fee just to ride around a circle of track in a railroad carriage behind the first locomotive Iron Girder.

An early fan (and the major investor) in the railroad is Sir Harry King, the night soil magnate. (4) Harry, who has had a wide-ranging experience with the underworld beyond just cesspools, enjoys the respectability the railroad gives him. Even more, though, he is captivated by something more mystical:

“Oh, of course, I’ll still be maintaining the night-soil business and all of that…it is, after all, my bread and butter, so to speak, which, to tell you the truth, is more like steak and all the trimmings nowadays, but right now my heart is in the iron.

“And who can say that ain’t beautiful, Mister Lipwig? I mean, daffodils, well, I quite like them, but look at the sheen on the steel, the sweat on the men; the future being made one hammer blow at a time. Even the slag is beautiful in a way.”

Waxing poetic

Harry’s voice is Pratchett’s. Well, maybe not about the night soil being his steak and trimmings, but in the way he waxes poetic about this machine that is something more than a collection of parts.

Moist Lipwig — top that name! — is a fixer for Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, the ever-so-polite tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, and, when he looks at Iron Girder, this is what he sees:

Behind them, inside the shed, was the shuddering metallic monster, and it was alive. It really was alive! The thought lodged instantly in Moist’s brain. He smelled its breath and heard its voice. Yes, life; strange life but nonetheless life of a sort. Every part of it was subtly shaking and moving, almost dancing by itself, a thing alive, and waiting.

A few minutes later, after having been shown the locomotive by its creator Dick Simnel, Moist gets up close and personal:

And as Harry led the Patrician toward his office, Moist ran his hand over the warm living metal of Iron Girder. This is going to be the wonder of the age, he thought. I can smell it! Earth, air, fire, and water. All the elements. Here is magic, without wizards! I must have done something good to be in this place, here today, at this time.

In both cases, Moist’s voice is Pratchett’s.


There’s another way in which Raising Steam seems particularly personal for Pratchett, and it has to do with a comment that Dick Simnel says to Moist after a dwarf saboteur dies in a scald of steam from the seemingly quiescent Iron Girder.

Mister Lipwig, I’m an engineer. I don’t believe in magic, but I’m wondering right now whether magic believes in Iron Girder. Every day when I come into work there’re the train spotters, always there, and now they’ve got little sheds of their own…Have you noticed? They almost know more about ‘er than I do, I tell thee,…

For one thing, as much as Pratchett loves the locomotives, he hates the fundamentalist dwarf fanatics who are attempting to use terrorism to destroy railroading and return the Disc to an earlier time when every group hated every other group.

Pratchett holds no truck with that, as the reader can feel, viscerally, so to speak, when Iron Girder protects itself by vaporizing that skulking dwarf saboteur in a particularly satisfying little scene.

…in the gloom the locomotive spat live steam, instantly filling the air with a pink fog…

The dwarf waited, unable to move, and a somber voice said, PLEASE DO NOT PANIC. YOU ARE MERELY DEAD.

As Pratchett’s loyal readers know, that voice, in capital letters, belongs to the skeletal person of Death who for all his lack of, well, everything except bones, has shown in earlier books a rather complex and sardonic personality.

“More about ‘er than I do”

So, Pratchett seems to enjoy dispatching one of the bad guys of the book, but I’m even more interested in what Dick Simnel said about how Iron Girder seems to have a life of its own and how its fans “almost know more about ‘er than I do.”

Reading that, I couldn’t help but hear Pratchett speaking with Simnel’s voice.

It certainly seems that, in that paragraph, the Iron Girder is a stand-in for Pratchett’s immensely popular Discworld series. And that Simnel is a stand-in for Pratchett.

I imagine he must look at the millions of books that have been published under his name, and the vast fan network that the series has spawned and wonder what it all means.

Yes, the Discworld and all its many wildly inventive stories and all its many zany characters is the product of Pratchett’s mind. But, like any author, he knows that, once his words have left his brain, they take on a life of their own, interacting with each reader in a unique way.

Like Dick Simnel, I think Pratchett looks at what he had wrought.

And is overwhelmed with humility and awe.

Patrick T. Reardon

(1) Now, there’s a name that might easily belong to one of Pratchett’s characters.
(2) I’m also betting that Pratchett, given who he is, has read at least a couple of other Schivelbusch books,
Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants about the impact that previously unknown food and drink from the New World had on the Old World, and Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century about the impact of electrical light on Europe and North America.
(3) But enough of this tangent on a tangent.
(4) Harry is known, lovingly, to his wife Effie as the “King of Shit.”