Thursday, May 26, 2016

Raising Steam, a review of the last (adult) Discworld novel

Raising Steam
Grade: D
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre: Fantasy satire/parody
Published: 2013

As the last of the adult Discworld novels (the very last Discworld book was The Shepard's Crown, a YA book), this was often quite obviously the book Pratchett was using to, well, clean up the Discworld and make it a nicer place.

Much as I dislike the result, I can sympathize with the urge.  Pratchett obviously loved the Discworld, all of the readers loved it, and the urge to tidy up, make things less tense, end wars, improve the lives of the denizens, and so forth are understandable. But while the urge is understandable it makes for a bad book.

Despite signs of the embuggerment (Pratchett's term for the mental degradation he experienced as his early onset Alzheimer's) making the book less tightly written and snappy than the earlier Discworld books, it was the cleanup effort that truly caused Raising Steam to be, well, bad.

It is, in a word, twee.

Begin with the goblins. I'd hoped that they would vanish after Snuff, but regrettably not.  Like Pratchett's attempt to rehabilitate, or put a different twist on, orcs in Unseen Academicals, the goblins simply don't work.

In theory they might, the Discworld has always been a place for Pratchett to set up, take the mick out of, and generally twist around and play with fantasy tropes and it's hard to find a fantasy trope more ripe for improvement than goblins and orcs.  While there had never been any real inclusion of either orcs or goblins in any prior Discworld novel their sudden addition wasn't really completely out of character for the series.  Pratchett has never been hobbled by continuity, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all, so the fact that he'd never mentioned them before and yet was now having everyone talk about them as if they'd been involved from the beginning isn't as big a deal as it might have been with a different author or a different series.

What is a big deal is how awful they are as characters and the clumsy, ham handed, way Pratchett handled them.

Goblins are established in Snuff as basically the Mary Sues of the Discworld.  Abused and put upon by the cold and unfeeling humans, dwarves, and trolls, the poor goblins struggle on despite it all, and are better at absolutely everything they attempt than any of the other races.  This saccharine cute victimhood is made even worse by the colonial approach to civilizing them and saving them from themselves and their victimhood.  One goblin girl, trained up by a well intentioned human to dress in human styles and learn human arts, plays the harp so well that everyone suddenly realizes that goblins are wonderful and laws are passed making them people.

They're back, and in many ways worse, in Raising Steam.  Now the goblins, such wonderful Mary Sues, have been found to be perfect at running clacks towers, turn out to be amazingly hyper competent mechanics, and super humanly good warriors to boot.  Or, rather, when lead by a white man they are anyway.

At one point Moist von Lipwig finds a particularly pathetic group of goblins, goblins who have literally had their children hunted for food by bandits for long enough for huge bone piles to build up, but goblins who apparently never thought to fight back until Moist (of all people) appears to lead them to victory at which point they quite handily eradicate the bandits in a single battle.

W.T.F. Pratchett?

The very racist trope he so successfully mocked in Jingo he now plays painfully straight.  Goblins are as supremely good at fighting as they are at literally everything else, yet until a human leader appears to tell them it's ok, they won't even fight back to save their children from being EATEN by human bandits?

This could possibly work if the goblins had been portrayed as having some sort of built in racial slave mentality, or total inability to do much of anything without outside guidance, or inability to think of doing things for themselves, or something.  And that would have made for some interesting ethical conundrums.  But no, they're perfectly capable of being independent, resourceful, snarky, and generally all around fully competent people.  Just not until a designated heroic human comes along and tells them it's ok.

Raising Steam is a book about trains, and so trains appear and spread with the sudden and impossible success that all new things do in the Discworld.  But unlike in the other books where he sort of glosses over the impossibly fast way things get built (the Clacks suddenly appearing, for example), Raising Steam spends an inordinate amount of time discussing how it is built, and since the speed at which it is built is flat out impossible, the whole book feels fake in a way that even Snuff didn't.

The Patrician's mysterious demand for train service to be extended several hundreds of miles to Bonk, all in a month or two, is never actually explained, it is simply a clumsy motive for a preposterous and utterly unbelievable set of events.

The train is used as the explanation for how Pratchett fixes up the Discworld and makes it all nice and twee before he leaves.  Life just gets better wherever the train goes, and the book assures us that soon the trail will go everywhere.

The Low King of the Dwarfs travels back home, after leaving in the middle of a crisis for no good reason but to allow a palace coup by the evil religious fanatics, returns and by his mere presence makes everything ok again, and then to fix the dwarfs Rhys Rhysson (known to us readers to be female since Fifth Element), publicly comes out as a woman.

This sudden revelation in the middle of widespread political turmoil, rather than reigniting the just barely put out fires of religious fanaticism and traditionalism, instead makes the dwarfs realize that being a woman is ok.  Less than an hour later as the newly revealed Low Queen of the Dwarfs travels to the Scone of Stone, hundreds of prominent dwarf women have curled their beards, welded heels to their boots, and put on eye shadow in order to show the reader that now dwarf society has been fixed and we don't have to worry about that anymore.

Clumsy, preachy, poorly thought out and executed, Raising Steam is unfortunately both the last Discworld novel, and the worst Discworld noel.  Rather than wrapping everything up neatly and leaving the reader feeling satisfied, it simply feels trite and bland.  And that's coming from a person who is in full agreement with the politics, atheist worldview, and social justice beliefs Pratchett was arguing for.

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