Volume 033, Number 01, Fall, 2014

Raising Steam

By Terry Pratchett

Doubleday 2014
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
September 2014

In the later Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has been fictionalizing the history of the Enlightenment, especially in England. Past novels have looked at newspapers (The Truth), telecommunications (Going Postal), and the abolition of slavery (Snuff) and have explored the nature of political change (Night Watch). Raising Steam, as its title implies, goes all the way into the age of steam, portraying the building of the Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygienic Railway, the Discworld’s first railroad. In effect, Pratchett’s fantasy has now become steampunk, of a kind very different from the fashion statement that the steampunk movement lately seems to have turned into—one that actually explores and indeed celebrates the technological transformation of everyday life. (Incidentally, there’s a really beautiful old-fashioned railway map as a frontspiece in this book.)

Raising Steam also reads like a celebration of the Discworld as a whole, and especially of Ankh-Morpork, its greatest city and Pratchett’s analog of London, in a way that gives it a valedictory quality. The plot brings onstage a large cast of major and minor characters from earlier novels and largely reconciles their conflicts. We see Samuel Vimes and Moist von Lipwig as allies (William de Worde, Pratchett’s earlier attempt at providing an alternative viewpoint for novels set in Ankh-Morpork, is almost entirely offstage, though the Ankh-Morpork Times is not), and the Low King of the Dwarfs, Rhys Rhysson, gaining unquestioning support from his former political rivals Albrecht Albrechtsson and Bashfull Bashfullson in a time of crisis. In fact, the story’s main opposition comes from the most fanatically traditionalist dwarves, turning to assassination, terrorism, and political authoritarianism to oppose new technologies and new customs—but in an odd way, this reads almost like a subplot. The main story is one of Moist von Lipwig’s ingenuity in solving the novel problems of building a railroad, from securing rights of way to avoiding lethal accidents. In a way, it’s the same kind of story Robert Heinlein told in “The Man Who Sold the Moon.”

On another level, this is a sequel to Small Gods, the novel that made it clear how gods are created on the Discworld, by the power of mortal belief. Over the course of this novel, the first locomotive of the Discworld, Iron Girder, emerges as a goddess of rapid transportation and of technology, not only metaphorically but literally—a goddess whose essential identity is, in the words of her builder, “power under control.”

But that same phrase could apply to the political themes of this story. Pratchett is celebrating the state, for its power to accomplish things, in a way that libertarian readers may find somewhat foreign—but he celebrates it as power under control: the control over Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Havelock Vetinari, a tyrant who uses his power for largely untyrannical ends. The climax of the novel indeed is motivated by Vetinari’s unreasonable goals for the railroad; but most of what he does, having set them, is to stay out of the way of the characters who actually accomplish them.

And there are a lot of libertarian notes in this story, starting with Moist von Lipwig’s speech about how technological change has always meant that some people benefit and others lose out, starting with the first bronze tools making stone tools obsolete. There’s a delightful conversation between von Lipwig and the Quirmian Marquis des Aix en Pains, who comments that “as you understand, bandits and governments ‘ave so much in common that they might be interchangeable anywhere in the world.” (Incidentally, the legal issues in Quirm suggest that Pratchett may have been reading some of Emmanuel Todd’s studies of how family organization and inheritance give rise to political ideologies, which are one of the most interesting developments in recent sociology.) And beyond the level of appealing speeches, Pratchett seriously explores the role of improved transportation in expanding commerce and economic opportunity, and the role of legal institutions in making all this possible—in securing such things as rights of way, for example.

Pratchett retains his touch for comedy in this novel. But, as has become increasingly visible in his writing, his comedy is often about serious things. The serious content of Raising Steam has many rewards to offer the libertarian reader, and the comedy blends with it remarkably harmoniously. And if this reads in some ways as the denouement to one of the great mock epics of recent literature, it’s a fitting and rewarding one, in which modernity and technology appear not as a falling away from cherished fantasy but as its ultimate fulfillment.