Raising Steam

This review is one of (presumably) the final parts of my complete Discworld re-read project.

And so, it has come to this.

When I first started this re-read project, people warned me: Raising Steam (one of a handful of Discworld books I had not yet read) is not very good. Throughout the project, I’ve been wondering: what does that mean? How bad is not good? Can it really be so much worse than, say, Unseen Academicals?

Yes. It can be, and it is.

I have always said: there’s no such thing as a bad Discworld novel. There are brilliant ones, good ones, and merely adequate ones. But none are ever outright bad.

I was wrong.

That said, let’s look on the bright side. Raising Steam may be far, far worse than I’d, even pessimistically, hoped, but in fairness it isn’t actually as bad as, in my worst nightmares, I might have feared. In fact in some ways I’m surprised by how much about it isn’t execrably bad. If you’ve been reading these reviews, you’ll know that I think the downward arc of later Discworld, while not without exceptions, was a long process of declining inspiration, and in particular I found that even individually adequate novels like Thud! or Making Money suffered from diminishing returns of novelty, a feeling of creative exhaustion, of a world that no longer had a future but was merely recycling its past. Well, in terms of plot and characters that’s even more true of Raising Steam, but beneath it all there’s a feeling of genuine excitement here that I haven’t found in many of Pratchett’s later novels.

There is, I think, a real epochal feel here. It’s as though Pratchett is summing up and looking back on all of Discworld, not by giving it an ending, but by hurtling it full steam into the future, into the next chapter, into the second half of the series, a second half provided entirely by our own imaginations. It does not read like the work of a man who believes he is about to die… but, six years after his diagnosis and only two years before his death, it does read like the work of a man who has accepted that he does not have long to live. Raising Steam has been criticised for its “farewell tour” flavour, checking in with, or at least seeing cameos from, many old characters, and it’s true that it’s a little overdone at times, but I was pleased to find that this was not simply an indulgent fan-service, but something more thematically authentic: it’s a summation of what has gone before, a recapitulation, one last blaring of our favourite leitmotifs, recontextualised by this finale, being put to rest – in time for the next movement to begin. In this sense of conclusion – both for the author, and also of an era in the internal history of this world – and in the author’s palpable excitement for what comes next, amplified by his even more overwhelming and adorable excitement for how fun steam trains are, there’s a real joy and appropriateness here that was an unexpected pleasure to encounter. Unlike some readers, I found myself respecting most of Pratchett’s ‘large-scale’ decisions here, in terms of characters and the setting – even if they weren’t all decisions I’d have made, I understood his attempt to bring the series to a satisfying and appropriate end, which is what, in conceptual terms, this novel feels like.

[It helps that I’m the son of an engineer from Oop North of the same generation as Pterry… so the themes and tropes he’s leaning into have perhaps a little more resonance for me than for some other readers]

Unfortunately, this is undermined by the actual words being rubbish.

This is not the culmination of a gradual decline; this is something else. I completely understand why many readers raised concerns about the author’s health when they read this. Gradually, I realised how I was feeling: I was finding it hard to believe that this was Pterry at all. This felt ghostwritten.

Maybe it was – I wouldn’t blame Pratchett, in failing health, for getting someone to help out with actually writing the novel. Or maybe it wasn’t, in which case either he had completely lost interest in his creation in anything more than broad thematic (and narrow locomotive) terms, or his degenerative neurological condition had come to have a serious effect on his ability to write. Because this isn’t Our Pterry uninspired, or having an off day; this doesn’t read like Pterry at all.

The strange thing is, in a way, it’s not objectively all that bad. Indeed, while some bits are arguably that bad, or worse than that mad, some of it is adequate, and there are still – still! – characteristically Pratchettian moments of genius, an image here, a turn of phrase there that stops you in your tracks to chuckle or to gasp in admiration, to doff your cap to the old master. OK, no, it IS that bad. Yet, if this were a Pratchett imitator, it would be a bad book, to be sure, but not remarkably so, not horrifically so, not famously so, and it would a bad book with a little brilliance hidden in it here and there. But coming from Terry Pratchett, a writer of truly monumental and timeless brilliance (on a good day), its lapses of quality are, quite literally, shocking. Indeed, it feels almost like a meta-mystery novel: how could a writer of such genius, some of which is still evident in the text, write a novel so, so bad? How is it even possible for a Pratchett novel to fail so stunningly?

We can divide the answers, I think, into two categories: sins of prose, and sins of storytelling.

It’s famously difficult to explain what makes prose good or bad, and I’m not going to try. In truth, while Pratchett’s prose here is mostly uninspired, it’s not inherently awful – he still has a certain natural, sinuous rhythm, his balance of mannered indirectness and blunt confrontation, his knack for curing his words into little arched eyebrows of sentences, his gift of vision, his instinctive puns. The sportscar of his language still turns the corners elegantly, even if a little more hesitantly than before. They say that the last thing a boxer loses is their power; Pratchett’s power is his prose, and it’s still hanging in there. Mostly.

But what has gone entirely is his dialogue. The dialogue in this novels forms great impenetrable obelisks of information-sharing, sand-blasted clean of any indication of character or atmosphere. This is what feels most ghost-written. It feels as though the original text said simply “X tells Y that Z”, and a ghostwriter has dutifully rephrased this in direct speech: “As you know, Y, it is the case that Z,” he said. [“I am shocked, X, to discover that you believe that Z,” responded Y. “I did not believe that Z was the case until you said that, although it seems obvious now that you have explained it. X, you should explain that Z is the case to W also. I am sure that W would be very interested to learn that Z is the case, just as I was”, etc]

A few, sufficiently iconic and distinctive characters manage to hold on with their fingernails – a little of Vimes sneaks through now and then, and Vetinari is relatively familiar (perhaps because Vetinari was always such a caricature to begin with). But other characters are stripped of any individuality of tone, by a writer who seems never to have encountered them before. I was particularly dismayed by a portrayal of Ridcully that seems to have nothing in common with any previous depiction of the character.

Of course, it’s not easy to convey character through dialogue when 75% of the words are infodump, mostly of information we already know…

Because although the awfulness of the dialogue grabs the ear, and proves the inadequacy of the novel, the heart of the problem lies not in how things are said, but in what is said.

It’s hard to explain it, exactly. It feels as though two terrible, yet contradictory things are somehow both true: the author races mechanically through the novel without time to pause a single colourful breath; and yet the novel is slow and plodding, bloated, constantly waylaid by irrelevancies and tangents.

I think maybe we should say: Pratchett has no time for anything other than hitting his target marks; but his target marks are frequently the wrong ones.

It feels as though he has laid out a plot in bullet points – not just a plot, but a complete project, with all the necessary cool moments, character developments, and edutaining fun facts – and then… called it a day. There’s a lot of bullet points, so it’s not a short novel, but there’s very little here that feels casual or incidental. That’s partly why, I think, the dialogue is so bad – to be sure, the complete deafness to real speech on display cannot be overlooked, but it’s a flaw that’s greatly amplified by the author’s refusal to spare a sentence here, an adjective there, to allow some authentic characterisation to sneak in among all the information-sharing and plot-progressing speech.

It’s not just rushed. It’s obsessive. Pratchett will not allow anything to stand in his way: logistics, characterisation, disagreement, the possibility of an antagonist, nothing. Half the dialogues are people telling the protagonists how wonderful they are and right about everything; when disagreements emerge, there’s a sudden conversion before the end of the paragraph, or else our protagonists simply bully, or in a few cases outright brutally massacre, their way through. Everybody On Our Side is not only wonderfully talented in every way (the chief protagonist, Moist, is complemented on his multifaceted wonderfulness by adoring secondary characters every couple of pages).

Several of Pratchett’s novels have an uncomfortable relationship with power common to, as Pratchett himself notes, many reformers: to fight tyranny, his characters often toy with tyranny themselves. It’s a huge part of the moral struggle for many of his characters. Here, though, it’s all swept aside by self-righteousness: if you’re Right (i.e. in agreement with Pratchett), it doesn’t matter who you kill, you’re always justified. Not that, for the most part, you’ll need to kill, because everyone else will surely just recognise that you were right about everything, or at the very least will back down like the cowards they are as soon as you show them a raised fist. It doesn’t help that Pratchett’s views of Right and Wrong have become, to say the least, counterintuitive, and that he’s lost interest in explaining himself – Raising Steam is 75% lambasting the dinosaurs who are standing in the way of the bold, progressive, liberated future, and 25% complaining bitterly about how PC has gone mad these days and things were better when everyone knew their place, and approximately 0% awareness of the apparent discontinuity between these two impulses. In fact, it would be great if there were just a little more thought put into the ideology here in general – Pratchett is often conflicted about things (it’s part of why he’s a great writer), but when he’s good he’s at least aware of the conflicts*.

But being questionable in some of its ideas doesn’t make it a bad book; the execution does that. This is a novel effectively without a plot, because the author refuses to permit the existence of a serious antagonist: there is a through-arc regarding some villains, but it is perfunctory, goes nowhere, and never poses any credible threat. The threat level is basically “but won’t so-and-so try to stop us? Oh, never mind, we’ll just do what we want anyway and it’ll all work itself out – oh look, it all worked itself out, that’s nice”. The protagonists rarely have to employ any intellect to the situation, and certainly never have to exhibit any particular determination or fortitude, other than occasionally feeling a bit unwell when they’ve slaughtered some evildoers. [No, massacres of wrong’uns are not frequent in the novel, but they’re sufficiently shocking in their callousness, even joyousness, that they’re kind of hard to overlook]. The protagonists want to do some things, so they do. Instead of ‘threats’ or ‘opposition’, there’s merely a few ‘obstacles’, easily and quickly overcome. That sort of thing just isn’t seemingly of interest to the author anymore – much better to have another few pages of people saying how wonderful Moist is, or of people saying how exciting steam trains are, are of people saying how important it is that we move into the future. There’s a problem? Don’t worry, the next page will be someone saying “ee’up ba’gum, I’ve done solved that there problem what we had!” and it’ll never have to be mentioned again (“well done!” the other characters will chorus, “it’s very good that you have solved that difficult problem that, as you know, we just discovered”).

There is, to be sure, a certain kind of charm in the relentless, merciless forward pace; and there’s an innovative appeal to a novel featuring nothing but untrammelled successes. Perhaps an earlier Pratchett could have done these high-degree-of-difficulty, unusual approaches better justice. This Pratchett can’t. Instead, the combination of hyperactive, attention-deficit forward motion and a lack of any sort of stakes or peril puts an immense weight on the quality of the prose, and while Pratchett rises now and then to that challenge, for the most part he really, really doesn’t. The pace of the novel has scraped all the colour and texture from the prose, particularly from the dialogue: each scene has a purpose, it fulfills that purpose efficiently, and then it moves on.

Actually, “attention-deficit” is a good description, come to think of it. We can never spend time on anything because the author is always dragging us along to whatever the next scene is meant to be, but the next scene is frequently something of little interest – a tangent, or a repetition – and is itself not given any time to breathe.

There are, again, some good things here. It’s not just the odd turn of phrase, or the general elegaic-yet-optimistic tone – there are still ideas here that could work in a better novel. Moist’s aggressively sarcastic goblin companion is a sour and indigestable stone in the overly saccherine confection of the novel – I didn’t fully understand his role, and I think that’s a good thing. The concept of Iron Girder, while predictable, is not uninteresting. There are other small elements here and there that you could build a narrative upon.

But Pratchett doesn’t. Stuff just happens, and aren’t steam trains fun. Page after page of leaden, colourless dialogue, punctuated with rushed and/or irrelevant descriptions, in the service of a plot that isn’t there, driven by characters who aren’t. It’s just good enough to make it tragic how awful it is.

Because awful it truly is, in many ways. And yet… I did enjoy bits of it, in a frustrated and nostalgic way. I keep trying to imagine how it might seem to me if I’d never read a Pratchett novel before. Well, if this was my first, I might never read another… or maybe I would. There are glimpses of something better here, to be sure, and it’s only our contextual knowledge that makes those glimpses tragic, rather than intriguing…

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. Although the lack of stakes or peril cripples the novel’s ambition, its relentless pace and constant (if often pointless) action does make it an easy and moderately exciting work.

Emotion: 1/5. The plot offers few hooks for sentiment; and sentiment’s mouth is then thoroughly taped shut by the blandness of its characters and sterility of its prose.

Thought: 2/5. There is some intellectual ambition here: it’s a forward-facing book, both within the series and I think in terms of the author’s views on society. It challenges us to think. But sadly, it gives us little material to think with, and little incentive to attempt it.

Beauty: 2/5. There are, as Rossini may or may not have said of Wagner, some fine moments… but some rather ugly quarters of an hour.

Craft: 2/5. Again, there are moments where you can see Pratchett’s genius shining through, and so I can’t give it the minimum score. And yet everything else is so inept, from the plot to the structure to the characterisation to above all the dialogue, that I almost feel I should…

Endearingness: 2/5. Nostalgia, ease of reading, enthusiasm and a few nice moments mean that it’s not as hateable as it might otherwise be.

Originality: 2/5. Once more, I can’t give it minimum marks, because it is, if only accidentally, not quite like anything else. But it tries to be. It’s like an imitation Pratchett that succeeds in being interesting only because of the odd ways it fails to succeed.

 

Overall: 2/7. GENUINELY BAD. As I was writing this review, I was hoping to end by calling Raising Steam ‘bad but with redeeming features’. But honestly? There’s nothing outright good about this novel – there are only some ways in which it’s not as bad as it could have been.

And yet, I don’t really regret reading it, and not just because my self-imposed project demands it. Raising Steam may be a rather inept and disheartening way to (almost) end the Discworld cycle, but it is also, in some ways, a fitting one. I can imagine the Pratchett of earlier novels wanting to end with this novel – even if that Pratchett would surely have done a far better job of actually writing it. And at the very least, it’s fair to say I think that the author’s enthusiasm does shine through the fog of his execution, and it’s nice to read a novel that’s at least joyful in intent, even if rather painful in practice.

So there is, I think, a legitimate reason to want to read this book: if you’re a huge Pratchett fan, and a completist, and you’ve adequately girded your loins in preparation for the worst. Otherwise, alas, there’s almost no reason to read this.

 

 

 

 

*For instance, many of his novels have toyed with the idea of a revolution in gender concepts among his dwarves: traditionally keeping their sex secret, modern female dwarves are starting to publically proclaim their gender, through things like wearing make-up and developing a love of shoes. That’s, of course, a rather offensive caricature, but since we’re dealing with broad-strokes satire it can be overlooked as a convenient shorthand rather than a considered statement about the nature of femininity. But in Raising Steam, Pratchett goes further: not only is it OK for dwarves to be female, and not only is it OK for them to tell others that they’re female, they actually should do this. They are, he says, reclaiming their female identities. Now, there are obviously powerful arguments for why this can be a good thing; but it’s striking that, in contrast to his earlier techniques of suggestion and posibility and deliberation, Pratchett here just leaps to one side of the argument without any apparent recognition that he has an alternative. Pratchett’s female dwarves are effectively physically indistinguishable from the males, and culturally they have no concept of gender roles: biological sex is something private, only relevant between romantic partners. The “femininity” his “modern” dwarves are adopting is entirely borrowed from the humans, and in particular from a single dominant human culture – the creation of gender among the dwarves is just another form of the cultural imperialism that is so common in his novels. Perhaps there might be at least some room for conflicted feelings on that? Surely there is at least something positive that could be said about a culture that has no concept of gender, and a culture in which such irrelevancies as biological sex are a private matter not for public display, with no social or economic ramifications? If not, surely there is at least something attractive in the idea of a culture that could have multiple gender roles with no correlation to (again, entirely private) sex? At the very least, shouldn’t the idea that the single-gender dwarven society has historically “devalued” its “women”, because the single gender must obviously (to Pratchett) be inherently male (when objectively the one-gender dwarves are no more ‘male’ than they are ‘female’ in culture) be at least be subjected to a little bit of scrutiny? No. For Pratchett here, unlike in previous novels, this is all a non-question: it’s simply natural and good that his “female” dwarves must come to behave like good “females”, clearly and unambiguously marked out from the males with lipsticks and lingerie and high heels and other womanly accoutrements. There’s enough here that it’s clear what Pratchett thinks he’s doing: his dwarven women are (and always have been) uniformly strong and heroic characters, and he is arguing for freedom of expression and the overthrow of the patriarchy, and that’s all very admirable. Often, you can’t make certain points in fiction without committing to a position in a way that can potentially be read as failing to sufficiently make other points – you can’t do everything at once and still get a clear and compelling point across. But the novel would be more satisfying if Pratchett showed a scintilla of awareness not only of how his own shorthands are inadequate in advancing his own cause, but also of how the perspective of that cause may not be the only perspective worth considering. It’s unfair to expect novelists to accept that they may be not be right – but it’s not unfair to expect them to at least recognise the possibility that others may not be entirely wrong either. Elsewhere, as I’ve said, Pratchett has tempered his strong moral purpose with such humility and acknowledgement of complexity: but here, it’s his way or the highway – not only are opposing arguments wrong, but he doesn’t seem to recognise that there could even BE opposing arguments…

 

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Ash: A Secret History; by Mary Gentle (short review)

I recently reviewed Gentle’s Ash – but the review was ridiculously long. I thought I’d better produce a condensed version. I usually do that for my Goodreads reviews anyway, so here’s the review I wrote for GR… (you can still find the full review over here)

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The first thing that should probably be said about Ash: A Secret History is that it’s probably the apex of the epic fantasy genre – or at least, the best thing written in the genre since The Lord of the Rings.

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Ash: A Secret History. By Mary Gentle.

It’s been a while, I know. It’s not just that I’m lazy, or entirely that I’m disorganised. It’s also been that I’ve been gradually extruding a gargantuan review… of a gargantuan novel. It’s so ridiculously long that I’ve even divided it into sections: Part One sets the scene; Part Two introduces the general concept of the novel; Part Three talks about what it’s like and what’s special about it; and Part Four sums up and scores.

But because the review is so cripplingly long, I’ll summarise it here and now for those who can’t be bothered to read to the end: if you like epic fantasy (and maybe even if you don’t), you need to read this book.

[housekeeping note: in America, it’s considered a series of four novels. This doesn’t really make sense to me, and if possible I’d recommend getting the complete edition]

Now, the long version…

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Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Reading a novel often throws up half-random symmetries between the reader’s mind and the text of the novel – echoes, intuitions, memories, premonitions. The reader has a thought, and lo and behold the same thought is suddenly seen in the text itself. Sometimes this is pleasing – proof that the writer is thinking along the same lines, and to the same depth, as the reader, and hence that the investment of thought on the part of the reader is not in vain. Other times it is frustrating – a sign that the writer is following a path too obvious, too familiar.

In the case of Before They Are Hanged, it is… odd.

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I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

Almost at the end of my Complete Discworld Re-Read Project

There’s an inevitable though morbid game that Pratchett fans are playing somewhere in the back of their heads, willingly or unwillingly, when they read his later novels: we can’t but wonder, “how much of the decline is due to the Alzheimer’s?”

Well, within just a page or two of I Shall Wear Midnight, the answer seemed clear to me: whatever perhaps went wrong in Making Money, and certainly went wrong in Unseen Academicals, and was arguably about to go wrong in Snuff, it wasn’t a problem with Pterry’s brain.

The tiredness of those novels, the bluntness of the wit, the familiarity – that’s not here. Here, Pterry is sharp, energised, eager to take on more complex themes. Funny. Reading this, it’s immediately clear that Pratchett, at least in 2010, could still do it when he felt inspired. Indeed, I’d tentatively suggest that, on a technical level, this is better-written than the previous three Tiffany novels, which were themselves well-written. In his ingenuity, his acuity, his observational humour, Pratchett here is as good as ever. Pratchett could still write.

My problems, unfortunately, are with what he could write…

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Knights of Dark Renown, by David Gemmell

British fantasy author David Gemmell is best known – like a surprising number of authors – for his debut novel, Legend. It’s the first of eleven ‘Drenai’ novels, and though the polish improved over time, there is an inescapable sense of repetition, and of diminishing returns. The characters of The King Beyond the Gate seem mirrored in those of Quest for Lost Heroes, of In the Realm of the Wolf, of Winter Warriors, and probably others I never read too.

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A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham

“Everything is going to be fine.”
“It isn’t,” [he] said. His tone wasn’t despairing or angry, only matter-of-fact. “Everything is going to be broken, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

 

Sometimes, the popularity, or lack of popularity, of a book perplexes me. An example I’ve used a lot this year is James Branch Cabell – how has a writer of such fluency, pathos and humour, of novels so easily read, been so forgotten in an age in which pale imitators of his style continue to be sucessful? Only sheer bad luck seems to explain it.

Daniel Abraham is not James Branch Cabell, in almost any way. But his name’s trajectory through the consciousness of genre readers seems to show a similar pattern, albeit in miniature. Abraham attained considerable notability as a short story writer – nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the WFA – before producing this debut novel, A Shadow in Summer, to great acclaim, if not to immediate blockbuster sales. My copy comes complete with blurbs from George RR Martin, Connie Willis, Jacqueline Carey, S.M. Stirling, and Walter Jon Williams. Jo Walton thought it worthwhile including reviews of all four books of this series in her collection of writings on “re-reading the classics” of the genre (though to be fair, it’s a big collection). In my poll back in 2010 of around 100 members of a fantasy fan forum, Abraham ended up in the top 20 living authors, and this quartet, The Long Price Quartet ended up in the list of 10 genre works to read from the 21st century (alongside works by Abercrombie, Bakker, Chiang, Erikson, Lynch, Mièville, Morgan, Stover and Valente – books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, American Gods, The Road, and Cloud Atlas all got runner-up honourable-mention placings). Six years ago, people were excited by the name of Daniel Abraham, even if they hadn’t always gotten around to reading him.

Now, they aren’t. Well, I’m sure some are, but more don’t seem to have heard of him; his books rarely if ever feature these days in the endless merry-go-round of Goodreads group read nominations, and hardly anyone I know has read his works, at least under that name. The Quartet was followed by the Dagger and Coin series, which apparently is still ongoing, which I didn’t even know because his new works don’t seem to make any waves in the various circles of bloggers and reviewers I loosely keep an eye on. Now I should be clear: the guy’s not suffering. In fact his popularity is growing all the time: it’s just that that fandom is attached to a different name, that of James Corey, author of the (as seen on TV) Expanse novels, of whom Abraham forms one half. He’s also probably made a fair few pennies as the writer for the graphic novel adaptations of A Game of Thrones. So, well done Daniel Abraham, he’s doing pretty well for himself. But part of me has always wondered what happened to the original version – how come so many people recommended these books to me, and now how come so few people seem to have heard of them today?

Like I said, sometimes the fickleness of public interest is just inscrutable.

Other times it isn’t, and this is one of those times.

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