Pratchett, Terry. Raising Steam.

NY: Doubleday, 2013.

I grew up around trains and switchyards and turntables, thanks to a couple of railroading grandfathers in the ’50s, and even though I haven’t ridden in a cab or spent the night in a sleeping car in nearly sixty years, it’s not an experience I’ve ever forgotten. Railroads, in the early days especially, were romantic in a way that cars and the Interstate never were and never can be.

For millions of small-town folks and the farm families outside those towns, the train was the gateway to the rest of the world. It took your milk cans to market and and it also took you off to war — or even just to the big city, as is the case here.

Moist von Lipwig, who started out his new life (thanks to Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork) as reformer and savior of the post office, and then of the central bank, has a new remit. Dick Simnel, a young, self-taught engineer of genius who has a good head on his shoulders and a gleam in his eye, has almost singlehandedly invented the steam locomotive, out in a little town on the Sto Plains. He brings his prototype, “Iron Girder,” to Ankh-Morpork, because he knows that’s where things happen. More specifically, he brings it to Harry King – the “King of the Golden River” — who has become very wealthy recycling the city’s wastes, but who would like to branch out into a field of endeavor he can talk about in polite company. One demonstration with a circular track in Harry’s industrial compound and he’s hooked. The locomotive speaks to him, . . . as it also does to the crowds of people who quickly come to stare at this marvel of steel and steam and sheer power, and to wave as it surges past. This amazing machine could pull a whole string of carriages filled with freight, not to mention passengers, and Harry knows there could be another whole fortune in it as well as fame, so he agrees to underwrite Dick’s plans to build more engines and lay track to nearby towns, and they’ll share the profits. And the Patrician, don’t forget about him. With a great many reservations (he always has suspicions about anything big and new, but he’s a great adaptor), Vetinari approves the project in return for a small share for the city. Because nothing major gets done without the Patrician’s approval. But it’s going to be an enormous undertaking, requiring a great deal of organization and considerable arm-twisting of landowners to get all that track laid. And Vetinari is adamant that while regular grocery runs to Quirm and other nearby locations will be nice, what he really needs — what he will insist on having, if everyone knows what’s good for them — is a line all the way to Uberwald, which is 1,200 miles distant. And that’s where Moist, the reformed con man, comes in. He’s going to be the railway’s negotiator. He’ll supply the grease the enterprise needs. And with the help of the newly emancipated goblins, who have discovered a great natural talent for the technical, he’s sure he can bring it off.

But there’s another major plotline this time, and that’s the resurgence of the grags, the extreme fundamentalist dwarfs who see themselves as the sole protectors of all that is dwarfish. They want trolls and humans and especially goblins put back in their places, which means destroying the clacks towers and now the railway — and they’re happy to kill anyone, of any species, who gets in the way of their holy crusade. But there are more dwarfs living in Ankh-Morpork now than anywhere else on the Discworld, and they’re modern, liberated dwarfs who have not much use for the mines back home, nor for the grags. Ever since the agreement they hammered out at Koom Valley, Vetinari and the Low King of Dwarfs and the Diamond King of Trolls have gotten along well. They can see the future and they’re willing to embrace it. And now that means doing something about the militant, bloody-minded grags, who fear the future and want only to return to the past.

So half the book is about the blossoming of the railway and the other half is about the struggle to save the future from the grags and prevent a return to interspecies intolerance and warfare. The former is exciting and beautifully done. Sir Terry gets it where the romance of the rails is concerned. The latter, though, is mostly dark and sometimes depressing (though realistic), which probably explains why some fans have given this installment of the Discworld saga less than happy reviews. The lighthearted yarns of the 1980s are far behind us and their author has more important things to say to his readers these days.

I should note that while deaths have occurred before in the Discworld stories (DEATH is an old friend to Pratchett’s fans), generally they happen offstage if they’re violent, or the violence is at least only alluded to, or is passed over quickly. And frequently they include an ironically humorous note, as the recently deceased tries to figure out what comes next. In this latest installment, however, violent death is a good deal more explicit, even actually in your face a couple of times, including much blood and scattered body parts. There’s a grimness here of the sort you might not expect from Sir Terry — but when he’s talking about ideological terrorism and the absolute refusal of certain types of unimaginative and terrified people to accept anyone who is unlike them, it’s clear he’s delivering a serious message. He obviously has no tolerance where terrorists are concerned, nor does he think anyone else should have. There’s no place for them in the civilized world, period. There’s always a deeper social message in Pratchett’s books, but it’s pretty damned explicit this time around.

I liked the book, I really did, even though much of the subject matter was heavier than usual. It’s certainly not the book you would recommend as a starting point to a Pratchett novice, but the parallels between Discworld and our Roundworld are clear, uncomfortable as they may be. It’s also worth keeping in mind that, given the realities of Sir Terry’s health these days, this may well be his last unassisted novel. If so, it’s not a bad legacy.

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