Mark Reads ‘Raising Steam’: Part 1

In the first part of Raising Steam, the revolution is imminent. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld. 

Welcome, friends, to Discworld book #40! That’s a incredible sentence to be able to type, and I can’t but recall years and years ago, when I used to turn down prospective series to read because they were more than three books. LOOK HOW I HAVE GROWN. So here we are, fresh at the beginning of a new story, and I get to do one of my favorite things with these books: try to guess who is actually going to show up in it. 

Thus far, the introduction to Raising Steam is actually not all that mysterious or jarring, something I’m used to in the opening pages. I think that Pratchett is trying something new here: from the title, to the cover, to the dedication, and to these first fifteen pages or so, this book is announcing quite loudly what it is about. The steam engine is about to be introduced to the Disc, and with it, it will bring a revolution. For a while now, Pratchett has been slowly (and occasionally, rapidly) dragging his series toward the modern world. We’ve seen that with the changes in banking; and the revitalization of the post office; with the advent of the clacks system; with the Koom Valley Accord; and with social changes that have allowed Ankh-Morpork to become a truly multicultural, multi-species city. It has added a remarkable and satisfying serialization to this series, and so, I’m already excited to see what the steam engine is going to do to this fictional world.

Pratchett eschews subtlety in these early moments, instead choosing to set us up for the ways in which Dick Simnel’s invention will change the world. The initial example he gives? The transportation of food, namely seafood! I love that I now have a much firmer grasp on how far Ankh-Morpork is from the coast. (I always assumed it was much closer, but 200 miles? Yikes!) Even by coach, the process still requires a stop at the halfway point so that the fish can be offloaded into another icehouse. This isn’t the only example given, and what this does is show the reader that the conditions were ripe for a huge change, one that would slot neatly into this massive gap in the world. If someone could only invent something that would help transport things and people faster!

Enter Dick Simnel, who at ten years old loses his father in a steam-related accident. I’m guess that this is who the main character will be. (And that’s who is on the cover? I have one of the newer illustrated covers on my Kindle edition.) His story is compelling right from the start! A terrible tragedy inspires him to “make steam his servant,” but his journey takes him in a different direction than his father. He doesn’t approach his experiments with abandon; after he discovers mathematics and theory in the library, he comes to realize that he can plan experiments with steam and engineering. 

It’s really great that I’m reading this after recently finishing the Science of Discworld books, as there’s an undeniable influence between the ideas discussed in those and what Dick Simnel does in his father’s old shack. Of course, Pratchett doesn’t forget the very human core of all of this. One thing I enjoyed about the Simnels was the portrayal of Mrs. Simnel, who lost her husband to science, but knew it was inevitable that her son would pick up where his father left off. That doesn’t mean that she lacks complicated feelings about the progress that Dick makes in these scenes:

“I know there’s no stopping you, our Dick, you’re just like your stubborn father were, pigheaded. Is that what you’ve been doin’ in the barn? Teck-ology?” She looked at him accusingly, then sighed. “I can see I can’t tell you what to do, but you tell me: how can your ‘logger-reasons’ stop you goin’ the way of your poor old dad?” She started sobbing again. 

Imagine how much she must have grieved the loss of her husband. It’s completely understandable that she’d be terrified of her losing her son the same way. But Dick goes to great lengths to attempt to explain how things will be different. Does Mrs. Simnel understand it all? No. But what she does get is that fervent, feverish need to keep pushing on, to take an idea and try to make a thing out of it. I’m sure she saw that in Mr. Simnel, you know? And thus, she encourages her son to continue pursuing something that must seem absurd to her—seriously, the initial reveal of the “engine” is immensely silly—because she knows it is his passion. 

And he does it! He works for a LONG time and in secret to perfect his steam engine. He has pieces built he never uses; he hires local workers who are sworn to secrecy; the entire town becomes obsessed with the mysterious “thing” being built inside the enormous barn. And lord, that reveal: A WORKING PRO-TO-TYPE. An actual steam engine that moves on a track, powered by the very thing that killed his father. Dick Simnel knows what a monumental achievement this is, but I got the sense that he couldn’t know just how big this was going to be. 

This is precisely where Pratchett switches gears and POV, and we’re brought into the lives of Lord Vetinari and Lady Margolotta, meeting in Uberwald. Here is where Pratchett seeds more vital information. We know that the journey by coach to Uberwald is now riddled with potholes and has become both hopelessly uncomfortable and rather dangerous. Well, I should say relatively dangerous, since we’re talking about Vetinari here. He dispatched of those assassins quite easily. So, again: there is a need that exists in the world for a quicker, safer, and more comfortable means of travel over long distances. 

There’s also something else brewing in the world, though I’m not quite sure how this will intersect with the coming of the steam engine. There is trouble with the trolls and the dwarfs, but mainly the dwarfs. The events of Thud! inform much of what Vetinari and Margolotta discuss here, specifically because the grags are STILL causing trouble. Dwarf culture is changing rapidly because of Ankh-Morpork and because of the Koom Valley Accords. There are always people in such movements who are resistant to change and who see such things as a sort of criminal assimilation, as if being more accepting and compassionate means that their culture is being wiped out. And to an extent, I think Pratchett has shown us that this isn’t a completely irrational opinion. Even the scenes at the end of this split with Magnus show us that the two dwarf cultures are utterly different from one another. More and more dwarfs are living in the big city. How will that change when the steam engine arrives and makes that trip so much shorter? Will other dwarfs leave the mines in Uberwald, seeking out a different life? Is it a bad thing that the old ways are disappearing?

I’m hoping that through Magnus Magnusson, Pratchett will explore such complicated questions. Because I don’t think they have easy answers! Magnus is living proof of that: he barely recognizes dwarf culture in Bonk and Schmaltzburg because he’s used to Treacle Mine Road. Even worse, he’s attacked not long after arriving. As Bashful explains: 

“…but a boy like you should know that Ankh-Morpork dwarfs are not in favor at the moment, at least not around here.” 

We haven’t seen Bashfull since Thud!, and I’m curious to see if he’s also changed in that time, too. For lack of a better word, he seemed more “liberal” as a grag when compared to others, but even here, he’s clearly not happy with “Ankh-Morpork dwarfs.” He helps Magnus, but only in sparing him from more beatings and by giving him advice, which basically amounts to: you should really anticipate more beatings. 

So, everything is gonna be a mess, right? 

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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