In the fifth part of Raising Steam, the Low King makes a stand, the dwarfs ponder their future, and Vetinari plots. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Raising Steam.
You know, plot-wise, there’s not much that actually happens here aside from the Low King’s declaration, and yet, this still felt like such an exciting split for me. This has felt like the most fast-paced opener to a Discworld book, and that’s mainly because Pratchett isn’t wasting time to get to all the complicated shit that’s brewing AND bubbling to the surface. Since the previous split, a second clacks tower was attacked by the grags, and the Low King makes it his priority to address this ongoing nightmare at the most recent meeting of the dwarf factions.
Pratchett includes a LOT of cultural detail here, and there are a few things I wanted to address. First, let’s talk about this line:
Tak never mentioned that dwarfs should cover their faces in the society of their friends. It struck Rhys that this practice was dliberately provocative and, of course, disdainful.
And when that is paired with this line:
On the other hand, those he thought of as progressive dwarfs, the type who would quite happily have a troll as a friend, were bearing down on him, the King, about their races tendency to drive itself into a kind of purdah.
It took a metaphor that might have been a reference to Islam and Hinduism, and made it a lot more explicit. Which is strange to me. I think this flattens the conversation about headscarves and hijabs, making it seem like it is obvious to everyone that wearing them is “deliberately provocative” and “disdainful,” which ignores that people in these very communities have their own conversations and feelings on this practice. It’s very… I dunno. Makes it all seem like a monolith? And it is also weird that the word “purdah” even appears here; how is that word possible within this fictional setting?
It’s an odd moment, as I think there’s too much willingness to paint fundamentalism with this sort of brush, to invoke Islam or fall into Orientalist traps. I think that this scene felt most interesting when it wasn’t necessarily referencing anything from our world or doing so very generally. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t relatable, as I found a LOT to dig into here. Look, change is scary, and I do understand why humans are, on the whole, very averse to dealing with it. So, the dwarfs have a set of traditions—or rather, they have an intensely complicated culture—that they feel is being diluted by the dwarfs who are leaving the mines of Uberwald for those of Ankh-Morpork or the Diamond King of Trolls.
At the heart of this isn’t just change—it’s a fear that a culture is going to disappear. Which is not exactly an irrational thing to be afraid of! I think Pratchett knows that, which is why it feels strange for him to suddenly reference these real-world elements in the midst of this. The deep-down trolls aren’t inherently wrong for believing what they believe, nor do I find it strange that they want to preserve their culture. What appears to be happening is two-fold, and unfortunately, those following the grags find it difficult to accept this. It’s true that change is happening, and that dwarfs are leaving in droves. That part is undeniable. We’ve watched that happen over the course of many, many Discworld books. But the reason dwarfs are leaving is what the deep-down grags don’t get:
Anyone who wasn’t a dwarf who prepared to live in darkness, in every meaning of the word, knew that the reason the younger generation was no overwhelming Ankh-Morpork, for example, was simply down to those very same grumblers and their activities.
And that’s where this gets thorny: because some of the beliefs and practices of these dwarfs is harmful to others. How many dwarfs have we had the pleasure of witnessing as they discovered freedom from a rigid system? How many more have gotten to explore their gender, their presentation, their freedom to love, their happiness once they left the deep-down? See, I don’t have a problem with what the deep-downers want to believe, but they’re forcing others to believe as they do and behave as they want. I used the word “rigid” on purpose, because I lived in a culture of rigidity as a kid and a teenager. It meant that the second that I—to use a silly metaphor—colored outside the lines, I was punished. Made to feel terrible. Made to feel wrong.
This is the sort of struggle that’s been thrust upon Rhys Rhysson. He has so many factions to contend with, yes, but this ideological divide can be boiled down to something that’s digestible: There are dwarfs who believe they can tell others how they should live their lives. Even worse, the more extremist of those dwarfs has chosen to express that belief through a terrible violence. How many more people across the Disc have to die before they are sufficiently satisfied? Must all the clacks towers be destroyed?
So I love what Rhys does here. He does not try to find a compromise or a centrist position to satisfy everyone. He rejects the violence, he rejects the notion of destroying the clacks (they are a culture that reveres communication!!!), he points out that the deep-downers can’t even specify what blasphemy the modern dwarfs are committing, and he commits himself to bringing the dwarfs into the modern age or else they’ll die out.
Here’s the thing: I’m worried about Ardent. It was HUGE that Albrecht came out in favor of Rhys, but what if this act, as brilliant as it was, inspires the grags to be even MORE bold? More violent? What if they see it as a challenge? Regardless, I’m glad that Rhys made a stand. I love that not longer afer Rhys’s scene, Pratchett gives us that beautiful tribute to the events of Thud!, as told by Maelog Cheerysson to his son. It’s a touching reminder of how the events of that book reminded an entire world that things could be done differently. That we can behave differently. Pratchett also makes the story uniquely personal, since Maelog’s other son was one of the dwarfs that burned down a clacks tower. His own child has gotten swept up in this extremist ideology! I actually was worried for a moment that he was the dwarf who had died. Point being: this shit is tearing apart families. It’s sowing discontent in the world.
All of which Vetinari is aware of. He’s got two scenes in this split, and they’re both an in-depth look at how his “tyranny” works. On the one hand, he’s keeping himself informed on the many different reactions to the steam engine, which are coming from a ton of sources. There are health concerns; safety concerns; moral concerns; environmental concerns. He doesn’t outright dismiss them, either! He’s careful to consider what can be done about each thing brought up. We see that same attention to detail at the end of the split when discussing Maelog’s child. I love that Vetinari made the point that it’s very likely that the older grags put the kid up to this, that they exploited his youthful enthusiasm in order to get what they wanted. We see that happening today as extremist groups specifically target children and teenagers—often through the Internet—with their campaigns. There’s a reason they do that! It’s not a good one!
Anyway, I’m immensely enjoying this book so far. It just MOVES.
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