Mark Reads ‘Raising Steam’: Part 19

In the nineteenth part of Raising Steam, Moist does his part to protect the Low King. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld. 

This is going to be a very long train ride, isn’t it? 

I’m getting this sense because Pratchett is slowly ratcheting up the tension on this ride. We haven’t even gotten to anything the dwarfs said they were going to do, and I’m now guessing we won’t see the train deprived of water and coal until later. This whole sequence—in which Moist spots two dwarfs who are spies or operatives for the grags—was something I should have anticipated but clearly didn’t. It also appears to hint at more: If there were dwarfs hiding on the train, what was their purpose? When were they supposed to leap into action? 

I’m getting ahead of myself, but I can’t help it. I know this train is on a collision course (not sorry) with the grags, and I’m just trying to piece it all together. So while this is all very suspenseful (I’M SO NERVOUS THE WHOLE TIME), I also love just how fun it is. That’s in large part to the fact that Pratchett was clearly having the time of his life writing Moist in disguise. While Moist has long used his skills as a “scoundrel” to get things done for the city of Ankh-Morpork, this all feels so blatantly within Moist’s wheelhouse. He gets to wear a disguise. He gets to talk and interact with people he thinks are suspicious, and he does so in a way that’s basically a conduit for all his old scam tactics. We get to watch him have a painful (and hilarious) conversation with a dwarf who was far too nervous for Moist’s liking. What unfolds is BRILLIANT. I loved that Moist didn’t let up with his whole “train spotter” technique. He just kept doubling down, pushing the dwarf into more and more uncomfortable territory, and what happens because of it?

Moist finds another one. IT’S SUCH A BRILLIANT TACTIC. He doesn’t involve a single person in this who shouldn’t be involved; other passengers will just see him as a train nerd talking to a fellow like-minded train spotter. But someone who is also supposed to be hiding? They’ll reveal themselves, just like the other dwarf does here. At this point, the plan switches, and Vimes is the one who gets to take center stage, and IT IS ALSO VERY, VERY ENTERTAINING. His technique is remarkably similar to Moist’s, in that he poses himself as an ally or a friend, except Vimes has to get these dwarfs to believe he is actually on their side, while Moist only did it to root out the potential spies. Vimes makes no threats of violence and doesn’t even touch the dwarfs; instead, he just conveniently shows off the mark of the Summoning Dark, and then he utilizes that fear to twist the dwarfs’ expectations. Now, they’re not as worried about Ardent or what the other grags might do to them; they’re worried what Vimes might do. God, Vimes even alters his tone between the younger and older dwarf:

The words that Vimes used had more menace in them now…

That menace is most likely because the younger dwarf is more impressionable, while the older one probably believes what Ardent does. We’ve already seen in the Discworld books how younger folks are manipulated by those older than them to be part of these extremist groups. So I get why Vimes applies just a little more pressure on the older dwarf. However, there’s one passage I want to quote because it’s just so fucking GOOD:

“Thank you very much, Mister Lipwig, you’re a loss to crime prevention, but you recognized the process because you recognize yourself—isn’t that right? How useful, so do I. The mark must always think of you as his friend and you yourself must be as a sorrowful yet loving father. The mark’s shield from the dreadful darkness outside.”

I love that inversion there: not the dark inside. After Vimes’s recent books (especially since Thud!), I can now see why Vimes would also be able to recognize this similarity between himself and Moist. There is a darkness in the two of them. I think it’s easier to find and more pronounced in Vimes (and we’ve definitely spent way more time in Vimes’s head), but Moist has long had a dark cynicism about humanity… until Vetinari saved him from the gallows, that is, and Moist was forced to re-examine what he thought of humanity and his role within it. It’s just a different side from what Vimes struggles with. But I also don’t want to ignore that Vimes has been choosing to fight that darkness for a long, long time, much longer than Moist. There’s a moment here where he offers understanding and sympathy towards the grags, particularly those who have been manipulated by fear. That’s exactly what we’ve seen in those scenes down below, y’all! If someone doesn’t “toe the line and do what they are told,” then their own life (and their loved ones’ lives) are threatened. Or just flat out taken!

Anyway: wow, I love Vimes and getting to dissect his way of thinking. You know what I also love? How Pratchett takes trolls and bridges, a very common motif in fantasy literature and mythology, and he makes it an INCREDIBLY MEANINGFUL WAY FOR THE TROLLS TO LIVE. I still can’t get over how they let the trolls have real homes under the bridges they constructed—meaning they earn value from their labor aside from just compensation in wages. They build something that has great value to the public AND IS ALSO THEIR HOME. Oh my god, Effie’s “best-kept-bridge contest”? The prize is “no fewer than twenty goats”? THIS MIGHT BE THE SINGLE MOST IMPRESSIVE THING PRATCHETT HAS EVER COME UP WITH, Y’ALL. How have y’all dealt with this happening all the damn time??? Like, if you were a lifelong Discworld fan and you just kept having your soul ripped out of your body with good shit like this? I’ve been doing this almost six years and it’s too much!!!

(I still haven’t forgotten horse d’oeurves and never will.)

Amidst the tension and the character moments, Pratchett still makes sure this book comments on the wonder of travel by train. I recognize that a lot of this is regional, too. The UK has a much more rigorous, expansive, and socially acceptable train system than we do, even though I was taking commuter rail and Amtrak when I was younger. (Still all paling in comparison to trains in the UK.) One aspect of this that I did relate to—but still acknowledge is different in the UK, where many trains do pass the kind of places that Moist sees—is that there really is nothing quite like the experience of being on a train. I prefer it over flying ANY day, especially since it’s nowhere near as expensive and the “basic” seats on our national train system are way more comfortable than airline seating. I just love the experience of staring out the window and watching the world go by. Since moving to the East Coast, I’ve taken the 3.5 hour trip down to D.C. more times than I can count, and there are a couple gorgeous stretches over inlets and bays that I look forward to crossing every time. 

It’s not just that, though. Entire cultures crop up around these railway lines. We have that here, too, though—again—it’s very limited because we have so much less rail. But I’ve been to so many places in the middle of “nowhere” where there are little cafes or restaurants that serve JUST the people who get on and off the train. I was just recently at one in Louisiana that was SO ADORABLE. And it closed two hours after the last train came in because… well, why stay open?

Anyway, a few last things. First: I’m so glad that Moist drank something the goblins gave him and it didn’t RUIN HIS DAY WITH CHAOS. Apparently their coffee is just good! Well, not just that, but it inspired Moist to do something he had long wanted to do and finally had the time (and courage) to try. HE DANCED ON TOP OF THE TRAIN. It’s such an expression of unabashed joy, and I’m so happy that it’s smack in the middle of this tense train ride. Steam is not to be taken lightly, y’all, and that means you should give it the respect of happiness, too. 

Also: here’s another thing Pratchett wrote that took me the fuck out:

“When you’ve had hatred on your tongue for such a long time, you don’t know how to spit it out.”

I love that after all these years—in book forty—Pratchett still had his brilliance and his ire on display. My gods, WHAT A SENTENCE.

Mark Links Stuff

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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