This might sound sarcastic, but it isn’t: the story of the railway is a fascinating one. Nowadays we take trains totally for granted but they radically transformed society (especially in Britain) after they were introduced, which took some incredible feats of engineering. (Dan Snow’s History of Railways is a pretty decent BBC documentary series on this.)
That story is transmuted to the Discworld in Raising Steam, the fortieth (!) instalment of Terry Pratchett’s series. Recent books have chronicled the impact of modern inventions – the internet, mass media – on his fantasy world, and the idea of adding steam power to that mix and seeing how it clashes with traditional fantasy elements has a tonne of potential.
Unfortunately, that potential is never realised in Raising Steam. That’s mostly down to the thinness of the plot: The unfortunately named Ankh-Morpork rascal Moist von Lipwig is tasked with organising the construction of the first Discworld railways; meanwhile, an extremist faction of dwarves unhappy with disruption to the old traditions wages a campaign of terror against the modern world. That’s mostly it, though the story is padded out with many asides and diversions that sometimes grow tedious.
There aren’t many surprises here, though perhaps that’s no surprising from a series that’s reached forty parts. Characters who were once vibrantly three-dimensional – such as Vimes, and the Patrician – now act exactly the way you expect them to, all the time. The end is a little heavy-handed and too easily tied up. It’s absolutely not a dud book, but it’s been a long time since the Discworld saga charged along the tracks at full steam.
Previously: Snuff, Terry Pratchett
One day, humanity makes a stunning discovery: There are parallel universes neighbouring ours, stacked next to each other, stretching out to infinity, each one holding an Earth that is more or less identical to ours. Humans can step out of this world and into the next almost at will. Overnight, society is transformed by this new “Long Earth”.
The Long Earth and its sequel The Long War are structured entirely on that premise – and what a premise it is. It’s simple, with the kind of deceptive simplicity that cracks your skull open and makes your imagination blaze. Authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s imaginations are incandescent: Both books in this series are bursting with digressions and musings and speculation about the big and small effects that the Long Earth would have on humanity.
The premise is so huge, so ambitious, that it’s almost a struggle to build anything as closed as a plot around it. Long Earth is structured around Joshua Valiente, a natural “stepper” – unlike almost every other person, he doesn’t need a special device to hop from one Earth to the next – who has explored more of the Long Earth than most. He’s recruited on an expedition to explore the vast extent of the Long Earth by an eccentric supercomputer known as Lobsang, and the pair turns up some of the Long Earth’s mysteries as they traverse it in an airship*.
(*Remember the golden rule: Pretty much anything with airships in it is, by default, cool.)
In Long War, which picks up several years after Long Earth, the weakness in the story become even clearer. The characters are mostly a benign lot (if you’ve read a lot of Pratchett’s stuff many of them will feel familiar to you) and none of their individual stories are especially interesting or surprising. Various threads follow the tensions between humans and other intelligent species residing in the Long Earth, a Chinese expedition into far-flung worlds, and Lobsang’s continued meddling. But there’s never a sense that everything won’t work out OK, and eventually, everything does.
But it’s testament to the strength of that remarkable central idea that the series is never boring. Pratchett and Baxter wander off on side quests exploring the social and economic effects of infinite Earths, which are often so intriguing it’s sometimes it’s disappointing to be gently steered back to the main plot.
Alternate title: Vimes Takes a Holiday, in which Terry Pratchett’s uber-cop Sam Vimes (who by this point has become the Discworld’s Jack Bauer) retreats to his wife Sybil’s country estate on an enforced vacation. Naturally, the countryside proves less idyllic than it seems.
But it takes forever to get the less-idyllic-than-it-seems point. A ruthless editor could cut Snuff down to a novella and still have time to leave work early. Pratchett takes his time letting you know what kind of game he’s playing here, and the build-up is more infuriating than intriguing. Yes, Snuff is ripe with Pratchett’s usual narrative cleverness, but the longer the plot took to materialise the more I wanted to rattle the book to force it to fall out.
Eventually, a story emerges: Vimes’s nasty upper-crust peers are exploiting goblins, one of the last Discworld species still considered beneath humanity. This – “lower race promoted to equal footing as Discworld society is dragged into something resembling the modern day” – is well-trodden Pratchett territory. His long-time readers will be entertained by the plot-turns, but they won’t be surprised by any of them.
Same goes for Snuff‘s black-and-white characters. Vimes, for all his concern about the darkness inside him that threatens to erupt any moment, is a straight-up good guy. There’s never any real worry he’ll slip into darkness. And his opponents are straight-up bad guys, cardboard villains with little motivation beyond Being Evil. (Notably, the goodies are mostly drawn from or associated with the grubby lower classes; the upperclassmen are generally rotten to the core.) “The Sociopath” has become a stock Pratchett character, and there’s not a lot separating Snuff‘s Stratford with someone like Hogfather‘s Teatime.
Previously: Book review: Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett
Is Sir Terry really suffering from a debilitating cognitive disease? Really? Him? Is probably what you’ll ask yourself after finishing I Shall Wear Midnight – the man’s still got it, where “it” stands in for “a sharp wit”, “great characters”, and “straight-up top-shelf writing know-how”.
So this most recent instalment of the super-long-running Discworld series (“saga” is a better word) returns us to witch-in-training Tiffany Aching, who’s now 15. The Nac Mac Feegle still assist (obstruct?) her in her witchly duties, though said duties are darker and tougher than before: there’s violent dilemmas happening on the chalk downlands where Tiffany lives; she must travel to Ankh-Morpork to inform the Baron’s son Roland – who’s engaged to be married to a girl who isn’t Tiffany, dun dun – that the Baron has died; and, oh yeah, there’s a malevolent witch-hating spirit known as the Cunning Man out to destroy her.
The plot is a bit slapdash, its climax not holding together as well other Discworld instalments, though the final scenes are pretty much perfect. Midnight gives Tiffany a satisfying send-off, though fingers crossed Pratchett is up to writing another adventure for her – she’s one of his best creations. The powerful witch Granny Weatherwax – who has a role here, alongside many other familiar faces (and Esk!) – has long ranked among my favourite Discworld characters, and what’s interesting about Tiffany, I think, is that her stories are basically a chronicle of how these powerful witches are made.
PS, I saw Sir Terry at the Sydney Opera House when he dropped by Australia in April. Perhaps the wisest thing he said was that the world would be a better place if we all allowed for the possibility that even our most strongly held beliefs might be wrong. True dat.
So I haven’t updated my blog in like forever, but, I have a pretty good excuse: I’ve been off travelling around the States, the UK and Europe (mostly Europe) since December. (The trip was awesome, by the way. LONDON I MISS YOU.) It turns out one can get a lot of reading done when one is travelling, so here it is.
(Incidentally, I didn’t lug all these books around with me; I read them on my iPhone using Stanza, which is a brilliant app. And, since I get asked this a lot, reading on the iPhone screen is generally fine – as long as you spend a bit of time working out your preferred font face, size and spacing before you commence the actual reading.) …
At left, the American cover for Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel Unseen Academicals. At right, the British/Australian cover. When I was in the States in October I stumbled across Unseen Academicals for the first time and came thisclose to buying it… but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. That US cover, while not completely awful (love the skeletal hand and orangutan paw), is still pretty awful. The British/Australian cover, so pretty!
(For the record, my copy of Unseen Academicals and its so-pretty cover arrived in the post today! Even though it is yet another book to add to my already teetering pile of unread books.)
You know who is one of the worst victims of bad US covers? Jasper Fforde, whose American covers are so dreary compared to his oh-so-stylish British/Australian covers, here and here.
Of course I’m ranting very generally (and subjectively) here. There are loads of stunning US covers made by very talented designers, some of which I have written about here. Nevertheless…