The brutal world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire books may not have much obvious connection to Terry Pratchett’s more lighthearted Discworld series. But both of these sprawling fantasies are intimately concerned with exploring the ideas of civilization and progress in their broadest sense and over an extended period of time. They differ, though, in their optimism: Martin’s story focuses on how tragically fragile civilization is, and how easily a peaceful society can descend into a hell of chaos and bloodshed. Pratchett, meanwhile, has for more than three decades been painstakingly building his better world, telling a story about how to make a modern world out of medieval squalor, and how technology and social progress go hand in hand.
The series began as a wide-ranging satire of the fantasy genre, using dwarfs and dragons to skewer sword-and-sorcery conventions as well as broader issues like feminism and religious intolerance. Discworld’s version of the Industrial Revolution has been percolating for years, and with the 40th book in the series, Raising Steam, the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork is transformed by the arrival of the railroad—not through magic but honest-to-Quirm science, just one of the signs that the Discworld is starting to look, for better or worse, more like normal old Earth. Instead of the wizards or golems who drive the action of earlier books, the world-changer here is a young engineer named Dick Simnel, whose marvelous new invention is forged from iron, steel, and most importantly, very precisely calculated numbers. The railroad soon connects Ankh-Morpork to cities nearby, encouraging travel and trade, and making the Discworld all the smaller—and the better. This worries the master politician and plotter Vetinari, who doesn’t trust anything he doesn’t control. To which end, he dispatches Moist Von Lipwig, the raconteur and con-man hero of earlier novels Making Money and Going Postal, with orders to get the trains on track or be thrown to the kittens (a worse fate than it sounds).
Moist and Dick… no, let’s use their last names. Von Lipwig and Simnel’s efforts soon cement Ankh-Morpork’s place as the center of a nascent commercial empire linked by rails and clacks, the Discworld version of the telegraph. But as on Earth, this also drastically speeds and broadens the reach of social change to places that don’t know what’s coming, and to people who don’t actually want anything to change. Ankh-Morpork has been dealing with issues like ethnic tensions between dwarfs and trolls, golem workers’ rights, and anti-undead bigotry for years, but the smaller world now means that the deep-dwelling dwarfs under the faraway kingdom of Überwald find their traditionalist mindset threatened. And they threaten back, bringing a wave of violence and fanatical terrorism to the encroaching railroads, and fomenting a coup against their more forward-thinking leader, the Low King.
Raising Steam suffers from being Pratchett’s least whimsical Discworld book, though he sneaks in some solid punnery, like a town called Aix-En-Pains. But in place of the usually effortless-seeming sly wit and silliness, Raising Steam offers unsubtle earnestness. It rarely feels like vintage Pratchett, and at times it doesn’t sound very much like the writer at all. Characterizations of long-established Discworldians like Vetinari are off-kilter. Lawman Sam Vimes sounds more like a soldier than a cop. The momentum of the railroad and coup storylines grind slowly down through an interminable journey to Überwald that eats up far too much of the narrative.
But worst, the humor is pretty thin on the ground, and without it, the sharply drawn sense of ethics, which is the secret heart of the series, comes across as hectoring didacticism. Pratchett’s marvelous sense of comic phrasing was once the hallmark—and for many readers, the point—of a Discworld book. But a line like “Dwarfs have now seen liberty—and that’s heady stuff” sounds more like a Tom Friedman op-ed on global economics than the impish Sir Pterry of old. At its best, the Discworld series uses social commentary couched inside puns and parody like a set of brass knuckles in a padded boxing glove. The jokes hit that much harder because of the wisdom hidden inside, making it all feel a little less like getting hit over the head with moral lessons.
Hopefully, this is just an uncharacteristic blip of mediocrity in a mostly unbroken line of terrifically enjoyable books, though it’s been sadly clear that a decline would come sooner or later after Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007. Certainly, the speed at which Raising Steam moves forward long-simmering elements of the overarching Discworld plot, not to mention the unusually large number of cameos by characters from earlier novels, suggests that Pratchett might be moving to bring the series to an endpoint on his own terms. He’s certainly earned that right, and here’s hoping he’ll have a few more books, better ones, before he’s through.