Bugsy Malone is a very strange film, and probably an odd one to start a post about a novel on the railway industry with. It’s that rare thing for me, a musical that is deeply enjoyable and a film I have watched more times than I can remember.
It also has a killer ending, where a shootout is abruptly halted so that everyone, good guys and bad guys alike, can make up and have a bit of a song and a dance. It’s sentimental, it kinda flies in the face of what you have just been watching and feels somewhat strange. But it works and that’s why it reminds me of Raising Steam.
Upon publication, you would be forgiven for thinking Raising Steam was an indulgent addition to the Discworld canon. One that seemingly shoves in as many different characters from across the Disc as possible (Queen Keli from Mort for goodness sake!) while arch-conman Moist Von Lipwig tries to help build a railway from Ankh-Morpork to Uberwald.
Some criticised it for this but with the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear to me that Pratchett intended the novel as a way to say goodbye to his creations. One that married the magical to the technological. I would imagine the forthcoming The Shepherds Crown will be his way of saying farewell to the Witches of Lancre, with Weatherwax, Ogg and Aching hived off into a different part of the Discworld.
Raising Steam brings together a lot of the themes we have seen over the past 40 books. In Dick Simnel, we have one of the most self-effacing master craftsmen the Disc has seen, with the book shouting back to Reaper Man and his father Ned, who invented the combine harvester. His locomotive creation, the Iron Girder, proves to be sentient by the end of the novel, thanks to the power of belief in it. This is how the Discworld has changed; we have moved from having faith and belief in stories to having faith in things, in modernity and innovation.
Coupled with how steam can help bring the Discworld together like never before, there is trouble brewing with the dwarves. A subset of dwarfs has been sabotaging the clacks and railways, in an attempt to help foster a coup against the species’ Low King. The fanaticism of the “deep-downers” with their heads covered by a hood is a none too subtle reference to aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s somewhat crude here, but over his body of work, Pratchett has been a critic of reductive thinking of all kinds:
“No, it is your kind of thinking that makes dwarfs small, wrapped up in themselves: declaring that any tiny change in what is thought to be dwarf is somehow sacrilege. I can remember the days when even talking to a human was forbidden by idiots such as you. And now you have to understand it’s not about the dwarfs, or the humans, or the trolls, it’s about the people, and that’s where the troublesome Lord Vetinari wins the game. In Ankh-Morpork you can be whoever you want to be and sometimes people laugh and sometimes they clap, and mostly and beautifully, they don’t really care. Do you understand this? Dwarfs now have seen liberty. And that’s heady stuff.”
The modern world is not easy, as the Low King (actually a queen, in another illustration of progress) realises. In deflecting the coup against her, she notes how bloodshed will be required to lance the boil:
“However much we disdain the word ‘politics’, one of its most useful aspects is the stopping of bloodshed. Oh yes, bloodshed there will be. But the generations stream away and people change and things thought of as totally impossible suddenly turn out to be everyday. Nay, essential. Just like the railway is becoming.”
This is not the only aspect of complexity in the novel. While not quite at the same levels of his best work, Pratchett still has fun subverting the reader’s expectations. Since the events of Snuff, where goblins were literally an underground species, they have now come out into the open, with the world benefiting from their technical prowess. But where does integration end?
What would happen if goblins learned everything about humans and did everything the human way because they thought it was better than the goblin way? How long would it be before they were no longer goblins and left behind everything that was goblin, even their pots?…Will goblins really stop taking an interest in their pots and will humans learn the serious, valuable and difficult and almost magical skill of pot-making? Or will goblins become, well, just another kind of human? And which would be better?
It’s left to the reader to work this out.
Pratchett’s embrace of technology here is somewhat one-sided.The railway is to the benefit of the Disc and issues surrounding environmental concerns or difficult labour conditions are left largely unexplored. There’s only a brief aside as whether this idea of progress is a myth:
And yesterday you never thought about it and after today you don’t know what you would do without it. That was what the technology was doing. It was your slave but, in a sense, it might be the other way around.
Simnel is the personification of progress, a modest master of steel and steam. Despite his dialogue occasionally veering into a Monty Python grim oop north stereotype, I enjoyed reading about his faith in locomotion and respect for what he was creating:
“You learn by your mistakes, if you’re lucky, and I tried to make mistakes just to see ‘ow that could be done, and although this is not the time to say it, you ‘ave to be clever and you ‘ave to be ‘umble in the face of such power. You have to think of every little detail. You have to make notes and educate yourself and then, only then, steam becomes your friend.”
It’s a tough one to judge this objectively, given Pratchett sadly died within 18 months of the book being published. It shares some of the problems the previous few adult books had: there is far too much explanatory text, where it is spelled out perfectly exactly what a character is thinking or feeling. There’s not much of an opportunity to read the tea leaves of what a character is motivated by.
There’s also too much Vetinari, an opinion regular readers may find somewhat odd given how often I have pointed out he is my favourite character. He remains so but his strength is that of a background player, someone who makes cameo appearances and is behind all of a novel’s machinations. Think of Feet of Clay and how he knew exactly who poisoned him, how and why, but wanted to witness the fun of Vimes smashing his way through the aristocracy of Ankh-Morpork.
Given how conversations proceed in these recent books, with paragraphs of dialogue attributed to one character followed by more of the same from another, this lessens the impact of Vetinari. He is a man who can make others flee the city with a simple raised eyebrow, not a person who cannot shut himself up. To regular readers, it feels out of character. It’s not as bad as Vimes, who sadly became a tedious windbag in Snuff, but it does lessen the magic of the character.
He does have the last word on the series so far and it’s a quote that I love a great deal. It sums up a lot of what we have read in the Discworld, the ambiguities and tensions that have made it so rich:
“The world is changing and it needs its shepherds and sometimes its butchers. And in this case, I’m its shepherd. Your enterprise has been noted. And all that anyone can say now is: What next? What little thing will change the world because the little tinkers carried on tinkering?”
I love this: a realisation that as much as we need to build a new world, we need those prepared to tear down what we already have. Vetinari remade Ankh-Morpork in his own image, bringing a strangely benevolent dictatorship to the Disc, one that led to a more diverse and technologically minded society. As the books we have read have shown us, this was not easy. Then again, it never is.
And that is us, until The Shepherds Crown is published. We have a few weeks until it is published so I will prepare some fun interim posts in the meantime. I’ll look at what your favourite posts were and try and work out why (you should be ashamed of yourselves for not reading the Tiffany Aching posts as often as the others!) and also run through my DEFINITIVE Discworld top 40. Thanks, as ever, for reading.