Are you okay with puns? You’d better be okay with puns. Also: silly names and stinky smells, vermin and venality. And jokes about the French.
Welcome to Discworld, a flat disc populated by humans (and also dwarfs, goblins, vampires, nymphs and golems) that sits on the backs of four large elephants standing on the shell of an enormous turtle. “Raising Steam” is Terry Pratchett’s 40th — yes, 40th — Discworld novel, and it won’t disappoint fans of the earlier 39.
Those who haven’t read a few — or a few dozen — Pratchetts need only check out the map at the start of this new book for a hint of what’s in store: places with names like “Bad Sch
For those who have visited before, what’s new? Steam power has arrived in Discworld, thanks to a young man named Dick Simnel. He may seem like a simple country boy, but he’s a master of the slide rule and the creator of Iron Girder, a steam engine whose abilities seem to transcend the mechanical. Simnel brings his invention to the big city, Ankh-Morpork, whose denizens flock to see the newfangled contraption. Also interested are those who stand to make piles of money from it: the waste management magnate Sir Harry King, the scheming functionary Moist von Lipwig and the great and terrible Lord Vetinari. That is, if a burgeoning fundamentalist dwarf movement doesn’t send the whole enterprise crashing round the bend.
Salted among all the treacle miners and nascent trainspotters are some serious ideas about technology and the irrevocable changes it brings. Pratchett’s noir police commander, Sam Vimes, muses on what Discworld’s version of the telegraph has meant to society: “Here is the new thing and here it is. 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.” As on our spherical world, some folks embrace the change, while others are deeply suspicious.
And perhaps they should be. Why is it Dick Simnel who figures out how to harness steam power, and why now? “It was as if there had been a space waiting to be filled,” Pratchett writes. “It was steam-engine time, and the steam engine had arrived, like a raindrop, dripping precisely into its puddle.” He’s alluding to that remarkable phenomenon on our own planet when certain technologies spring up simultaneously at a particular historical moment — often in more than one place. Is Simnel a genius or an idiot savant? Or is someone (other than the author) manipulating these trains behind the scenes? Perhaps book No. 41 will tell us.
While exploring questions about the unintended consequences of technology, Pratchett also blasts fundamentalists who resist all progress. But mostly he seems to be having fun with words in the very British strain of absurdist humor that he has made his own. And 40 books in, why not?
Sklaroff is a Washington-based writer.
By Terry Pratchett
Doubleday. 365 pp. $26.95