If you watch professional sports of any sort, you know that good players have a productivity curve. They come out young and limber but not really knowing what they’re doing, and then they learn their craft and how to exploit their natural talents to the fullest, and they hit their peak. And then Father Time steps in and they start aging, and they can’t run as fast or push as hard or go as long or heal as quickly, because now they’re in their thirties trying to hang with kids in their early twenties, and their skill may be even greater but their bodies betray them. This is a fact of sports.
However, great players, the ones with hall of fame careers – these are the ones who adapt. They recognize that their old style of play no longer allows them to flourish, and they work like hell to find a new game, refining the parts they can still do to a godlike level while discarding those areas where they are now substandard. Every athlete tries to do this; many fail. The great ones succeed – Michael Jordan revamped his game at least twice, for example (and some claim three times) to accomodate his diminishing physicality.
The reason I am discussing this is because writing, when you get down to it, is a lot like sports. Nobody talks about how, as writers (or most artists, really) get older, they tend to produce less great work. The good stuff in most writers’ careers comes in the middle section, and the stuff at the end is usually the province of the tolerable. The stuff fans enjoy but new readers don’t seek out.
And, to make all of this relevant to the post title, this is why Raising Steam is so wonderful. Over his last few books we’ve seen Terry Pratchett trying to be the Terry Pratchett of old, but since about Wintersmith we’ve seen the slow and deleterious effects of his early-onset Alzheimer’s creeping into the work. Still enjoyable books, for the most part, but not since Thud! has there been a Pratchett book that feels like height-of-his-powers Pterry and we all recognized that, and marked it as Mother Nature being a bitch, and sighed.
But in Raising Steam Pratchett has written a book that simply does not feel like his earlier works. It’s still identifiably a Discworld book and still identifiably Pratchett, but the entire style of the book is completely different. Where most Pratchett previously was driven by the power of his core narrative, this book is more a collection of diverse scenes. Still scenes all connected to a central narrative, of course, but the format feels far more epistolary than we are used to from him (and he has always been a writer who has enjoyed his fun little asides).
But the thing of it is: this is great writing. It is great writing unlike what we are used to from Pratchett, to be sure, but it is great writing nonetheless. Call it Pratchett 2.0 if you like, because it takes the meandering sensibility of his most recent books and puts it to use; a writer challenged by time turning his new problems into positives. It’s a deeply inspiring book on that level, and it’s not right to call it “one of his best” because it really does feel like a whole different writer while still being the same man – Terry Pratchett of Earth-2, or similar.