I just finished ‘Raising Steam’, the last of the “adult” Discworld novels (although of course, Terry Pratchett famously considered the difference to be nothing more than branding). It’s the saddest of ironies that even though Pratchett’s memory was failing him by then, this is really the most consciously retrospective of his novels; it is, even more than ‘Unseen Academicals’, a deliberate summation of his stories to date written in the fairly certain knowledge that it would be the last time such a summation would be needed. If the Discworld was a thesis statement, this would be its conclusion.
And just as Pratchett intended, it evokes the memories of all that came before it. There are subtle hints and reminiscences that date all the way back to his very first book–not out of simple nostalgia, but in fact to elicit that spirit of which nostalgia is the exact opposite, the realization that things have changed and that change has been for the better. The Ankh-Morpork of ‘Raising Steam’ stands in conscious, deliberate contrast to the Ankh-Morpork of ‘The Colour of Magic’, and that contrast is perhaps Pratchett’s finest achievement as a writer. He delivered over the course of his career an achievement so audacious that it took forty-one novels (and an array of ancillary materials) to finish it up, offering for the first time an alternative to the path that Tolkien’s devotees had stamped into a rut.
I don’t think any of it was intentional at first; I think that when he started, Pratchett simply realized that the tropes of the Tolkien high fantasy had become cliches, and cliches are ripe for skewering with parody. So the first few Discworld novels were exactly that, parodies of epic quest fantasies (with a tourist standing in for the noble hero, and thinly-veiled versions of various fantasy figures guest appearing) and of apocalyptic “final battles” for the fate of the world. He tossed in all sorts of joking, half-thought out explanations of how a fantasy city and a fantasy world might work, with Assassin’s Guilds that actually regulated murder and gods that depended on the survival of their worshipers, but it was all cobbled together in the way that any good writer will do when coming up with those first mad rushes of inspiration.
And then Corporal Carrot showed up. And things began to change.
Because Carrot was the first fantasy cliche to appear in a Discworld novel and refuse to fulfill his function, even in a subversive way. Carrot was the Rightful King, the Aragorn of the Disc whose role in the story was to return and take his place on the throne (overthrowing the tyrant in the process, of course) and usher in the Good Old Days that once were and shall be again, bringing back the traditions that everyone loved and revered and restoring the Old Order that everyone was so happy with. But he didn’t do any of that. In point of fact, he really stopped being important at all after his first couple of appearances, acting more as a catalyst to transform Captain Vimes into the central figure he wound up becoming. Pratchett’s first real step toward his own vision of fantasy was to say, “No more kings.”
If ‘Guards! Guards!’ took a strong step by critically examining the role of the king in fantasy, then ‘Small Gods’ (possibly his best novel) took a giant leap by examining the role of gods. Because while there are thematic resonances underpinning the Rightful King trope, usually involving nostalgia and its ugly cousin, fundamentalism, most of us really have to think much anymore about a strange man riding in on a white horse to restore the monarchy. (Or, depending on the readership, restoring the authority of the monarchy.) Whereas religion is something that real human beings deal with on an everyday basis. With ‘Small Gods’, Pratchett wasn’t just talking about Fantasyland anymore. He was talking about us. Om was a stand-in for any number of real deities, and Pratchett wasn’t just examining the way that gods are used in the genre, he was examining the way that religion changes and is changed by human beings. The result was a genuinely profound book.
But it was with ‘The Truth’ that things really began to change. Because while Pratchett had started to genuinely resist the conservative (in the philosophical sense, not the political one) bent of fantasy as a genre, which generally views change as synonymous with corruption and in which the restoration of the ancient ways is viewed as victory, he had up until that point generally been articulating that more as a theory than as a practice. He’d introduced a few incremental changes, things like an upgraded City Watch and some thoroughly modern witches, but in general, innovation on the Discworld had been seen as a malign influence introduced from the outside. (As in ‘Moving Pictures’ and ‘Soul Music’. The sequence where the Patrician comes into the offices of the first movable press in order to confirm that nobody involved in its creation had found themselves influenced by strange voices that seemed to come from nowhere has to be the best example of lampshading a trope in the history of literature.)
But ‘The Truth’ ended with a real change. The printing press had come to the Discworld, and it had come to stay, changing civilization on a permanent basis. (This was also where Pratchett put aside “overthrowing the Patrician and restoring some older form of government” as a plot device once and for all.) It seems to have had an effect on Pratchett, forcing him to examine some of his own unthinking assumptions about the world he was writing in. ‘The Truth’ marked the point at which he looked at his relatively staid, unchanging fantasy universe and asked, “Why?” Or, if you like, compared it to the constantly changing real world he lived in and asked, “Why not?”
And so things began to change. The changes required a new character, Moist von Lipwig, who ushered in all of these new innovations and forced Pratchett to see all of his existing characters through the eyes of another. Pratchett went back to older throwaway jokes (like dwarves being apparently unisex) and used them as metaphors to discuss social change, racial assimilation, and other complex issues, while reexamining the species he’d thrown in at the margins of his world simply because they existed at the margins of every other fantasy universe. If goblins and orcs and trolls could think, then why were they always just there to be slaughtered by the heroes? And if the heroes slaughtered sentient beings en masse, how heroic exactly were they? It was a long overdue start on redressing issues long swept under the rug by a parade of Tolkien successors who never thought of anyone green and slimy as anything but a notch on the protagonist’s sword, and much of the urgency in Pratchett’s last few books seemed to be related to them. “There’s only one true evil in the world,” he said through his characters. “And that’s treating people like they were things.”
And in the last of his “grown-up” Discworld books, that idea is shouted with the ferocity of those who have only a few words left and want to make them count. Goblins are people. Golems are people. Dwarves are people, and they do not become any less people because they decide to go by the gender they know themselves to be instead of the one society forces on them. Even trains might be people, and you’ll never know one way or the other unless you ask them, because treating someone like they’re a person and not a thing should be your default. And the only people who cling to tradition at the expense of real people are sad, angry dwellers in the darkness who don’t even understand how pathetic they are, clutching and grasping at the things they remember without ever understanding that the world was never that simple to begin with. The future is bright, it is shining, and it belongs to everyone.
‘Raising Steam’ completes a great work, one that says that fantasy does not have to be nostalgia. It does not have to be a longing for an imagined past, where the rightful king reigned and everyone knew their place and never dreamed of more. It does not have to involve faceless monsters and outside evils, and it does not have to be cruel. It gives us something to hope for, so long as we don’t treat people like they were things. And it’s a story we all can join in with. That’s the true gift of his achievement–all things strive, as he puts it. We’re all in this together.
‘Raising Steam’ is Terry Pratchett’s final word on the matter, but I like to imagine that his influence won’t end for a considerable time to come.