On the latest Discworld…

So I read Raising Steam recently, and… I really, really want to be wrong about this, but I can’t shake the concern that it really does seem to be about how Western, especially English, culture is naturally superior and the world’s Muslim population can be neatly divided into those who assimilate into Western culture and are therefore good, and cave-dwelling fanatical terrorists who want to blow up all our towers and trains.

It doesn’t help that for most of the book there are no antagonists, no significant challenges, and no setbacks for the main characters; they just effortlessly rise and rise because nothing can stand in the way of the awesomeness of trains. Which, if you don’t find trains particularly awesome, is a bit of a bore.

0 thoughts on “On the latest Discworld…

  1. Haven't read the last couple Discworld books. Monstrous Regiment and Unseen Academicals were the last two I read and they didn't grab me. Pratchett definitely has a solid dose of good ol' ethnocentrism – just look at Interesting Times. I'm sorry to hear that his latest isn't up to his old standard.

  2. Oh, you missed some great stuff! While I liked Monstrous Regiment, I agree it was far from his best–most of the stuff between Monstrous Regiment and Unseen Academicals was really good, though. Thud! in particular is probably the best of the City Guard books, though Feet of Clay comes close.

  3. I read it less as “the Triumph of cultural imperialism”, although that is an unavoidable subtext for reasons I'll get to, but more as “the dangers of allowing those in power to determine the extent of their own authority”.

    For example: It's stated that the Grags more or less appointed themselves as arbiters and defenders of True Dwarfishness, but that what counts as True can (and does) change from moment to moment depending on the wishes of the Grags. At one point, it's okay to inform on other dwarves, because it helps the Grags combat… whatever it is they combat, but as soon as you leave the room, it's decided that betraying your fellow dwarf is un-Dwarfish, and you get killed for it. The only consistent thing about the Grags's beliefs is that changes that lessen the Grag's power are bad.

    But, as has been said: “The Turtle moves”. Changes come whether you like them or not, and you can either accept them or rage against them, but the changes still come.

    And here we run into a problem. Pratchett is, let's face it, an old, white, English guy. As most writers do, he writes what he knows, and what he knows is England. Therefore, when he writes about a cultural change that threatens “True Dwarfishness” (whatever that actually means), it will be something that he knows, and therefore something culturally English. Since the book is about this (fundamentally English) culture, and the changes the train wreaks in it and surrounding societies, the charge of cultural imperialism is not entirely unfounded. It is present, but I would argue that it's not the central point of the book.

    On the subject of trains being awesome, meanwhile: I saw it more as metaphor for technological progress in general. Again: the Turtle moves; sometimes it moves on its own, and sometimes it's moved along by the sine, and the cosine, and the power of the sliding rule.

  4. I'd also add that the book isn't necessarily saying change is a good thing, just a thing that is going to happen whether you want it to or not. Certainly it's a bad thing to be a fundementalist terrorist, but it's also probably a bad thing that the goblins might be forgetting to be goblins.

    It's instructive to read in conjunction with the previous book, which was much more explicit about Ankh-Morpork's cultural imperialism: “and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls … the melting pot melts in one direction only,”

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