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Originally published Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 6:17 AM

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‘Raising Steam’: a train is a’comin to Discworld

“Raising Steam,” Terry Pratchett’s 40th installment in his “Discworld” series, is a delightful fantasy sendup of politics, economics and finance, as the Discworld gets a railway and complications ensue.

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Pratchett has been one of my favorites ever since The Colour of Magic. If you... MORE


‘Raising Steam’

by Terry Pratchett

Doubleday, 384 pp., $26.95

“Raising Steam,” Terry Pratchett’s 40th — 40th! — installment in his Discworld series, is a lovely homage to the courage at the core of technological advance, in this case the harnessing of steam and the laying down of rails.

Building a railway is as much about economics as engineering, and with this being Discworld — sort of like our world, sort of not — the hurdles are both familiar and twisted. The starting capital traces its origins to sea plunder (“your granddad were slightly a bit of a pirate,” the railway’s engineer is told); land rights must be settled with goblin squatters; and legal niceties fall to a lawyer who happens to be a troll, which is no longer a big deal in Discworld, with trolls so much like people, only bigger, that some work as dentists, some as hair stylists, and the one who’s handling all the contracts elicits this reaction from a new client: “Weren’t he nice? For a lawyer.”

The railway, being new and all, creates disruption, and disruption begets adaptation, so a land populated with gnomes, vampires and golems gets introduced to class mobility, the birth of suburbs and travel writing, and the selling of shares to distribute profit and risk.

Friction comes from a faction of dwarfs — “two dwarfs is an argument, three dwarfs is a war” — who, not much for change, set out to sabotage the railway’s mighty engine on its way from Ankh-Morpork to Uberwald, by way of Big Cabbage, Zemphis and Twoshirts. Lubrication comes from the goblins — “they greased everything that needed greasing and tapped what needed tapping” — and from fixer extraordinaire Moist von Lipwig, on leave from running the Mint, the Post Office and the Royal Bank.

Pratchett melds politics, finance and the occasional dark turn with his fantasy and humor, and as ever his footnotes are not to be missed. It is there that we learn that “stumbleweed is like tumbleweed, but less athletic.”

Reading the previous 39 Discworld novels is not necessary to delight in “Raising Steam,” which is a good thing, because that would seem to be asking a lot. That said, how many writers are more fun to spend time with?

Pratchett, who is now 65, went decades writing about two books a year, becoming Britain’s best-selling author before J.K.Rowling offered up Harry Potter to the world. In 2007 he was diagnosed with dementia. His form of Alzheimer’s, posterior cortical atrophy, erodes memory and visual processing. Although his typing went to pot, he can still write, dictating to an assistant or using a voice-recognition program.

He’s been determinedly public about his dementia, bristling at how we stigmatize and pussyfoot. He has donated to Alzheimer’s research and created a blog on dementia where people can share stories.

On his blog, Pratchett calls for scientists to work “their arcane magic,” the kind of magic he celebrates in “Raising Steam,” where a tinkerer with a “knowing of the sliding rule” produces results “like wizardry, but without the wizards and all their mess.”

Ken Armstrong:

A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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