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Sir Terry's Editor on the Inspirations Behind 'Raising Steam'

Suzanne Bridson, an editor at Terry Pratchett‘s publishers, shares a few Roundworld inspirations for his most recent Discworld novel, Raising Steam.



Anyone who has ever read a Discworld novel knows that despite being flat, and travelling through space on the back of a giant turtle (and being inhabited by dwarfs and trolls) Terry Pratchett’s world is in many ways a mirror image of our own. Sometimes the links are obvious – Edith Nesmith in Raising Steam, for example, who has a special interest in children heroically preventing accidents on the railway, could not be much closer to E. Nesbit, real world author of The Railway Children, without , well – actually BEING her.

But if you look beneath the surface of a Discworld novel, past the most obvious jokes, there are layers and layers more of real-world influences creeping in, which is what makes Discworld feel so familiar a place, despite all the magic. They are cleverly woven together from snippets of knowledge gleaned here there and everywhere by an author who has seen a lot, done a lot, and who as a child set out to read his way through the library, and hasn’t stopped since.

Iron Girder evolves – in one single train she embodies years and years’ worth of work by numerous inventors and engineers.

Steam trains are undeniably imported from the real world, or as Discworld aficionados would call it, Roundworld. But there are steam trains and there are steam trains – and Terry’s are solidly grounded in history and all those books he’s read (this resulted in a very specific brief for his cover designer). The Raising Steam train, Iron Girder, ends up bearing a close resemblance to the Lion locomotive that plied the first passenger line between Liverpool and Manchester. (Lion later starred in a 1953 comedy film, The Titfield Thunderbolt, seen and loved by Terry and still highly recommended by him, if you haven’t come across it – it’s no coincidence that a character in Raising Steam bears the name Thunderbolt, and in fact one of the earliest stories Terry ever wrote, for a local paper as a teenager, was the steam-powered tale of Humphrey Newt and the Thunderbolt Carriage.) However, Iron Girder evolves – in one single train she embodies years and years’ worth of work by numerous inventors and engineers. The “pro-to-type” incarnation of Iron Girder at the start of the book is more like the engines designed by Richard Trevithick, thirty years before Lion first raised steam. Trevithick tried to get the public excited about the strange and new-fangled idea of steam power by setting up a “steam circus” in London where for one shilling punters could ride his engine round a circular track. Unfortunately, the citizens of regency London didn’t go mad for locomotion in the way that the people of Ankh-Morpork do in the book (Trevithick’s engine had a tendency to derail, not an ideal feature for a fairground ride), and there really were fears, in case you mistake them for fiction, that steam trains would frighten horses, ruin sheep’s fleeces and even, at high speeds, cause asphyxiation. Raising Steam is a story of what might have been in the real world if everyone (or at least the ones not concerned about their sheep) had been keen from the start on steam trains, and if one inventor had the vision to create not just the early prototype engine but every engine that came after it. And if anoraks had existed in 1808, perhaps.

Terry also had to do practical research into steam trains – there are some things you just can’t learn from books – much of which took place behind the scenes at the Watercress Line, a heritage railway in Hampshire. Naturally, this involved Terry in the driver’s cab, in an engine driver’s hat, getting a good close look at the enormous furnace inside (more properly called the firebox, it really is quite scary, and a very unpleasant way to be bumped off in a fight scene). Terry was also very impressed, as everyone was, quite unexpectedly, by the signal box: a room full of polished brass and huge levers, plus of course a homely fireplace so that the signalman could have his tea in comfort. If you look out for it you will spot a nod to the importance of proper signalling systems in Raising Steam.

Like many other heritage railways, the Watercress Line is run by a mixture of apprentices and enthusiastic tinkerers, including at least one retired civil servant – in the spirit of Raising Steam’s Rufus Drumknott, whose love of paperclips has to take second place to his love of steam. It also takes its name from its most notable cargo during the 19th century – the watercress of Hampshire. In Raising Steam the impetus behind the development of the railway is the need to get perishable food, including watercress but more especially fish, to the city “before it walks there on its own”. This is an echo of the real world Great Western Railway, which in 1876 alone carried 17,000 tons of fish from the Cornish coast to dinner tables in London. Sadly, the decision to name this fish service the Fruits de Mer Express only happened in Discworld.

Look beyond the trains themselves to their destinations and passengers and the Roundworld parallels pop up again. The most exotic train journey operating in Discworld (so far) is the Altiplano Express through the mountains to the bandit country of Zemphis, and beyond to the dwarf mines in Uberwald. Real altiplano trains exist, though in reduced numbers these days, on the high altitude plains of South America, where they were built in part to service the lucrative mining operations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. One such line runs to the edge of Lake Titicaca, where there are floating villages built on islands artificially created by their inhabitants from the reeds and mud of the lake. Not unlike, some might say, the raft people of the Netherglades in Raising Steam (though the villagers of Lake Titicaca certainly don’t have webbed feet). Traversing every one of these routes across the Disc is Georgina Bradshaw, a train enthusiast and compiler of useful information for the intrepid yet respectable traveller. Her real world counterpart is of course George Bradshaw, whose Victorian railway guides remain popular today, despite the timetables being a little out of date, and are celebrated by Michael Portillo in the Great British Railway Journeys TV series.

I could go on like this – and you can do this with any Discworld book – analyse the real world links, spot the cameos and jokes, and eventually develop a weird feeling that you’ve been looking over Terry’s shoulder at what he’s been reading. But it’s important not to miss the point of it all. In Raising Steam, you can investigate what Terry knows about trains (a lot), but what’s much more relevant is the interesting sort of chaos that trains cause when dropped into the melting pot of Discworld, just as football, or moving pictures did before. What’s also key is what Terry thinks about trains – he chuffing loves them. That is the reason that steam came to Discworld at all, the reason why steam (without risking spoilers) will probably save the day. The boys who see a train for the first time and dream of becoming “a master of the sparks! a coachman of the Thunderbolts!”; the passengers at the steam circus running straight to rejoin the queue when their ride ends; maybe even the tinkering goblins but definitely the children who think it’s fun to stick their heads on the tracks to feel the vibration of a train coming – they’re all Terry in some way. Terry Pratchett was a boy who used to flatten coins on train tracks for fun, back in the days before health and safety had been invented. And that’s how you know that steam power arriving in Discworld, despite not seeming like magic as such, will be a Good Thing. And more importantly, an Interesting Thing…

Read the full article over on Waterstones blog here.