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Farewell, Terry Pratchett.

Pushing Steam is his final book, discounting the somewhat ghoulish practice of co-authoring from his notes, as others have done with Tolkien and Asimov. I found it very sad. Not so much because of its explicit content, but as an expression of the approaching end of Pratchett’s life and literary career.

Things were simply too easy for all involved. Pratchett’s better stories thrived on challenge, a competent but outnumbered and outgunned character tackling a corrupt system, often from the awkward position of an outsider forced to work within the system. Pushing Steam features too many old characters who have overcome their foes and risen to their respective peaks of influence—in finance, in law, in news media, etc., etc.—and they share a great deal of world view and mutual respect. There’s no challenge in this story, and thus no drama; rather, we’re given a chance to see old friends ensconced in power and privilege. A chance to say good-bye to them. But it’s not all friendly farewells.

More painfully, Lord Vetinari at last shows the first signs of failing capacities, as he proves unequal to the toughest challenges of the daily crossword. A trivial failing, but in the perfectly competent Vetinari, who depends on his perfect competence to keep all the balls in the air, a powerful indicator. Especially given Vetinari’s exaggerated frustration to his own crossword difficulties, a crack in his perfectly implacable self-control. As Vetinari relishes petty vengeance on the puzzle’s author, we see the first stirrings of the tyrants he replaced, the beginning of the end for the delicate balance, absolutely dependent on Vetinari, that makes Ankh-Morpork anything but a murderous hellhole.

We saw something similar from Commander Vimes in the previous Stiff, which concludes with Vimes sanctioning the assassination of a violent criminal. Not execution after a trial. Not death in the course of apprehension. Assassination, at the hands of Vimes’s personal manservant. A terrible moment for a character who spent several novels leashing his own rage to service of the law, who recognizes that the iron discipline of that service is all that separates himself from the entitled lords he so despises. An appeal to “higher justice” is no avail; Vimes’s internal monologue elsewhere repeatedly acknowledges that a good excuse to take the law into his own hands is the start of a slippery slope that only ends at the bottom. Like Vimes’s alcoholism. Happily, Stiff ends on a note strongly suggestive of retirement. Vimes ends the story setting duty aside, puttering around on a riverboat, playing with his kid, and deciding that this life, a life outside the precinct office, is pretty good too. Okay, Vimes took it too far, albeit for good reason, and now he’ll retire. I was disappointed, then, to see Vimes still in office for Pushing Steam. Still in office, that is, after going bad. Realistic, perhaps, that the chief of police wouldn’t simply vanish from police work after a single, very private lapse, but so what? Plausibility never had any place in the Discworld.

Vimes and Vetinari are my favorite Discworld characters, and I could never quite choose between them. Vimes I identified with; Vetinari I most liked to see in action. Seeing both at long last fail in their defining characteristics hurt. An admission of mortality, coming from a beloved author facing his own mortality.

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