Sunday, March 29, 2015

Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

On March 12th Terry Pratchett passed away. I never met him in person by he was by all accounts a remarkable man. He'll be remembered for his novels, which includes some of the finest satires ever written, but his attitude towards Allzheimer's disease and his own impending death made a big impression on me too. Besides supporting research into his condition, he was also an advocate of assisted suicide. I watched the documentary Choosing to Die, which Pratchett presented, a while ago. It's a very impressive piece of work but awfully hard to watch whatever your position on the issue. There is much more to remember Terry Pratchett for than just his writing.

Some people devour his books as soon as they appear. He has a large number of fans no doubt eagerly anticipating the final Discworld novel Pratchett wrote. It is scheduled to be released later in the year. I've been poked and prodded to read his books for years from various sides. In early 2008 I finally caved and started on The Colour of Magic. In a the space of 18 months I read the first twelve Discworld books and then, in the summer of 2009 I stalled for some reason. Small Gods, Discworld book number 13, sat on the self unread for over five years until Pratchett's passing reminded me I really ought to read it. I may not be the most hardcore Pratchett fan but his passing deserves attention. And what better book that the novel that tackles the one subject even more explosive than assisted suicide? In Small Gods Pratchett the central theme is religion.

The nation of Omnia is the bastion of the Great God Om. It is a theocracy completely devoted to this God and living by the countless commandments his prophets have laid down for them over the generations. The time of a new prophet is fast approaching but the god Om has a bit of a problem. In all the realm, there is only one true believer left and not the most formidable human either. His name is Brutha and he is a novice in one the religious institutions in Omnia's capital. With few options open to him, the Great God speaks to his chosen prophet. It is the start of a series of events that will change the course of Omnia's history.

Small Gods is one of the singleton Discworld novels. Apart from Death, Lu-Tze, and, very briefly, the Librarian, no characters from other books show up. You could probably read this without having read any of the other Discworld books. Apart from a few minor references to other stories, the novel is completely self contained. I'm not entirely sure it is a good point to start reading Pratchett though. He takes on controversial topics more often but this book is the only one I can think of that has the potential to be offensive to just about everyone. Not even the atheists are safe. What the novel shows clearly, is Pratchett's ability to write about such topics without being heavy handed. Fairly recently Neil Gaiman in an interview with the Guardian said about Pratchett that he is angry rather than jolly. That statement makes sense in a way but still there is nothing bitter or sarcastic in Pratchett's writing, even if between the lines you can see he has strong opinions on the topic. It's a quality that makes you read on and smile even if he is in the process of tipping your particular sacred cow.

Pratchett bases is story on the idea that people make gods, not the other way around. A small god is a potential really. If they can manage to find true believers the may grow to become something. The gods with real powers are the ones with a large following. Gods who  lose their believers, lose their power. Which of course is exactly what happens to Om after the nation that worships him turns into a huge bureaucratic religious order. What people follow is the structure, the ritual, the dogmas, but no longer the god. In one sweep Pratchett fells god the creator, monotheism an organized religions.

One of the cleverest bits of satire in the novel is the dogma of the Omnians that the world is a sphere (when in reality it is a disc carried on the back of four elephants, standing on the back of a huge turtle, any sailor can tell you) that is challenged by those who believe in the observations made from an island on the rim. The way Pratchett not only lampoons church dogmas but uses it to make fun of science and atheists, who in the face of evidence of their existence, refuse to belief in the gods. In the end it is the story's one true believer who, not though is belief in any particular god, but through a mix of humanism, ethics and pragmatism, achieves peace and prosperity and changes a god's mind. With a nudge from an unseen force of course.

Brutha himself reminded me a bit of Rincewind. He's basically clumsy and not very talented in anything relevant to his chosen career. Like Rincewind he has one great talent. He never forgets anything he's seen. His flawless memory gets him in trouble more than once because he is incapable of forgetting anything even when told to so by his superiors. It does come in handy at other times though. It would be tempting to think of him as not very bright, but in reality he's not really a fast thinker. His ideas, when they do pop up are noting short of revolutionary. He's also often the voice of reason and compassion to balance the insanity around him. It took me a while to like him but I must admit he grew on me later in the book.

There will no doubt be an awful lot of readers who won't like this book, simply because Pratchett's humour doesn't spare anyone. For readers familiar with Discworld that will hardly be a problem. What Pratchett does in this novel is not so much attack religion (or science or philosophy), but rather make fun of closed minded people, wherever they may be found. It's human stupidity and short-sightedness that angered Pratchett according to Gaiman. Whatever Pratchett's exact feeling on the subject of religion and the way it expresses itself in society, he channeled them into a book that is both hilarious and possesses great depth. It will leave the reader mulling over the ideas he put into the text long after the last page has been turned. Small Gods is one of the better Discworld novels I've read so far. If I don't read another anytime soon poke me to get on with it.

Book Details
Title: Small Gods
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi Books
Pages: 380
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-552-13890-1
First published: 1992

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