on October 18, 2001
The first twelve Discworld books were adolescent affairs, obsessed with corny jokes, screwball plots, and bumbling but lovable characters. Enjoyable treats all, but in retrospect less substantial than they could have been. "Small Gods", to me, is Terry Pratchett's first 'adult' book. The corny jokes, screwball plots, and bumbling but lovable characters are still here, but only to service a narrative soaked in significant themes and obsessed with our place in the multiverse.
For the most part it stands on its own as a complete story. Except for a few notable exceptions (i.e., an appearance by the cousin of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, a quick cameo by my all-time favourite Disc denizen The Librarian, and a couple of pregnant references to Ankh Morpork), you don't have to be Discworld savvy to follow the story. It's set in the previously unheard of locale of Omnia, where the Quisition, led by Deacon Vorbis (as evil a character as anything Pratchett has put on paper), tortures into its heretical citizenry a belief in the Great God Om. But the central question in the book, the one that drives the plot forward, is this: what happens when belief dissipates, and is replaced by simple routine? Following the rituals of a religion is not really the same as believing in the power and glory of a God.
And on the Discworld it's not like your wanting for Gods to choose from. There are billions of them, and they're all likely to strike you down where you stand if you insult them in any way. Great God Om used to be the greatest of all Gods, but he's fallen on tough times. The brand of belief favoured by Vorbis is not the kind of belief Om needs. He's losing true believers in the process, and has become quite ineffectual. So much so that he woke up one day to find himself in the body of a small turtle, dropped by an eagle attempting to break his shell (because, as we're constantly reminded, "There's very good eating on one of these, you know"). The only thing keeping Om from disappearing altogether is Brutha, an illiterate novice, who barely knows anything of the world outside the confines of his garden.
Brutha and Om follow a Pratchett tradition of teaming a wide-eyed innocent with a cynical curmudgeon, and watching as the two personalities eventually meet in the middle ("Om, bumping along in Brutha's pack, began to feel the acute depression that steals over every realist in the presence of an optimist"). Brutha is a true believer in the face of pure evil, and it's this innocence/ignorance that allows him to survive. Om is a perpetually pissed-off little dude, angry at his new lot in life, and unsure how to get his powers back. All he knows is that Brutha is his only hope, for Brutha is the only one that can truly hear him. Their joint quest is a joy to follow.
Along the way, we meet an eclectic cast of characters, all looking to revolt against the tyranny of Omnia, or to sit back and wait for the cards to fall where they may. The most fun is a brief excursion to Ephebe, the Disc's Greek doppelganger. Its philosophers are known to run through the streets dripping wet, dressed only in a towel and carrying a loofah sponge, after an Archimedes-esque "Eureka" moment, and it's tyrannical ruler (rightly called The Tyrant) is guarded by an impenetrable and lethal labyrinth. Terry has much fun poking holes in this world of ideas, just as he's had poking holes in the world of beliefs. Which is probably the greatest thing about this book. No matter what side of the line you fall on, be it atheist, zealot, intellectual, or priest, you'll find someone/something to laugh at, and many reasons to pause for thought.
You'd think a book like this, thick with ideas, would be short on plot and humour. Well, this still is a Discworld book, so it has plenty of both. The plot moves along like a steam engine (or a steam-powered turtle), plunging Brutha and Om through danger and chaos until the fantastic denouement, which drops from the sky like some divine providence. It's a thrilling ride and a satisfying ending. As for the humour, Terry's remarkable wit remains intact even after thirteen entries in the series. My favourite moments here involve faux-Latin translations, that clean up the original version with PC precision ("Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebellum" doesn't necessarily translate to "When you have their full attention in your grip, their hearts and minds will follow", but the joke comes when you realize what that second Latin word must really mean).
"Small Gods" is most assuredly a parody of other sci-fi/fantasy books, just as the rest of the Discworld books have been. But it is so much more than that. It really does stand on its own as a perfect satire of religion, and what it means to be religious (or more simply put, to believe). I fancied myself a fan of Terry's previous books, but have to admit that this is leaps and bounds ahead of those previous works. And thank Om for that!
Rough translation: I announce to you with great joy, we have a turtle God. That should have been the announcement that greeted the arrival of the God of the City of Om upon his return to Om. Unfortunately he was greeted by stunned disbelief by his sole remaining true believer. Since the size and power of any God/god on Discworld is directly proportional to the level of belief in each God's by its adherents this god is but a turtle. Out of such co-dependent relationships are small gods and Terry Pratchett's Small Gods made.
Co-dependent seems an apt term in this context. In Small Gods, Pratchett looks at organized religion through the prism of the co-dependant relationship. This theme is set against a backdrop which, if filmed, would have been produced by David Lean and looked remarkably like Lawrence of Arabia. (The Omnian attack on Ephebia and Brutha's trek with Vorbis across the desert between their cities both left me with images of Lawrence's attack on Aqaba and his disastrous trek across the desert with his youthful assistants.) Specifically, Pratchett examines the co-dependency of man and his God(s). Each is entirely co-dependent on the other. The plot, including the hilarious deus ex machina climax, has been well summarized in the product description and in other reviews so I'll confine myself to a few random observations.
No matter how deeply philosophical the underlying theme, the potential reader should know that Pratchett is an excellent writer and capable of some of the funniest lines and paragraphs you are likely to encounter in fiction. Pratchett introduces the Ephebians' leading philosopher Dydactylos thusly: His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools -- the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans -- and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, "You can't trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there's nothing you can do about it, so let's have a drink." It is no small compliment to state that the passage reminded me of Month Python's Philosopher's Song.
Pratchett's sharp tongue and wonderful sense of humor does not detract from his ability to get a point across. For example, the villain of the piece, Vorbis is engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the leader of the Ephebians, known simply as "the Tyrant". "Slave is an Ephebian word. In Om we have no word for slave," said Vorbis. "So I understand," said the Tyrant. "I imagine that fish have no word for water." In context, this exchange is simply brilliant. Small Gods is full of these little pearls.
Pearls, actually, form the basis of my final thoughts on Small Gods. I think it clear that Pratchett does not look kindly upon the excesses and brutalities committed in the name of God(s). However, those who do maintain such a belief system should not construe that as an attack on faith itself. I think one can liken the philosophies expressed by Moses, Jesus, or Buddha for example as a grain of sand. The grain of sand can be perfectly beautiful but because it serves as something of a societal irritant when first expressed it becomes covered with layer upon layer of outer covering until it evolves into a pearl. Now that pearl can be beautiful but it can also completely obscure the pure beauty of that grain of sand. So too with the trappings and dogma of oragnized relgion. When doctrine and dogma take pride of place the beauty of the idea is lost and can turn horrid. Vorbis' role as leader of the Omnian inquisition is no accident. The comparison between Vorbis and Brutha is beautiful for its symetry. Vorbis is all form and structure but totally devoid of content, of soul. Brutha is close to being the opposite. As we look at the trappings of our own faith (those of us that choose to have one) it might not be a bad idea to examine whether or not the trappings of that doctrine obscure the initial meaning and purity of the ideas around which those trappings were created.
That any author, particularly one so consistenly funny, can evoke such a thought process, is, perhaps, a minor miracle.
on June 7, 1999
So maybe I'm biased. I've read all Pratchett's book at least twice. I've got both of the map books, and I even met Pratchett for Gods sakes. But SMALL GODS is, and always will be, my favourite. It doesn't have as much of the in-your-face humour of some of the others in the series, or the sly digs to popular culture (Wyrd Sisters, Moving Pictures) but Small Gods is first and foremost, a satire. Personally, I believe this is where Pratchett hit his creative peak, when he had the perfect balance of characters, wit and imagination. Not to mention a real sense of danger - how many "humorists" can pull that off?
Don't think about it. Small Gods has something to say about belief, friendship, zealotry - the whole nine yards... Kevin Smith's new film DOGMA is trying to cover similar ground, but I doubt it'll be anywhere as insightful or entertaining as this.
Just get it... buy it now, on the cheap, and I'm Cutting Me Own Throat...
on June 18, 1996
Quite simply, Terry Pratchett is the funniest man alive. However, his early books are somewhat coarse, and the later books may confused a newcomer.
Small Gods is an excellent starting point for anyone. The book has new characters, a new plot, and nothing is expected of the reader. Its a wonderful book that will explain everything for someone who's never ventured into the Discworld before. Its also one of the funniest texts around.
Small Gods is also a great books in its seriousness. The book takes a witty look at the perils of making religion too organized - in worshipping the Church rather than the God. It is a book you can read, then mull over for hours - if you didn't break up laughing every two minutes.
on January 24, 2000
This was the first Pratchett book I read, and I'm glad of it. While it has the humor and satire that is inherent in all of the Discworld books, it also has something else - something to say. It was evident, even from the first time I read this book, that Pratchett had put some real heavy thinking into it.
This book is, as the title suggests, about gods. Where do they come from? Where do they go? What keeps them moving? Ordinarily, gods don't like this sort of question. People who think are not what gods look for in followers. Gods want people who believe. That's where their power comes from. Gods with many believers are stong, great gods. Armies of priests and worshipers attend to their every needs, the sacrifices are plentiful and their dominion is vast. A great God wants for nothing.
A god with no believers, however, is a small god, a mindless thought blistering through the firmament, searching with single-minded fervor for one thing: a believer.
What happens, then, when a Great God finds out that, while he wasn't looking, he lost all of his believers? That's the thrust of this tale, the story of the Great God Om and how he became a tortoise for three years. It's about the difference between what is real and what is believed in, and how much difference that can make at times. It's about fundamental and trivial truths, and how to tell them apart. It's about eagles and tortoises and how much they need each other.
Above all, it's something of, in my opinion, a statement of faith. Many people ask me if I am religious, and I tell them no. That's partly due to this book and the thinking that it made me do. Spiritual? Sure. Religious? No.
This is, as I said, the story of the Great God Om, who discovered, about 300 feet above the ground, that he had been a tortoise for the last three years. Before this mid-air revelation he had been just chewing at melons and wondering where the next lettuce patch was. Suddenly, all the self-awareness of a Great God was put into his head, as well as the knowledge that he was probably about to die. Om had intended to manifest as a bull or a pillar of fire - something much more majestic and Godly - but for some reason, that hadn't worked. He had become a tortoise.
Now, in the presence of Brutha, a novice in the Church of the Great God Om, the god remembers who he was, and discovers that he's in a lot of trouble.
The Church of the Great God Om. There's something to talk about. Many people believe, upon reading it, that it's an allegory for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The Omnian Church permits no heresy. It permits no sin, no disbelief. Violating the precepts of Om and His Prophets can lead to death, in a lingering and painful manner. The Quisition cannot be wrong, for was it not Om Himself who put suspicion into their minds? It's a tactic that has been used by many religions over the years, often to justify acts that they know their god would not approve of.
I don't believe that Pratchett was trying to take a stab at the Catholics in this book. It's just an unfortunate coincidence that the Omnians and the Catholics bear a few points of similarity. A rigid hierarchy, for example. A penchant at one point or another for extracting confessions by any means necessary is another. It's all very efficient and effective.
There's a problem, though, as is pointed out by Brutha late in the book: if you beat a donkey with a stick long enough, the stick becomes all that the donkey believes in. At that point, neither gods nor believers benefit. The only people benefiting are those wielding the stick. Instead of becoming a tool for inspiration, the church becomes a tool for terror. People do not obey their god out of love - they obey their church out of fear.
This is the kind of church that could produce the Deacon Vorbis, head of the Exquisitors. He is one of those men who would turn the world on its back, just to see what would happen. He is everything that is wrong with the Church and, unfortunately, it seems that he is in line to be the Eighth Prophet.
In other words, Omnia is not a nice place to live. Its church is vast, its god is small, and neighboring nations want to take it down a few pegs. It's up to Brutha and his God to change the course of history.
As I said, there was a lot of thought put into this novel, as well as Pratchett's usual hidden research. For example, Brutha is called a "Great dumb ox" by his classmates, due to his size and apparent lack of intellect. The same epithet was thrown at Thomas Aquinas by his classmates, and he was canonized less than a century after his death. Like Aquinas, Brutha is not dumb. He is simply slow and careful in how he thinks, and his measured pace leads him far more surely to the truth than the hot-headed and passionate men who march with him.
Some people read this book as an attack on religion. Others see it as a defense of personal faith. I think Terry had a story to tell, and perhaps a point to make. The beauty of books such as these is that they can be whatever you want them to be. For me, it came as a kind of defense of gods. Humans, the book suggests, need gods. Now there is a growing atheist community out there who disagree with that idea, and I can definitely see where they're coming from. As I've said many times, I'm not entirely sold on the god idea yet. But the gods that are rampant in the Discworld aren't the kinds of gods that the atheists and the true believers fight over - the omnipotent creator of Everything. They are gods who are controlled by humans, who exist with humans in a kind of co-dependent relationship. Humans need gods, and gods need humans. In its way, this kind of theology makes gods more... realistic to me. I can't say for sure whether a god or gods exist, but if they did, I think I could live with this kind of arrangement.
What this book definitely is, in any case, is good. Very good. If you haven't read it, do so. If you have read it, do yourself a favor and read it again.
In this era of triumphant religious fundamentalism, Small Gods is a pretty dangerous item to be seen carrying. Terry Pratchett, carrying a reputation of being a major force in writing fantasy and humour has shed both in this penetrating book. It's an incisive satire of the mores and methods of the three major religions of Western Civilization. Pratchett's astute axiom that the Discworld is a "mirror of worlds" applies with more force here than any other Discworld book. Pratchett casts away whatever subtle restraint he's given other philosophical issues to directly confront us with a harsh truth about faiths.
The basic theme is a simple, but rarely recognized, truth. Gods are created by people. The fewer the believers, the smaller and weaker the god. When belief fades or believers eliminated, the gods cease to exist. Once mighty, the god Om has been relegated to the body of a tortoise. He retains but one true believer: Brutha, a novice in the Citadel of Om. Brutha makes frequent reference to segments of the "holy book" Om supposedly authored. Mystified by attribution to himself of these writings, Om wonders who really wrote them. And why they were written. What has been perpetrated in His Name?
Brutha, who has a photographic memory, is conscripted into a religious crusade against neighbouring Ephebe. The Omnian Church wants to erase Ephebe's false belief that the world is a disc riding on the backs of four elephants standing on a turtle swimming through space. According to Vorbis, head of the Quisition, such false doctrine must be erased, erasing the Ephebians in the process, if necessary. Besides, Ephebe's on the best trade route to the Turnwise coast. Tucked away in Brutha's pocket, Om is taken along. But how does Vorbis expect to conquer mighty Ephebe, home of philosopher kings, with a token force of fifty soldiers?
Pratchett is as direct as Vorbis is devious. There's an old saying that runs "I'm not a bigot, I hate everybody". Vorbis doesn't hate anybody, just those following false doctrines. Nor does Pratchett hate anyone, but his scathing wit in this book leaves few untouched . There are some light passages, but this book is deadly serious. It's not small gods, but small minds that Pratchett targets and he hits the mark unerringly [He's nearly prescient about Christian reaction to J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter books]. Pratchett holds the mirror before us to consider our beliefs. What do we have faith in, and what sustains that faith?. If it proves false, how do we respond? What an experience it would be to visit Pratchett when one of the evangelicals arrives at the door! If he's as verbally devastating as he is with the printed word, there'd only be a smudge on the doormat.
on July 28, 2001
A few weeks ago I finished my first Discworld novel, 'Mort', which was a very light and funny book. Therefore, I assumed all Discworld novels would be like this.. I guess I was wrong. Small Gods is funny (at least in the beginning) - but far, far from being a light book, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Small Gods tells about Brutha, a not so smart lad who one day hears the voice of his great god Om calling him. But contrary to what he expected, the great god Om wasn't really such a great god - in fact, he was quite small.. like a turtle. And he didn't have any powers at all. And apparently, not many believers either. The book tells about the god Om and Brutha's adventures, trying to survive in Omnia (which is a very religious in a fanatic way...) - and maybe even restore the god to his full power.
The book really started light, but turned into a very heavy and philosophical novel about the nature of religions and gods - and of people and belief. Really, I think it would've fit quite well into a philosophy class. Typically to Terry Pratchett, the book is very very witty - I don't think the man knows how to write in an 'Unwitty' way. I don't think I laughed at all during the second half of the book, but I still couldn't stop reading it - and definitely enjoyed the read. I highly recommend this to anyone who loves Discworld, and enjoys reading books which make you think afterwards. However, don't get it if you want a book which will just make you laugh.
On Terry Pratchett's Discworld, belief is a force. But belief is not the same thing as worship. "Small Gods" is built around these two premises. And it is a pretty wonderful adventure.
Brutha is an illiterate novice in the service of the great god Om. He is unlikely to be much more than a gardener, but he does truly believe in Om, and because he does, he can hear Om when the god speaks to him. In fact, Om is on hard times, with an entire nation that worships him but only one believer. And if a god has no believers, it becomes a small god. And Om has become so weak he can only manifest as a turtle.
Through the course of their adventures, Brutha an Om wander through the wilderness, confront heretics and madmen, learn to recognize the perils of tyranny and theocracy, and generally tour the highlights of the Old Testament. Brutha visits classical Greece, in the form of Omnia's neighbor, Ephebe, and learns what true evil can be. It sounds like philosophy, and in some measure it is, but under Pratchett's masterful touch the story is so well done that it is only afterwards, when you are through with the tale, that the message hits you. At speed, right between the eyes.
Pratchett recast his ideas about belief later, and in quite a different way, in "Hogfather." But "Small Gods" makes important points, as well as being a glorious romp through the apocrypha.
This book is not for anyone whose sense of righteousness gets in the way of their sense of humor. This is a satire of religious excesses and pokes fun at worship when it gets separated from belief. For some, it may cut to close to the bone. But for the rest of it, this is a terrific book.
on May 1, 1998
Most of America has not yet caught on to the Discworld series, but those of us who have are fiercely devout followers, and this book is a prime example of why. On the surface, it is a hilarious and touching story of a once-mighty god and his last remaining believer, but Pratchett's astounding wisdom and understanding of human nature take it much deeper, through labyrinths literal, metaphorical, and moral. At the center are the questioning of a religion where belief centers on the church, rather than the god, and the way a sole believer can shift his god's way of thinking and take a religion with it.
At the same time, Pratchett employs his usual side-splitting humor and vile puns to show us the silly side of serious philosophy, atheism in a world with thousands of gods, and exactly why tortoises hate eagles. And that even an orang-utan Librarian from across the sea can help if books are burning.
If I was asked "Which is the best Discworld novel?" I'd say, with the possible exception of Hogfather, this one.
Finally, a tortoise has learned how to fly.
on June 21, 2001
"Small Gods" came to land on my window sill after fluttering in the wind for what appeared to be ages; even though I knew it would eventually flutter somewhere nearby, it came as a pleasant, somewhat unexpected surprise.
Being my first Terry Pratchett novel, I didn't really know what to expect other than a number of sardonic comments on religion and its place in society. Prior to reading it, I thought it would take on the tone of a polemic: unrelenting and pretentious at heart; so I didn't necessarily rush out greet it. The great thing that I discovered afterwards, however, is that Terry Pratchett novels are so lighthearted in tone that they will make even the biggest cynic crack a smile.
The inherent message of the story is simple: as ridiculous as everything associated with a particular god may be, there is certainly no doubt in the fact that we cannot live without them. The book makes a conscious effort to let us feel how faith draws out the best, and sometimes the worst, in us, and through the story's protagonist, Brutha, professes that the best way to believe is by what you know lies deep inside you.
If you're wary of being offended, don't fret. Pratchett treats the matter with the respect it deserves, as long as you're not too big on organized religion. Give it a try; it just might inspire you to think a little intrinsically as opposed to simply going along with the waves.