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Let there be lettuce! Let there be slices of melon!
on July 6, 2006
In Small Gods, the thirteenth novel of the Discworld, Terry Pratchett gets philosophical, religious, and existential on us, delivering a remarkably insightful look at man and his relationship (or lack thereof) with the gods. There are gods everywhere on the Discworld - you can't swing a simian librarian without hitting one - except, of course, only a few people can see them. Each small god lies in wait, desperately seeking to make someone believe in him; on the Discworld, gods need people more than people need gods, for belief is the food of the gods.
The story takes us far away from the environs of Ankh-Morpork to Omnia, a land on the Klatchian coast ruled by the priesthood of the Church of Om. It's an arid, harsh world where the Quisition works tirelessly to beat the sin out of individuals deemed to be suspicious (and almost no one is safe, for the priests regard the very existence of suspicion as proof of guilt). You would think that the Great God Om would bask in the glory and power of all that faith being demanded of the people, but ritual has replaced substance in Omnia; the people may worship Om, but they don't really believe in him anymore. For the past three years, the Great God Om has been stuck in the body of a one-eyed tortoise and has only now been able to find one man with the true flame of faith burning inside him. Unfortunately for Om, that one believer is Brutha, a novitiate in the Church whom, all would agree, is just a little bit slow on the uptake and is just about the last person Om would have chosen to become his new Prophet. Brutha does have a perfect memory, but all that memory crammed into his mind leaves little room left over for actual thought. In a way he fits right in, though, as the Church does all it can to discourage individual thought, because that kind of thing just leads to trouble.
Naturally, Brutha has a hard time accepting a tortoise as the Great God Om, and Om doesn't have the power to do anything but curl ineffectual oaths and curses at things that bother him. Om is actually a pretty surly little god, but spending three years as a tortoise, having to worry about falcons swooping down on you and then dropping you from a great height, tends to bring out the worst in gods. Brutha is increasingly disturbed to learn that Om never really gave his followers any instruction whatsoever; all of the holy books he knows by heart suddenly come into question, and that's hard on a true believer.
As the novel progresses, Brutha finds himself accompanying Deacon Vorbis, head of the Quisition, to the land of Ephebe where philosophers cover the landscape like locusts, argue violently among themselves, and generally live in barrels. One such philosopher is Didactylos, whose philosophy can basically be boiled down to the words "It's a funny old world." He now becomes the unifying part of an underground movement that insists, despite the tenets of the Church, that "the Turtle moves," that turtle being, of course, the Great A'Tuin. As so often happens, religious dispute breeds war, and the future of Omnia - not to mention the future of the Great God Om - lies in the palms of Brutha. There is only one thing you can be sure of in such a precarious situation: somewhere nearby, Cut-Me-On-Hand-Off Dhblah will be there selling all sorts of wossnames - onna stick.
Pratchett's razor-sharp wit cuts especially deep into religion, society, and the body politic in this novel. To some degree, organized religion is being satirized in these pages, but it's a healthy and honest sort of criticism; more than anything else, Small Gods is an ingeniously subtle philosophical examination of the meaning of life in an uncertain world. Pratchett offers one explanation as to how and why gods die, and there is more than enough weighty material in these pages to give us pause in between fits of laughter.