“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.” – Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
People have strong opinions about Terry Pratchett. He has an intimidatingly enormous body of work set within his fictional universe of Discworld. You could almost do an entirely Disworld Cannonball Read. His books are a blend of fantasy, sci-fi, political/social satire, and comedy, and they are pretty great.
I have only read three so far. I am not as completely hooked as others seem to be, but I think they are charming and fun. My favorite so far is Small Gods, but I think this is because I find its subject matter the most interesting. Pratchett seems to choose a broad topic for each of his Discworld novels, and the subject of Small Gods is organized religion.
Small Gods sets its key religious structure up in something resembling the Catholic Church during its most powerful, corrupt, Inquisition years. This novel is not a deconstruction of modern Christian (or any other) religion. Pratchett has created an alternative universe, and he uses this to his advantage by setting up different monotheistic and polytheistic religions than our world’s so that he can deal with specific ideas. (If this sounds like Battlestar Galactica, by the way, it isn’t – there are more than two religions in Discworld.) There is one catch, and it’s a pretty great one: these gods absolutely do exist. Since zombies and witches and all sorts of things exist in other Discworld novels, it makes sense that turtle and thunder gods do too. The interaction between the gods of Discworld and their worshippers creates a nifty device to explore spiritual issues.
I think my favorite aspect of this book is its protagonist Brutha, who is deeply and sincerely religious. Brutha is a low-ranking monk in the service of the Great God Om. Brutha’s story begins when Om actually shows up one day in the form of a tortoise and starts talking to him. This causes him all sorts of problems, since he is the only one who can hear Om speak, and since Om frequently contradicts the higher-ranking religious officials. (As a practicing Christian, I thought this idea was both hilarious and profound.) Brutha is launched into an adventure that spans oceans, deserts, battles, and the religious history of his world. His journey does not end in the loss of his faith, but in its expansion.
Pratchett is respectful and sympathetic to the widely varying beliefs of his characters. He does not “pick sides” as writers on these topics tend to do. For example, the pseudo-ancient-Greek philosopher Didactylos and Brutha have some fascinating exchanges, and they are sincere friends. I found this approach refreshingly sane and compassionate.
This is a fantasy book about the meaning of life, death, and faith that keeps an excellent sense of humor. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys those themes.