by Terry Pratchett
“Just because you can explain it doesn’t mean it’s not still a miracle.”
Douglas Adams gave us the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It is, and always will be, 42. For those of us not capable of grasping this simple, awe-inspiring wisdom, we’re left manufacture other ways to make sense of our world. We make gods.
Brutha, a simple monk of low rank and low intelligence finds he’s talking to a tortoise, and over time and through a few demonstrations he realizes the creature is actually the great god Om in the flesh. Though the religion of Omnia is built upon Om’s ancient teachings, the god is powerless because no one truly believes in him anymore. They are instead beholden to powerful men who’ve manipulated the hierarchy of the church for personal gain, personified by the head of the tortuous Quisition, Vorbis.
Vorbis uses his power to manufacture a war between Omnia and Ephebe, a land of argument and philosophy and acceptance of many gods, using the Omnian belief in ‘One True God’ against the heathens. As Brutha travels to Ephebe along with the actual god Om in the form of a helpless tortoise, his eyes begin opening to the larger world of discussion and dissent and the evil being perpetrated in the name of the god he’s carrying, and he sees he’ll need to make a stand. Repeatedly (and pointedly) throughout the book, Om hears his divine dictations from ancient religious texts supposedly from him and responds, “I never said that!”
Like Mort, Small Gods is still using fundamentally absurd situations, but this one has much more serious underlying strengths beneath its story. Our world is currently being ripped apart not only by trigger-happy religious extremists, but from other, insidious messages of intolerance found in huge percentages of otherwise innocuous-seeming churches. Like a butterfly flapping its wings in China these things can have far reaching consequences. Just because you cut someone off on the freeway and he gestures accordingly, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the story. Now he’s more likely to do something stupid to someone else, who’s now more likely to do something stupid and angry to someone else, and at the end of the chain a whole world could topple–or not. But why take the risk? Wouldn’t it be better to live and let live?
There may be a God, or gods (see every religion) or there may not be. It’s possible the world didn’t even exist before last Thursday (see Omphalos hypothesis). We don’t actually know how the universe works when looking at its building blocks (see quantum mechanics). And we don’t even know if there is a universe, or if we’re quite literally in a matrix (see simulation hypothesis). We don’t know. Let’s try and get along while we figure it out, no matter which book says which god gave which lands to whom or says which people we shouldn’t tolerate. We know what’s right because it’s right, not because a deity told us so, and Small Gods gives us a venue to contemplate these things while poking fun at some of the failings of religion. But it’s not just religion taking hits; the philosophers in Ephebe really are portrayed as a bunch of relatively harmless, intellectually argumentative idiots, so there’s truth on both sides.
As another big plus, the character growth here is amazing. Brutha makes huge strides over the course of the story, not only with deeper realizations of the god at his side but in his understanding of the world and humanity in general. Men grow, and gods do not. The incredible adventure of a simple, devout man into a wider world leads to an excellent conclusion.
Small Gods is not as fun as Mort, and its pacing is slower. But it’s also a more complex, more contemplative read, and one that has wider implications on our world at large than most novels can manage. While both Mort and Small Gods are frequently considered Terry Pratchett’s very best books and appear repeatedly at the top of his ‘Best of’ lists, this nod goes to Small Gods. It’s not only outstanding, it’s important.
There were one thousand, two hundred and eighty-three religious books in there now, each one—according to itself—the only book any man need ever read. It was sort of nice to see them all together. As Didactylos used to say, you had to laugh.