Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Small Gods, Part IV

We’ve reached the end, and will be building a very different sort of faith with our Small Gods.

Summary

Other gods come to tempt Brutha away from Om, and they meet St. Ungulant the anchorite, who is a devotee of all the small gods in the desert. In Ephebe, without Vorbis to led them, the Omnians are easily overpowered and the Tyrant is restored. In the desert, Vorbis picks up a rock, hits Brutha over the head, and sees a tortoise that is not Om; he kills it, then picks up Brutha and sets out toward Omnia. Brutha awakens to find out that he’s been back in Omnia for a week and that Vorbis has been named the Eighth Prophet, and asked to see him as soon as he’s awake. Vorbis tells the other officiants that Brutha will be named a Bishop, and asks to speak with him privately. Brutha realizes that Vorbis is afraid of him, but isn’t sure what to do with that knowledge. Vorbis shows him the Quisition’s latest tool: a great iron turtle for people to die upon, since they believe the world exists on that back of a turtle. Brutha isn’t sure what bishops are supposed to do, so he goes back to the garden and gets to work. Simony and Urn continue working on their weapons to invade the Citadel, which Vorbis learns about from a man who sells the group iron. Lu-Tze talks to Brutha about accepting his place in this story and learning to make his own wisdom.

Didactylos is angry at Urn for creating weapons (this one in the form of a giant turtle, too) insisting that’s not philosophy and can’t make anyone’s lives better. Brutha runs into Urn in the Citadel, and isn’t sure what they’re up to, but he thinks of leaving Omnia. Urn is led into the hydraulics chamber and opens the “solid brass” door with the “breath of god.” He figures out how the whole thing works, so they can open the door when Simony is ready to attack. The plan goes wrong; the hydraulics break and so does the turtle. Brutha returns and sees Vorbis decked out in the Prophet’s regalia. He slaps the man, and is grabbed by the guards; Vorbis orders that he is thrashed and then burned to death. Om has been trekking through the desert, trying to get to the Citadel, but he’s too small to make the journey, and is eventually plucked up by an eagle that intends to make him a meal. Brutha wakes up strapped to the Quisition’s turtle. Om bites the eagle and manages to project his thoughts into its mind and tell it what to do. Urn and Simony see Brutha strapped to the iron turtle, and Urn wants to save him, but Simony thinks they should let this happen; make Brutha a martyr for people to rally behind. Urn tells Simony the true evil of Vorbis is that he makes people like him, which is exactly what Simony is becoming.

Brutha tells Vorbis that what he’s doing is wrong, but Vorbis doesn’t seem to care. Then Brutha begins to hear a voice and knows Om is coming. He tells Vorbis he is going to die and Om gets the eagle to fling him directly between Vorbis’s eyes, killing him. Suddenly, everyone believes in Om, and he decries that Brutha is his Prophet. He burns away the old commandments and asks Brutha what his are, but he can’t think of any straight away. Urn and Simony and Dibbler all offer suggestions. Brutha takes none of them until someone mentions the idea of not killing anyone. Brutha decides that people should not kill each other, and also demands that Om hold with that commandment. Om is furious that Brutha demands anything of him, but he insists that this religion is a bargain. Om claims that Brutha is at his mercy, and Brutha agrees that is true. Om accuses Brutha of using weakness as a weapon, and he does not deny it. He says that Om should bargain with him now in weakness, because it’s better than bargaining with a person from a place of strength. Then he decides to go meet the Ephebians and stop a war from breaking out between their peoples. A dead Vorbis arrives in the desert he must cross before his judgement, but he has nothing to believe in and he feels himself to be alone. He begs Death not to leave him, but of course, Death cannot stay.

Brutha goes to talk to the landed armies of Ephebe and Tsort (primarily), and he tries to surrender to stop the fighting, but Simony and Urn show up with the army and their turtle. Brutha points out to Urn that his invention is now going to be used on his own people, which brings the philosopher up short. Brutha then punches Simony for refusing to listen; he goes to watch the battle with Didactylos. Om goes to the mountain where the major gods of the Disc dwell, and he finds the gods of Ephebe and Tsort—they don’t care about the war, but Om does because he’s spent too much time about people. So he starts a fight with those gods, which causes a storm at ground level, and suddenly the soldiers of every nation break rank to help each other as ships get beached. The gods appear and the war never begins. Later, Brutha tells Didactylos that he should be a bishop for Omnia, thinking that an Ephebian philosopher will be better at running things than priests or soldiers. He puts Simony in charge of the Quisition to dismantle it. And they all agree they have to find something for Urn to do, like irrigation or architecture. Brutha intends to copy out the Library in his head. Lu-Tze heads back to the History Monks, telling the abbot that he may have changed things a bit; Brutha didn’t die and there won’t be a century of warfare. Brutha does eventually die one-hundred years later, and Death brings him to the desert, where he sees the Vorbis has not moved… and these past one-hundred years might have been an eternity to him. Brutha decides to help him across the desert.

Commentary

Is this book taught in any schools? Theology courses? It should be?

Because the thing is, it doesn’t matter if you believe or not, the message is the same, and it comes from Brutha’s revelation:

“That’s why gods die. They never believe in people.”

This is driven home when Om realizes that he doesn’t know what to say to his followers—he needs Brutha to know what to say. And then again in the solution to the war, where everyone lays down arms because people need help.

Whatever you may believe in, it should be people. Not because they’re fundamentally good or fundamentally anything at all, but because people are what you’ve got. The gods aren’t doing anything… unless they’re like Om and they’ve spent too much time around people, enough to think like them. That’s the only reason this plays out the way it does. The best outcomes occur when people care about one another and believe in each other. Even (especially) when they appear to be at odds.

Look, not to be like ‘this book is extremely Jewish in its reasoning’ because I know I’m biased here, but… the one aspect of Jewish faith that I could always get behind is the fact that the afterlife isn’t really a factor. You’re not doing things to get rewarded; you’re doing them because you’re here now. Which happens to be what the gods say to all these people after the fight never comes to pass:

I. This is Not a Game.

II. Here and Now, You are Alive.

You’re not playing a game with prizes at the end, you’re alive. Seek because of that, think because of that. Act because of that.

This books manages to take so many deeply ingrained lessons in both faith and philosophy and distill them down to their simplest forms. Urn not recognizing that any weapon will eventually be adapted and used against the people you meant to protect in creating it; Simony’s inability to see any way out of a bad situation that doesn’t involve war; the acknowledgement that an assortment of religions shouldn’t threaten anyone’s faith (unless said religion is doing a pretty poor job of things); Brutha “weaponizing” weakness in his rebuilding of the faith because faith and philosophy—when done well—should concern themselves with caring for and empowering the weakest among us.

What also impresses me about this book is the fact that Pratchett gives Vorbis the fate he deserves… and then still finds a way to show him compassion at the very end. So as a reader, we can feel the satisfaction that there was some comeuppance to his horrible actions (the story tells us that he will have a lasting impact because people like this do, and it’s important to reckon with the cost they levy upon the world), but we can also conduct ourselves with compassion through Brutha’s actions. We’re being gently guided toward the better nature.

The only thing about this book that gets me a little irritated is the lack of female characters. Not for parity’s sake (the last book was almost entirely female characters anyhow), but for the subject matter. Women are commonly left out of discussions on religion and philosophy (and war, for that matter). That’s a bug, not a feature, and while I can see the argument in making all the characters male for critiquing their place in those systems, it feels like there’s a bit missing from the overall discourse this story is addressing. That said, it’s a minor quibble when set alongside what this particular tome achieves.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Okay, but Om grabs that eagle by the balls, only birds don’t have those so…
  • Thinking about Lu-Tze’s accent on the page; it shows up when he talks to Brutha, but not when he talks to the abbot, and I’m super curious about whether this is a language difference (presumably he’s speaking a different one to the abbot) or a deliberate choice on his part. Pratchett at least doesn’t go for comedy with the accent, and writes it simply by removing certain words.
  • I’ve always taken extreme issue with Sartre’s infamous “Hell is other people” quote, and Death telling Vorbis that he’s about to find out it’s the opposite is just… perfection. As a person who doesn’t handle loneliness well, this particular punishment is horrifying to me on a molecular level. Death is right.

Pratchettisms:

They went out into the desert but did not come back, preferring a hermit’s life of dirt and hardship and dirt and holy contemplation and dirt.

There was a chorus of nervous laughs, such as there always is from people who owe their jobs and possibly their lives to the whim of the person who has just cracked the not very amusing line.

Brutha tried to nod, and thought: I’m on everyone’s side. It’d be nice if, just for once, someone was on mine.

Bishops move diagonally. That’s why they often turn up where kings don’t expect them to be.

Probably the last man who knew how it worked had been tortured to death years before. Or as soon as it was installed. Killing the creator was a traditional method of patent-protection.

Give anyone a lever long enough and they can change the world. It’s unreliable levers that are the problem.

Don’t put your faith in gods. But you can believe in turtles.

And style? If the gods of the Discworld were people they would think that three plaster ducks is a bit avant-garde.

If he focused on the tiny glittering dome on top of the tiny Cori Celesti, he would undoubtedly see himself, looking down on an even smaller model… and soon, down to the point where the universe coiled up like the tail of an ammonite, a kind of creature that lived millions of years ago and never believed in any gods at all…

 

Next week we’re heading into Lords and Ladies! We’ll read up to:

“Er. Diamanda says you don’t understand, she says they won’t be trying to outstare one another…”

citation

Back to the top of the page

28 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.