I was watching the news one day and some alleged holy man in Iran or Iraq or somewhere was pictured standing in front of a fountain flowing with fake blood and telling people how truly holy it was to die for God. And I thought: no, even I can see through that one.
– Terry Pratchett, The Discworld Companion (1995 edition)
Terry Pratchett has written around forty books set on a flat planet which is carried through space on the back of a giant turtle. (Stay with me, please.) The Discworld has wizards, gods, and a Grim Reaper who personally meets every character that dies in the books.
On the Disc, gods are created by belief; they start off as disembodied spirits, whispering in the ears of shamen and prophets, and they grow in power as their believers increase. The most successful gods end up on Cori Celesti, a kind of Valhalla where the strongest spirits and elementals spend eternity in bickering decadence.
The Omnian religion, however, dictates that there is only one God: the Great God Om. Omnianism is a totalitarian hybrid of Christianity, Islam, and every other cult of purity and death. Pratchett is a genial writer, but he can’t keep the anger out of his narrative tone when describing this nightmare fundamentalism:
No matter what your skills, there was a place for you in the Citadel.
And if your skill lay in asking the wrong kinds of questions or losing the right kinds of wars, the place might just be the furnaces of purity, or the Quisition’s pits of justice.
A place for everyone. And everyone in their place.
The Omnian empire has wealth, land and millions of terrorised subjects. Yet when the Great God himself decides to spend a few days on the Disc in the form of a tortoise, he discovers he can’t change back because he can’t summon up the strength of belief. Although many Omnians purport, on pain of death, to believe in Om, their souls are alive with fear of the Quisition rather than faith in the divine; as Pratchett explains, people start off believing in the god and end up believing in the structure. And so the only person who has faith that the Great God Om actually exists (as opposed to terror of the hells or hope for Sugarcandy Mountain) is the illiterate novice Brutha, hoeing melons at the bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain.
Brutha is simple and slow, but he has one great talent: his memory. At seventeen he is able to describe, in perfect and minute detail, a foreign coin that he glimpsed as a three-year-old child. Although he can’t read or write, his vast capacity for remembering more or less compensates: ‘I can see and draw,’ Brutha tells us. This gift is exploited by the deacon Vorbis, who decides that the novice is just the man to accompany a church delegation to the nation of Ephebe.
Ephebe is an Ancient Greece-style democracy and next in line for the Church’s imperial domination. Vorbis takes his delegation to Ephebe because, he claims, an Omnian missionary was killed there: it later transpires that the missionary was murdered by Vorbis to provide a pretext for overthrowing the Ephebian government under cover of a diplomatic visit. Ephebe is also the home of Didactylos, a philosopher who wrote the heretical book, De Chelonian Mobile, which the Church is trying to eradicate. (In a sparkling twist, Pratchett has the Omnians believing that the world is a perfect sphere and persecuting anyone who points out that the ships sailing to the end of the world tend to fall off its edge.)
The strength of Small Gods is its character development. Brutha slowly transforms from a naive and witless farm boy to a secular prophet. Stacked opposite him is the deacon Vorbis, a terrifying villain for such a supposedly light genre novel. He has a ‘mind like a steel ball… nothing gets in, nothing gets out… the kind of mind that would put the universe on its back, just to see what would happen.’ Vorbis is a killer and torturer, a one-man totalitarian state. When he dies, he wakes up in an infinite desert with Death standing over him. Pratchett captures the horrific blankness of his soul in two short sentences: ‘Vorbis looked inside himself. And went on looking.’
Death paused. YOU HAVE PERHAPS HEARD THE PHRASE, he said, THAT HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE?
‘Yes. Yes, of course.’
Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG.
Small Gods is in many ways the great atheist novel, a fictional The God Delusion, yet many have praised Pratchett’s book as a story of Christian forgiveness and redemption. When Brutha eventually dies, one hundred years after the main events, he finds Vorbis, cowering behind a rock in the endless desert. Death points out that ‘he was a murderer… and a creator of murderers. A torturer. Without passion. Cruel. Callous. Compassionless.’ And yet, instead of leaving Vorbis to his just punishment in the form of an eternity trapped in the steel hell of his mind, Brutha helps his old nemesis to his feet and they walk off into the horizon together.
In the end, all the gods are small. The book’s greatest moment comes when all the gods of the Disc descend onto earth. Interrupting the clash and bloodshed of battling armies, they command the attention of all those present and give the only two commandments that humanity has ever needed:
I. THIS IS NOT A GAME.
II. HERE AND NOW, YOU ARE ALIVE.