Small Gods
April 27, 2023 4:35 PM - Subscribe

The Great God Om has a problem. Several problems, really. Despite a theocratic nation worshiping, warring, torturing, and avoiding all manners of pleasure in His name, he's all but faded away and died. Confined to the body of a decrepit tortoise, he must join up with Brutha, an illiterate youth with a phenomenal memory who is also his only remaining actual believer, to save his own existence and, if the chance comes along, change the course of history for all of Omnia for the better. (Discworld #13, Standalone.) By Terry Pratchett.

It's the Discworld Book Club, everybody! Recently we've been following the City Watch books (Previously: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff) as well as the Industrial Revolution books (Previously: The Truth, Monstrous Regiment, Going Postal, Making Money) and are now jumping back to cover some stand-alone novels. For those who truly wish to go back to the beginning, there are a number of Discworld novels covered in Fanfare back in the day (The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery, Wyrd Sisters) and most recently we covered Pyramids and Moving Pictures. For our next book, we'll be jumping into the Wizards/Unseen University series with the first book not already covered on Fanfare: Eric.


Brutha is a young novice in the Omnian Church with a very different kind of mind from anyone else around. He is assumed to be simple by virtually everyone who meets him, and indeed he has very little practice with independent thinking, and seems incapable of ever learning to read or write, as he cannot make the mental connection between the symbols on a page and the concepts they represent. He is blessed, however, with an absolutely perfect eidetic memory, which in Omnia means that he can remember chapter and verse of every book that the Church's Prophets have ever written, as read to him by his strict and abusive grandmother.

Deacon Vorbis is, to his knowledge, exactly what the Church needs. As an Exquisitor, he has spent his life torturing and murdering infidels, without passion or malice, but because it's what the Great God Om demands. He is calm, collected, and radiates presence, such that he is the religion's unofficial leader and heir-apparent to the Big Chair, and since Prophets arrive in the Omnian religion like clockwork, it is known that his promotion is fast approaching.

Om is a God. Formerly a great and powerful one, in fact. Now he can barely will himself into existence, and that existence is as a lowly one-eyed tortoise, plaything of the Eagles of the Disc. Due to how Gods work in Discworld, he is fading away, left to call upon the only person left who actually believes in him: Brutha.

Gods require belief in order to keep on being, you see, and the structure of the Church has supplanted Om Himself in the hearts and minds of Omnians. Meanwhile, Om is not the only one who has discovered Brutha's uniqueness. Upon learning of Brutha's powers of memory and seeming willingness to follow orders without question, Vorbis takes Brutha along on a diplomatic delegation to Ephebe - one which may have a few ulterior motives about it, but which also gives Brutha and Om a chance to meet with the Disc's greatest living philosophers to hopefully solve Om's problems with remaining extant before Omnia's neighbors team up to wipe it off the map...
posted by Navelgazer (21 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
There are some days that I only get through by reminding myself that one day a tortoise will learn how to fly.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:46 PM on April 27, 2023 [8 favorites]

Obviously this is one of the all-time greats. I read it for the first time last Summer while driving across the country and having next-to-no distractions from the audiobook, and it absolutely floored me. Many of the ideas here are explored in other books either by Pratchett, Gaiman, or Pratchett/Gaiman, so the concept of "Gods need Belief to live" wasn't mind-blowing or anything to me, but it's just done so well here, in a way that makes this story very distinct in tone, style, and even substance from, say American Gods, with which it shares more than a few on-paper similarities.

I wish that Lu-Tze were handled as well here as he is in Thief of Time, which if I recall correctly had far less of the "I'm a 6000-year-old globetrotting monk but somehow I never picked up personal pronouns and definite/indefinite articles" dialog going on. But that's a pretty small part in the story as a whole. Brutha's neurodiversity, however, is very well-done, I thought. He's never made a joke of, when other people exploit and/or underestimate him, he doesn't come off as foolish (probably because he's our primary POV character) and while the last act has his mind broadening, it's still clear that he's only capable of pulling off what he does at the end because he's different.

Also, I just love love love Fasta Benj and P'Tang P'Tang, who are also not mocked for being at an earlier stage of cultural development, but rather the humor around them comes from being literally swept suddenly into awareness of the world at large and doing their best to adjust to this knowledge, which fits so well into this book thematically, that not only will this be a potentially huge step up for P'Tang P'Tang in godliness, but also by sheer happenstance vault this humble fisherman into mythological status as the founder of his small nation of people.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:51 PM on April 27, 2023 [7 favorites]

The epilogue of Small Gods, the final meeting between Brutha and Vorbis, serves in my mind as a thesis statement for Pratchett's morality: yup, he is still him, but I am still me. It's a lovely scene.
posted by Paragon at 5:23 PM on April 27, 2023 [11 favorites]

I've long maintained that this is the big one, the one that's going to be remembered as Pratchett's best. Firing on all cylinders.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:41 PM on April 27, 2023 [16 favorites]

I took a course on Monastic Texts in undergrad, so the bit with the Discworld Stylite (the dude hermiting on top of a pole in the desert) absolutely cracked me up. I almost wish it had turned into a running gag -- dude on pole in desert, dude in random cave writing a translation (written on WHAT? with WHAT exactly?)... there were lots of weird hermits in early Christianity.
posted by humbug at 7:24 PM on April 27, 2023 [4 favorites]

My older kids have very different interests in books, and so this month I finally got with my youngest to introduce Pratchett to her via Small Gods (Good Omens IMO is its own thing). She is about halfway through and pauses every now and then to share bits with me. I am looking forward to watching her discover the rest of his world.

Although I just asked and she says her favourite character is Vorbis, so maybe not.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:26 PM on April 27, 2023 [4 favorites]

Opening this thread, all set to throw down against any haters over my absolute favorite Discworld book, only to discover that my cherished and deeply felt opinion is in fact completely conventional wisdom.

I feel like there’s probably an expression in German for this, or maybe just
“Oh no, everybody is RIGHT on the Internet!”
posted by bjrubble at 8:08 AM on April 28, 2023 [8 favorites]

Vorbis (and what are surely his real-life ilk here on our own world) scares the hell out of me.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:41 AM on April 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

The description of the torturers being normal 9 to 5 types is what most depresses me because I'm sure Pratchett is spot on. It's not a new sentiment, but the resigned bitterness that goes into details like cute sayings on mugs and retired torturers coming back to lend a hand during the busy season is just so perfectly, damningly human.

I love this book and agree that it's his best work.
posted by Eddie Mars at 10:58 AM on April 28, 2023 [7 favorites]

Vorbis fails the Voight-Kampff test
posted by The otter lady at 11:29 AM on April 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

This was my first Pratchett, bought out of a remaindered lot at Building 19 1/2 in Manchester, NH when I was 14. The title alone would have been a non-starter with my fundamentalist parents, to say nothing of the dust jacket, so I remember sneaking it into our purchases when my mother was distracted and then sneaking it out again at home.

I have other Pratchett loves (Wyrd Sisters, Soul Music, Reaper Man) but this is the first. It's odd to me in retrospect that the book is a one-off like Pyramids or Moving Pictures, but at the same time I feel like perhaps that allowed him to explore these ideas without worrying about continuity, and of course monotheism would never fly in so cosmopolitan a place as Ankh-Morpork or so pagan a place as Lancre.

Ibid is an inspired name for a philosopher, and Om a fantastic name for a mono-deity.
posted by gauche at 11:43 AM on April 28, 2023 [5 favorites]

If you've thought about picking up the Pratchett book by his amanuensis Rob Wilkes, absolutely grab it - it's wonderful, chatty, well-written, clear-eyed. And something that comes through very clearly is how goddam angry Terry was about things that sucked (and honestly kind of a dick at times, though generally in an amusing way) . He was a font of cleanly articulated rage about things like that torturer passage above.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:54 PM on April 28, 2023 [5 favorites]

This one is just so so so good.

My late mother-in-law loved Discworld and had a collection at her place; I bet that's where I first read it, 20+ years ago or so.

Brutha is such an unusual character in the mix of humility and certainty he demonstrates, and I cherish him.
posted by brainwane at 9:03 PM on April 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

I love Small Gods unconditionally, both on its own terms and because it is the closest we got in terms of a nod to Pyramids, what with Brutah and Pteppic both touring Ephebe and such. I think it is the best of his stand-alone books.
posted by Ashenmote at 1:13 AM on April 29, 2023 [2 favorites]

I was like "is this the greatest satire of the 20th century?" and then I actually looked at what's on the list. The Trial. Catch-22. Network. Dr. Strangelove. As much as I think this is a very good book, there are very few households for which "The Turtle Moves" would be a household phrase.

It's certainly Pratchett's finest work, although that's not to say that he peaked here, there are a number of excellent books he wrote after this, but the conceit of this one is both the kind of high-concept plot he loved in his early career - an organised church so hollowed out that the actual god has exactly one real believer left - and breathtakingly furious.

When I think about it, I think Pratchett's best work came when he really got the knives out, and what was so delightful about his work was the way that he used the fantasy to achieve a stark moral clarity.
posted by Merus at 8:31 AM on April 29, 2023 [10 favorites]

This was also my first Discworld novel, and it's still one of my favorites.
posted by JHarris at 9:19 PM on April 29, 2023 [3 favorites]

For complicated reasons Night Watch tops my personal list but Small Gods is (I think) his best writing.

Night Watch is fun, has a little fan service, closes a bunch of dangling narrative loops from earlier "watch" novels. Small Gods is so damned near perfect and resonates with me so damned hard. My pitch, when quoting something to someone who hasn't read Pratchett, generally starts with something along the lines of "...well he wrote a lot of social commentary dressed up as fantasy novels".

Small Gods delivers this in spades.
posted by mce at 7:41 PM on April 30, 2023 [3 favorites]

Someone who has listened to this book please tell me: is it BROO-tha or BRUH-tha?
posted by cooker girl at 12:36 PM on May 1, 2023 [1 favorite]

cooker girl: The version I've listened to has it as "BRUH-tha."
posted by Navelgazer at 1:38 PM on May 1, 2023 [4 favorites]

I've sort of assumed it was BRU-tha like "brother", since Pratchett so often uses or refers to/implies real words for his character names (that one wouldn't typically consider for names).
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:09 PM on May 1, 2023 [2 favorites]

Had the pleasure of re-reading this recently. I think one of the things I took away from it this time is that Reformed Omnianism, at least under Brutha, seemed genuinely like the kind of wisdom that I can imagine a real religion being built around. It's quite the achievement.

It's nastier than Discworld has been in the past; we've seen the Dungeon Dimensions, but Pratchett takes pains to tell us that the Quisition are ordinary men who've been turned into sadists by this church. I think Vorbis is one of his most effective villains, because it's clear that he's just a man that makes other people into worse versions of themselves, that hears his own thoughts and thinks them holy. I can imagine people like that.
posted by Merus at 2:39 AM on October 24, 2023 [2 favorites]

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