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Book Review: Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett is one of those satirical, whimsical books that make you step back and take stock of things. When one comes across sentences like these –

“Well… do you know what it’s like, being human?”

“….Get born. Obey a few rules. Do what you’re told. Die. Forget.”

– one tends to ruminate.

Small Gods is a satire on the role of religion in people’s lives.The book starts with Great God Om approaching Brutha, a novice in a temple and asking him to fetch a high priest. Om wants to know why he has lost his power and has been a tortoise for three years. Brutha’s encounters with Om, before he realised that Om was a God, were hilarious. The book took a serious tone after that.

This book deals with several themes and one of them is torturing people in the name of God. Om is surprised that Omnians torture heretics in his name. It reminded me that the Spanish Inquisition was not so much about purifying the nation and converting heretics, as it was about The Catholic Church  wanting to demonstrate its power and instil fear in the hearts of people. The crimes of the inquisitors in this book would have been tolerable if they had not worn a veneer of piety and respectability. The hypocrisy depicted here, so often seen in real life, was quite disturbing. For instance, Vorbis, an inquisitor, who is feared by all because of his ruthlessness and his sadistic nature, asks (after torturing a heretic for two days):

“And you can keep him alive for—?” “Perhaps two days more, lord.” “Do so. Do so. It is, after all,” said Vorbis, “our duty to preserve life for as long as possible. Is it not?”

The other important theme is suppression by state. Anyone who dared to disagree with Omnian religious principles was a heretic. Omnians were not allowed to practice art or read books that talked about other religions. Pratchett depicts Omnia as a form of a police state in which even the slightest deviation from accepted behaviour could get you into torture chamber. Judging by various individual freedom-suppressing acts of governments around the world, his depiction might just become a reality. Ephebe (modelled on Ancient Greece) was on the opposite side of spectrum where all opinions and ideas were tolerated, which led to remarkable progress.

Another theme was slavery. The contrast between Omnia and Ephebe was also shown in the way slaves were treated. In Omnia, people had very little freedom but were not called slaves, whereas in Ephebe, slaves had one day off and even had running-off periods every winter where a slave could run away and not come back for two weeks. The “Tyrant” of Ephebe was not really a cruel despot, which shows you how misleading names and designations can be. The Tyrant correctly observes this fact when he says:

“Slave is an Ephebian word. In Om we have no word for slave,” said Vorbis. “So I understand,” said the Tyrant. “I imagine that fish have no word for water.”

To sum up, this is not your usual fantasy book and read it only if you appreciate satire and can face uncomfortable truths. I’ll end this review by posting one of my favourite parts. Towards the end, Brutha talks to Om about introduction of other religions in Omnia:

“V. I Don’t Seem To Recall Any Discussion About Other Gods Being Worshiped In Omnia?“Ah, but it’ll work for you,” said Brutha. “People will soon see that those other ones are no good at all, won’t they?” He crossed his fingers behind his back.VI. This Is Religion, Boy. Not Comparison Bloody Shopping! You Shall Not Subject Your God To Market Forces!”

4 stars.

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