Sunday, April 05, 2015

Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992) and Soul Music (1994)

Right, I decided it would be a good idea to revisit some Discworld books I remember liking back in the day. As I believe I mentioned, Soul Music was the first one I ever read, and although I don't quite remember, it's extremely probable that Small Gods was the second.

When you think about it, the fact that I remember liking the first Discworld books I read the best is a pretty good indicator that they're not objectively the best. I mean, it's not impossible that I hit the series at just the right moment, but it seems more likely that there's a lot of nostalgia talking. Regardless, though: man, you know that I have a tendency to contrarianism with regard to really popular pop culture things, but in this case there's simply no way around it: these books are just fucking awesome. Small Gods is about a somewhat non-specific monotheistic country, Omnia, and its religion, Omnianism. Unfortunately, at this point only one person really, truly believes in the god, Om, who therefore is only able to manifest himself as a small tortoise (I don't know if Neil Gaiman stole this idea for American Gods or whether this and American Gods have a common pregenitor, but the similarities are striking). Soul Music is about the appearance of rock music in Ankh-Morpork (the main Discworld city) and environs. It's hard to say which of the two is better; they're both great. If I had to choose one, though, I'd go with Soul Music, if only because it really, genuinely rocks.* As in, you want to read it with Bat Out of Hell playing at ear-splitting volume and drive down the highway on a motorcycle at one hundred twenty miles per hour. And that points to an important thing about these books: it would be natural to think that the humorous tone and frequently-silly characters would attenuate any serious intent. But somehow, it doesn't work that way. Even though they're funny (though only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny; this has always been my experience with the series), they still have some serious substance to them. Yes, They're escapist, but there's still a substantial, serious core to them. They're not just empty calories.

Relatedly, another good thing about these books that I don't think I quite appreciated back in the day is how metaphysically nimble they are. In particular, I'm thinking of the depiction of Death in Soul Music. Death is a recurring character in the series who looks like a typical grim reaper and TALKS LIKE THIS WITHOUT QUOTATION MARKS. He plays a major role in Soul Music, along with his granddaughter, and when you think of an omnipotent omnipresent embodiment of death with a granddaughter, you've gotta think, okay, this is kind of silly and doesn't really make sense and it'll be easy to pick out obvious paradoxes and plot holes. no doubt could, if you tried hard enough, but with Pratchett's light touch it really holds together well and it never feels like there's any need. The same goes for the depiction of deities in Small Gods**

I think this is actually strongly correlated with the books' humor. Pratchett doesn't go in for super-concrete, detailed worldbuilding, which tends to discourage picking too hard at these things, and, paradoxically, the lack of seriousness somehow allows you to take it all more seriously. If a non-humorous fantasy novel tries to really earnestly show you the precise epistemological underpinnings of its world, it's likely that it'll just draw attention to the ways in which said underpinnings don't add up. But the way Pratchett sort of implicitly acknowledges the inevitable limitations of how you can realistically depict these things and makes a joke out of makes it seem a lot more plausible. It's sort of hard to articulate, but it works really, really well.

So anyway, that's that. I am totally going to reread some more Discworld books (and read some for the first time!), but I'd hate to make myself sick of the series from overexposure, so I'll hold off for now. Incredible as it sounds, I know there are people who've never read a Discworld novel, so if that's you, do yourself a favor.
*Also, because it has one of my favorite, beautifully stupid jokes: people join the Klatchian Foreign Legion to forget. Hence, the members can barely remember common words or even their own names. That's it; that's the joke. You've got to be pretty smart to make a joke that dumb work.

**Although I wouldn't be me if I didn't nitpick a tad and note that the reduction of Om to tortoise form doesn't really seem plausible. One can buy the idea that Omnianism has basically been reduced to a belief in a structure rather than the god himself, but the idea that Brutha is literally the only believer left?  Hmm. Or the idea that this somehow happened so abruptly that he couldn't feel his power slipping away gradually; he was just suddenly a tortoise? Double-hmm. None of which, however, is to take anything away from the book which is super-awesome and has a really humane ending.


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