Gods vs. Characters

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I got a copy of N.K. Jemison’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for my birthday, which I’ve just finished reading. It was recommended as an excellent demonstration of active gods in a fantasy setting. Whilst I greatly enjoyed the book, I confess I was disappointed in that demonstration. The gods were ‘just’ characters – another group of people, with the same level of motivations and complexity. They weren’t particularly alien, or inscrutable. Even their power levels, though astronomical compared to others, was worldly rather than divine. Compare this to the gods of Louis McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, where you really get a sense of other. The deities aren’t people, to be known and understood by either character or reader – they are something apart from the world.

*Please note, for the purposes of the rest of this post, that I am commenting on made-up religions here – don’t make the mistake of taking any of these comments to reflect on real-life religions. I have strong views about that, which aren’t relevant or going to be expressed here.*

It’s a very common theme of genre fiction that religions are true. The gods really do exist, whether or not they answer prayers and perform miracles. Atheists are rarer than One True Heirs in fantasy-land, and priests have the smug confidence of someone who knows – without the need of actual belief – that they are serving a divine will. To my mind, that misses an opportunity for more interesting dynamics. Religion struggling and scratching for power, rather than assuming it because ‘my god is bigger than your god, and I can prove it’. The uneasy balance of power between Church and State (again, often overlooked in fantasy due to confident priesthoods). The attitude of religion towards heresy, atheism, fanaticism, and other religions. Religion has been such a major player in real-life history and a lot of that has been down to nuance and competition. Why would you deprive yourself of such rich tools when world-building?

The Romans had an extremely pragmatic approach to other religions. They didn’t ask their conquered new citizens to give up generations of belief – instead they said ‘of course, your god Zeus is just another name for our god Jupiter’. They’d keep the same festivals for Zeus, just rebranded. Thus they both kept the locals relatively happy and spread their own faiths. And now, of course, it’s pretty generally accepted that neither Zeus nor Jupiter were ever real. They’re relegated to the Myths section of the library, and their space in the Religion shelf is taken up with today’s beliefs. And in that timeline of faith there’s a fascinating story.

Despite my best efforts, I haven’t read everything. Are there any decent fantasy books that approach religion as debatable, or at least not provable? Are there any fantasy atheists? Can anyone make a recommendation?

Zeus & Jupiter - spot the difference

Zeus & Jupiter – spot the difference

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3 responses »

  1. I had the same experience recently where I read a piece someone was working on that was all about gods, but they didn’t feel even slightly divine. They acted like people, and the characters around them treated them like slightly more important people. My main thought was, if you’re going to do that, why call them gods?

    This has made me realise that I can’t think of any particularly good examples from fantasy, which is disappointing. The nearest I can think of, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, deliberately presents the gods more in a state of decline, beings who were once worshipped rather than the centre of active religion. It’s a brilliant book, but not the sort of thing you’re talking about here. I’d love to see someone like China Mieville tackle the subject, I bet he’d give it the depth and ambiguity it deserves, but I’m not sure it’s his cup of tea.

    And in my opinion there’s no worse trope in fantasy than the truth-laying god, coming down from on high to give both character and reader unchallengable absolute knowledge. There’s an interest killer right there.

  2. For all GRRM’s faults, at least we find this in A Song of Ice and Fire. The Seven seem to play no active part, beyond purely human political and psychological roles. The Red God’s power appears to be little more than alchemy and sleight-of-hand. And the Old Gods – well, there’s odd magic in the north, and perhaps the Old Gods’ religion channels some of that, but you wouldn’t call them “real deities”.

    I don’t know about atheists, but there’s plenty of people playing lip-service to religion, and using it for their own ends.

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