Tag Archives: Terry Pratchett

Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

16 Mar

Discworld is a flat world supported by four elephants standing on top of a huge turtle swimming endlessly through space. Using this classic mythological concept as his starting point, Terry Pratchett has, since the publication of The Colour of Magic in 1983, cheerfully lampooned a vast range of targets – Shakespeare, Creationism theory, heroic fantasy, etc – and ventured into such far-flung realms as ancient Egypt, the Aztec Empire and Renaissance Italy for further raw material. When he is not satirising historical periods or cultures, Pratchett allows much of the action to centre around Ankh-Morpork, a melting-pot of a fantasy city that’s a mix of Renaissance Florence, Victorian London and present-day New York. The series uses fantasy as a fairground mirror, reflecting back at us a distorted but recognisable image of modern concerns (for example, equal-opportunity and affirmative-action laws take on new dimensions when you’ve got vampires, werewolves and zombies among your citizens…).

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