Episode twice-the-number-which-must-not-be-spoken (i.e. sixteen) takes us inside the Church of Om for a story of faith, religion and truth as we’re joined by the Reverend Doctor Avril Hannah-Jones to discuss the 1992 Discworld novel, Small Gods!
Brutha is a lowly novice in the Omnian Citadel, dismissed by his superiors as a simpleton whose only notable talent is an extraordinary memory. He’s the last person expecting to hear the Voice of the Great God Om, though Brutha has his doubts: Om is supposed to manifest as a mighty golden bull or pillar of flame, not a one-eyed tortoise. Om’s not happy either: this isn’t how he planned his return from the celestial realm, and no-one but Brutha can hear him. Before god or novice can figure out what’s happening, Brutha is recruited by Deacon Vorbis – head of the feared Quisition – for a mission to nearby Ephebe: a nation of heretics, democracy and philosophers, one of whom has dared to pen a treatise describing the world as a flat disc which travels through space on the back of a turtle…
One of the few truly standalone Discworld novels, Small Gods focuses on how humans of the Disc create gods, rather than the other way round – for good and for ill. Drawing on the best and worst traditions of monotheism, Galileo’s defiance in the face of Catholic censure, and big philosophical questions, Small Gods still manages to be full of Pratchett’s trademark humour and humanism, and a long-time favourite for many fans. Do you rate it amongst the best Discworld novels? Would you recommend someone start with it? We’d love to hear from you! Use the hashtag #Pratchat16 on social media to join the conversation.
It’s been a big year already for the Pratchat crew: we’ve launched our subscription service – a huge thank you to all our supporters! – and Liz and Ben will be appearing at both Speculate 2019 in mid-March, and Nullus Anxietas 7, the Australian Discworld Convention, in mid-April! Plus Ben will be performing a new show, You Chose Poorly, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from April 1-7.
Next month it’s back to the Ramtops as the witches return home in Lords and Ladies with writer, critic and editor Nadia Bailey! ! We’re recording that episode hot on the heels of this one’s release, so get your questions in via social media before February 16th using the hashtag #Pratchat17.
Show Notes and Errata:
- The Reverend Doctor Avril Hannah-Jones is a Minister in the Uniting Church and an all-round wonderful human being. Always a geek, Avril rose to fame in 2011 via Adam Hills’ ABC comedy show In Gordon Street Tonight with the foundation of the Church of the Latter Day Geek, which for some reason got more attention than any of the work she has done advocating for LGBTIAQ rights or asylum seekers. Avril also appeared in the Seven/Religion episode of Splendid Chaps (mostly in part two, but you may also want to listen to part one), and on Doctor Who and the Episodes of Death. You can read about her adventures at her blog, Rev Doc Geek, follow her on Twitter at @DocAvvers, or head along to a Sunday service at Williamstown Uniting Church.
- The film Highlander (dir. Russell Mulcahy, 1986) stars Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, the titular highlander, who discovers he is one of the immortals – seemingly ordinary humans who cannot die unless decapitated, and who are drawn to fight each other, stealing the magical power of other immortals whom they defeat until only one remains to collect “the Prize”. As well as being very 1980s, it has a killer soundtrack by Queen, songs from which can be found on their 1986 album It’s a Kind of Magic.
- We’re pretty sure the cake Liz is thinking of is Breudher, a delicious buttery Sri Lankan cake with a Dutch influence.
- Teen Power Inc. is a series of thirty books written by Australian author Emily Rodda (and others), first published in the 1990s. They feature six teenaged protagonists who create the titular agency to make some extra cash, and end up solving various mysteries. The series was republished in the US in the mid 2000s as The Raven Hill Mysteries.
- Johnson and Friends (1990) was an Australian television program for children under 5 about Johnson, a stuffed elephant, and the other toys who live under the bed of a young boy and come to life when he’s asleep. It predates Toy Story by five years, but the “secret life of toys” genre has a much longer history than that anyway.
- We’ll leave you to work out the coarse pun in Brother Nhumrod’s name for yourself, but the Biblical Nimrod was a king, a “mighty hunter”, and a great-grandson of Noah mentioned in the Books of Genesis, Chronicles and Micah. Tradition says he was leader of the kings who built the Tower of Babel, though this is not written in the Bible. Because of this folly, Dante placed him in the Circle of Treachery in Hell. “Nimrod” has also become an insult meaning a dim-witted person, popularised by Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, who use it as a taunt for Elmer Fudd, presumably mocking him for not being a “mighty hunter”.
- A Royal Commission is a type of formal public inquiry carried out in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012 and began in 2013. It investigated evidence of widespread protection of child abusers in a variety of community, sporting, religious and other institutions throughout Australia. The commission heard evidence from tens of thousands of people and handed down its final report in 2017.
- After Sir Terry’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2007, rumours circulated that he had “found God”. He answered them with this piece in The Daily Mail, in which he reveals he was “brought up traditionally Church of England, which is to say that while churchgoing did not figure in my family’s plans for the Sabbath practically all the Ten Commandments were obeyed by instinct and a general air of reason, and kindness and decency prevailed.” He went on to say that while religion was never really discussed at home, and he was never a believer, he never disliked it.
- The phrase “robbing Peter to pay Paul” – to move debt from one place to another – is a pretty old phrase. Big thanks to listener Zoe, who linked us to entries from the Oxford and Brewer’s Dictionaries of Phrase and Fable. They tell us that the phrase has been around since at least the 14th century, and that the names were likely picked just because they were alliterative, though the phrase later acquired connections to the Saints.
- The 2003 American musical Avenue Q explores adult concepts in a world inspired by Sesame Street – a city neighbourhood where humans, puppet people and furry monsters live side-by-side. The original production won three major Tony Awards. The song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” features the neighbourhood – including their superintendent Gary Coleman (“yes, that Gary Coleman“) – agreeing to the premise of the title.
- “White privilege” is the concept that in many Western cultures, people with white skin have a number of privileges they may not even be aware of, that are not extended to people of colour. At a basic level it manifests as a cultural idea of white as default or normal, but – like all forms of privilege – it also influences social status, freedom and opportunity. While it has been written about in some form since the 1930s, and given its current name in the mid 60s, it was brought to mainstream attention with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014.
- To “drink the Kool-Aid” is to have succumbed to belief in an extreme dogma, without understanding the consequences. The phrase is a reference to the Jonestown Massacre, in which cult leader Jim Jones had his followers drink cordial (which may or may not have been Kool-Aid brand – this is still being disputed) poisoned with cyanide and prescription drugs.
- Seafurrers: The Ships’ Cats Who Lapped and Mapped the World by Philippa Sandall was published in 2018. We highly recommend checking out the Seafurrers blog – maintained by Bart the cat – for even more tales of nautical cats! It has several entries describing the exploits of Trim, who accompanied English explorer Matthew Flinders. And yes, despite what the current Australian government might think or spend 7 million dollars on, James Cook never circumnavigated Australia.
- Jonah was commanded by God to delivery a prophecy to the city of Nineveh, warning them they must repent for their wicked ways, but Jonah instead tries to flee from God on a ship. When a clearly unnatural storm brews, the sailors work out by casting lots that Jonah is to blame; he offers to be thrown overboard, but they refuse until it becomes clear there’s no other way to survive the storm. Jonah is saved from drowning by a giant fish, which swallows him whole; he prays to God and after three days is vomited up on shore, and this time obeys God’s command to prophesy to Nineveh. He gets his nose bent out of shape when God shows the city mercy following their repentance, so God teaches him a lesson by growing a plant to give him shade in the desert, then having a worm bite the plant to kill it.
- Whistle Down the Wind, which premiered in 1996, was Lloyd Webber’s 14th major stage musical, and the second musical adaptation of the 1961 British film of the same name, directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Hayley Mills. (You might know her from several Disney films of the 1960s, including Pollyanna and The Parent Trap.) The film was based on the 1959 novel by Mills’ mother, Mary Hayley Bell. Mills was nominated for a BAFTA for her performance. Elizabeth’s recollection of the play she saw at the age of 7 is…vaguely correct. In the parts that matter.
- Prosperity theology is the belief that God rewards an individual for their faith – often expressed through donations to the church – with blessings of material wealth and miracles of healing. In the United States its popularity dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, but it really rose to prominence through televangelism in the 1960s to 1980s with influential figures like Oral Roberts (yes, that’s his real name) and Jim Bakker. It was adopted more widely by some Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and spread worldwide in the 1990s and 2000s, by which time it was estimated more than 15% of American Christians believed in some form of prosperity theology. It is criticised by many Christians for, among other things, a reliance on non-traditional interpretations of the Bible.
- Philip K Dick’s 1956 short story The Minority Report was originally published in the magazine Fantastic Universe. The 2002 film starring Tom Cruise changes many things about the original story, including the ending. A sequel television series, in which one of the precogs helps a detective solve crimes about a decade after the events of the film, aired on Fox in 2015 but was cancelled after one season of ten episodes.
- While Ben remembers both names correctly, he fails to remember that Constable Washpot is Constable Visit-the-Infidel-with-Explanatory-Pamphlets. “Washpot” is a somewhat derogatory nickname given to him by other members of the Watch. He goes on rounds with his friend Smite-the-Ungodly-with-Cunning-Arguments.
- Many religions believe that only people who meet certain criteria will enter Heaven – various Christian denominations require the faithful to be baptised, for example. But the most famous example of a very small number who will be saved are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are often said to believe that only 144,000 people will enter Heaven. This is based on a fairly literal interpretation of chapter 14 of the Book of Revelation, but while they do indeed believe only 144,000 people will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, the other faithful will live on in an Earthly paradise of God’s making. Which is just as well, as there are now more than 20 million members of the church worldwide.
- Liz’s talk about “the gourd” is a reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the 1979 film in which Brian Cohen (played by Graham Chapman), a man born at the same time as Jesus Christ, is mistaken for the Messiah. His followers willingly drink a Kool-Aid of their own devising and despite his protests interpret his every act as holy, seizing on things he drops as relics – including, briefly, “the Holy Gourd of Jerusalem”.
- “Fake news” traditionally referred to deliberately misleading or fabricated information spread in the form of seemingly legitimate journalism. The phrase was co-opted by Donald Trump (among others) to describe any news story or media outlet which he dislikes, regardless of their accuracy. This increasingly popular usage caused the British Parliament to abandon use of the term in official documents. “Fake News” was selected as Collins’ Dictionary’s word of the year for 2017, though they disputed Trump’s claim that he invented it.
- Steptoe and Son and Open All Hours are British sit-coms about a scrap merchant and his son, and a gormless shop keeper, respectively. Neither are really that close a match for Didactylos and Urn’s discussions of the philosophy market, but the sentiment is in there.
- The educational programming language Logo was invented in 1967 by Wally Feurzeig, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon, and intended to teach principles of the functional language LISP. Robot turtles pre-date Logo by nearly 20 years, but the language is credited with the popularity of turtle graphics and turtles equipped with pens. The first Logo turtle was named “Irving”.
- Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 depicts a future dystopia in which books are banned and squads of “firemen” are sent to burn any that are found. The title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire. At the novel’s conclusion, the protagonist – a disillusioned fireman named Guy Montag – meets a resistance group whose members each preserve a work of literature by memorising the entire text, reciting it on request.
- Shakespeare supposedly wrote many plays which have not survived, most famously Love’s Labors Won, though its existence is disputed. Jane Austen left behind several unfinished works, including the novels Sandition and The Watsons. Emily Bronte had supposedly begun work on a second novel after Wuthering Heights, but no evidence of it has ever been found. On a similar note, all of Sir Terry’s unfinished works and notes were destroyed, as per the instructions in his will, by having his hard drives crushed under an antique steam roller.
- Up until the late 1970s it was common practice for the BBC to junk archive recordings of old programs, as pre-digital storage took up a lot of space and it was not common to rebroadcast old material. As a result, nearly 100 episodes of Doctor Who made between 1966 and 1969 are missing, though audio recordings do exist. Copies have occasionally been located outside of the UK, and since 2013 there have been persistent rumours that most of the missing episodes had been located by a fan, but they have yet to materialise…
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, dir. Gareth Edwards) was the first of the Star Wars anthology films – new stories set in the universe established by George Lucas’ films, but not part of the main “Skywalker saga” series. It is set immediately before the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV: A New Hope), and shows how a small team of rebel soldiers steal the plans for the Galactic Empire’s weapon of mass destruction, the first Death Star. In the third of the original Star Wars films, Return of the Jedi, the Empire has built a second Death Star; rebel leader Mon Mothma famously proclaims that “many Bothans died” to steal its plans.
- A hagiography is a biography of a saint or other important spiritual person.
- The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held after World War II in which many high-ranking Nazi officers were tried for war crimes, including their participation in the Holocaust. It had a major effect on international law, including the creation of the International Criminal Court in 2002.
- “Spirits of place” are local gods or spirits who watch over a specific place. They are a staple of many religions and folk beliefs, but are probably best known from classical Roman religion, where they were known as genius loci. They are also popular in fiction; Ben’s favourite examples are the gods of the River Thames and its tributaries in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and its sequels.
- The modern Santa Claus is mostly derived from the English figure Father Christmas and the Dutch character Sinterklaas, as well as tales of the historical Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was a bishop in the Greek city of Myra in the fourth century CE. As well as the lesser known exploits cited by Avril, he is said to have secretly given gifts to the faithful, the aspect most associated with Santa. There are also theories that Santa Claus co-opts pagan beliefs and the Germanic god Wodan, but we’ll leave those ideas for Hogfather.
- UHF (1989; dir. Jay Levey) – known outside America as The Vidiot from UHF – was Weird Al Yankovic’s first and only feature film. He plays George Newman, a man whose overactive imagination gets him fired from many jobs, but when he ends up in charge of a low-budget local television station his bizarre program ideas make the channel a hit. It features a slew of film and television parodies, and co-starred Fran Drescher (The Nanny) and Michael Richards (Seinfeld).
- The Peter Capaldi moment discussed by Avril and Ben is his speech from 2015’s The Zygon Inversion, written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat. He and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart both say “this is not a game”, and at a key moment the Doctor offers the villain forgiveness. The podcast Doctor Who and the Episodes of Death – on which Ben and Avril have both been guests – uses an excerpt from the speech in its introduction. You can watch the whole speech on YouTube here.
- On the social media platform Twitter, whose logo is a stylised bird, new user accounts are represented by an icon of an egg.
- “Doublethink” describes the act of holding two contradictory ideas at the same time. It was coined by George Orwell as part of the government-created language Nuspeak, which he invented for his dystopian novel 1984.
- Richard Dawkins is an ethologist and popular science writer, especially on the subject of evolution. His 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker explains and gives evidence for biological evolution. In the last decade or two Dawkins has spent as much time criticising religion as explaining science, and is considered a major influence on several atheist movements, but has been criticised for making inflammatory remarks, especially via Twitter. In 2018, a study regarding scientists’ attitudes – including those about religion and atheism – interviewed 137 UK scientists, and though no specific questions were asked about Dawkins, 48 participants mentioned him, most because they disliked him. He wrote Unweaving the Rainbow in 1998, before his anti-religious obsession really took over.
- “Bin Chicken” is the most popular (and cruel) nickname given to the Australian White Ibis, the reasons for which are chronicled in “AUSTRALIAN SONG ABOUT BIRDS” by Christian Van Vuuren, co-creator of the web series Bondi Hipsters and television comedy Soul Mates. This Gizmodo article presents a rather more positive view.
- Aside from Lester del Rey’s short story “The Pipes of Pan”, first published in the magazine Unknown Fantasy Fiction in 1940, early examples of gods requiring human belief to survive in fiction include Lord Dunsany’s short story Poseidon from 1941, Belgian author Jean Ray’s 1943 novel Malpertuis, and even Gilbert and Sullivan’s first opera, “Thespis”, written in 1871. More recent examples include Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and The Sandman.
- The original Clash of the Titans from 1981, directed by Desmond Davis, was the last film to feature stop-motion animation by famous movie magician Ray Harryhausen. It retells the Greek myth of Perseus (played by Harry Hamlin, later to star in the first season of Veronica Mars), the hero who slew Medusa and the Kraken (or Cetus, in the original myth), and features the Greek gods (including Laurence Olivier as Zeus and Maggie Smith as Thetis) playing a game very similar to the one seen in The Colour of Magic. The 3D 2010 remake stars Sam Worthington as Perseus, Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as Hades, and is surprisingly not awful. The sequel Wrath of the Titans (2012) specifically deals with the waning of the gods thanks to a lack of belief.
- The Absent-Minded Professor (1961; dir. Robert Stevenson) is a Disney romantic comedy based loosely on the short story “A Situation of Gravity” by Samuel W. Taylor. It stars Fred MacMurray as Professor Ned Brainard (no, really), a brilliant but forgetful scientist who invents a substance which absorbs energy when it strikes a hard surface, allowing it to bounce higher and higher, which Prof Brainard calls “flubber”. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was remade by Disney in 1997 as Flubber starring Robin Williams. The original was so popular it became the first ever Disney film to have a sequel: 1963’s Son of Flubber. The title of the film lends it’s name to the stock character of an academically gifted (or obsessed) individual who neglects the more practical and/or emotional parts of life.