Thoughtful Thursday: Oh gods!

Today we welcome Max Gladstone, author of Three Parts Dead which I found to be inventive and enjoyable. Max wants to know how you feel about gods as characters in speculative fiction. One commenter will win a hardcover copy of Three Parts Dead. Thanks for joining us, Max! 

Max GladstoneWhen my book Three Parts Dead came out, as I trawled around reading reviews, I was intrigued by the number of comments on my book’s use of gods. Turns out people have pretty strong feelings about gods in science fiction and fantasy, which got me thinking about how gods function in the genre, and where they come from.

Gods have a complicated relationship with storytelling. The first Western dramas emerged as a part of religious celebrations, and these plays tended to resolve with the emergence of a god to fix the human characters’ problems, or increase them unbearably. (Chick Tracts owe a lot to this old-school Greek dramatic structure, now that I think about it…) Deus ex machina is the name we’ve given to this sort of resolution, when a god of some sort steps in to end the story.

Storytelling, especially fantasy and science fiction storytelling, still uses gods and godlike beings aplenty, but writers and readers alike are wary of that deus ex machina ending, even as they thrill to the Force guiding Luke as he shoots proton torpedoes into the Death Star reactor shaft, or to Neo rising from the dead to defeat Agent Smith.

I like gods as characters, both for their human aspects (as men and women of power, passion, conviction, righteousness and self-righteousness) and for their symbolic aspects (power, dominance, just or unjust rule, alternative modes of civilization and consciousness, too many others to name), but using them is tricky, because it’s so easy for them to overpower other characters and the story itself. I addressed this in Three Parts Dead by challenging the gods’ control; the book starts after a war between gods and men, which the gods lost. That approach doesn’t work for all stories, though.

So: do you like to see gods in your fantasy? What role should they play, and how can we balance their appearance with our resistance to dei ex machina? And does your feeling about gods in books connect at all to your feeling about gods, or God, in real life?

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Three Parts Dead. Make sure to check the little box (or check back in a week or two) because we’ll announce the winner in the comments.


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JOHN HULET is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of.

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12 comments

  1. I enjoy the idea of gods interacting with mortals. I have since I was a little kid reading classical mythology. I like how Lois Bujold MacMaster’s gods manifested in Paladin of Souls; and I just read a Brandon Sanderson (my first) where the gods — or maybe I should put “gods”, I don’t know — provide occasional help to the hero.I do worry that “gods” are becoming like vampires; Mafia-like groups using catspaws to further their political agenda, rather than elemental forces. And my favorite trickster god is Doctor Who. (Yes, I know, let the debate begin.)

    • I also like the gods in Bujold’s Chalion series — it’s one of the things I liked most about that series.

      As a Christian, I feel a little squeamish about plots that play with the Judeo-Christian God, making him out to be an idiot. The one that comes first to mind is Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. I think Kadrey’s hilarious and I loved his Sandman Slim character, but it makes me bristle slightly when I read lines like “God fucked up.” I prefer for the gods I read about in fantasy to be totally made up by the author, or to be manifestations of mythical gods.

      • Kat – I see where you’re coming from on the use of the Judeo-Christian God (and other currently-worshipped gods) in fiction. The way I think of it, those fictional portrayals can allow us to identify what we (or others) respond to in those religions, by negative comparison… but that’s definitely a your mileage may vary kind of thing.

    • Hi Marion! I definitely agree on LMB’s gods in the Chalion series. I enjoyed Paladin of Souls, but Curse of Chalion, the first, has some of the best theology and religion I’ve read in a fantasy novel. The dynamics just fit somehow–the gods feel like, well, gods, more than arbitrarily powerful magical entities.

      Agreed, by the way, on Doctor Who as trickster spirit. Especially the modern Doctor. He works best when he’s playing Coyote.

  2. I like reading about Gods in books so long as they are done well. The Gods need to have personalities of their own and be slightly “humanized”. They can’t be infallible and preferably don’t exist solely on some other plane of existence but they still need be a bit mysterious even though they are among humans.

    I think so far gods have been done the best in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. They each have their own unique personalities and are powerful but they still make mistakes. Some of them are incredibly bad-ass but they can still be killed by mortals. I think if your gods are characters in the story with somewhat defined powers/abilities then it isn’t deus ex machina anymore if they show up at the end.

  3. I haven’t yet read Malazan–sounds like I might enjoy it a lot!

    Ineffable gods are difficult to read about, or use effectively. The exception to the rule, of course, being the (mostly absent) character of God in the peerless Good Omens.

  4. Kevin B /

    I, too, love the way Bujold uses gods in the Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. It’s one of the best ways I’ve seen gods used in fantasy.

    Each of Sanderson’s books/series set in his primary universe (Mistborn, Elantris, Warbreaker, Stormlight, so far …) have an interesting take on gods as well. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how it all works though. Stormlight 2 can’t come soon enough.

    My absolute favorite use of gods is N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy (do not confuse with the Paolini books). The series features a lot of them all directly interacting with the world, some with absolute power, and spins a really interesting sequence of stories out of it. The third book is even written from the POV of a god.

  5. April V. /

    I generally like the use of gods in fantasy fiction. Additionally, I like how fantasy can explore all sorts of religions and faith – looking at it all from a different perspective. This way a person can view their own faith with a new perspective.

    Some of the ones I’ve enjoyed that weren’t mentioned above are Ken Schole’s Psalms of Isaak, A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Wheel of Time of course. Also there are some urban fantasies that utilize godlike characters: Dresden Files has Michael the Carpenter who I love because his faith is unshakeable and yet he understands how it could be questioned instead of getting irate at those who’s faith isn’t as strong. Kevin Hearne plays with all sorts of human god mythologies in his Iron Druid series and Under Witch Moon by Maria Schneider deals in American Indian mythologies.

    I also enjoyed Three Parts Dead once I got over the fact that the cover had tricked me into thinking it was some sort of urban fantasy (I know, technically it could be called that but I personally associate urban fantasy with our known world, only changed). It was definitely not what I was expecting but it was quite enjoyable.

  6. SandyG265 /

    I like books that feature gods. I actually prefer it when they are the main characters or major secondary characters. I think it’s important that they be somewhat humanized for them to work well in a novel.

  7. I myself am a muslim, so i don’t think I would ever write a book with other omnipotent beings in it. But, i do not have any compliants or difficulty about reading books with “Gods” in it. I have enjoyed the Malazan books, Sandersons’ Cosmere books, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and even the DC and Marvel Universe comic books. And some of these “Godly” characters like Anomander Rake, Mr. Wednesday, Thor, and even Loki are amongst my favourite characters. Wheel of Time’s backstory is about two God-like beings, The Creator, and The Dark One. Yet, I am very comfortable while reading it. Philip Pullman’s famous trilogy is noted for being Anti-Christian and has a rebellious nature to it in terms of the theme, but as a firm “Believer” in God i did’nt find it disturbing anyhow. in the end, i think it depends on your world-view. These books are from some one’s imagination, not a piece of non-fiction thesis, just fiction. If you keep that in mind it should’nt bother you much. Regard these Gods as characters; albeit very powerful characters.
    Furthermore it comes to mind the idea of God in both DC and Marvel. in both the Universes there are different pantheons and various “Skyfathers”. most popular are Thor and the Asgardian pantheon from Marvel, and Diana and the Olympian Pantheon from DC. Yet, at the same time there is a One Omnipotent Being in each of the Multiverse as well. The Presence from DC and The One Above All from Marvel. So, there can be various ways a writer can use Gods in their works. Mr. Gladstone is not the first one doing this kind of thing and should not recieve ( if he had already) any stick for doing it. It is perfectly right i n a world where Homosexual and even pornographic works are legal and promoted.

  8. I love gods in stories because they’re beings who have the flaws of people but much more power, so they can mess things up on an epic scale (in addition to fixing things on a whim as in deus ex machina). And they’re a being that, under normal circumstances, you can’t just kill — so if you need to defeat a god, you usually have to try something other than brute force, like trickery, which makes for fun plot twists as you try to convince a god that they actually want the same thing you do.

    A few favorite uses of gods just off the top of my head: Lane Robins/Lyn Benedict always does cool things with gods. Rick Riordan’s Olympians series for kids is really good (whether you’re a kid or not). Recently I read Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, which has gods that are made up just for this novel rather than recognizable gods from Earth mythology, but it’s another great example of powerful beings who disrupt the lives of mortals.

    Another trope I like is not gods-as-characters but religious characters trying to figure out what their god really wants and having doubts about it. Mists of Avalon is a good example of this. Morgaine wants to do the Goddess’s will, but she doesn’t really know what that is, and can only make her best guesses. And she’s always questioning whether she’s really serving the Goddess or her own desires. Phedre from the Kushiel series has some of this trait too. She’s god-touched and it turns out that the god has bigger and scarier plans for her than she ever guessed.

  9. Dave, if you live in the USA, you win the hardcover copy of Three Parts Dead. Please contact me (Tim) with your choice and a US address.

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