Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are kickass, A-list, all-star authors in their own right. Both have an enormous command over their craft: they write with purpose. Gaiman creates so many fantastic worlds filled with a diverse range of characters, from the all-too-human to the incredibly bizarre. Pratchett, most famous for Discworld, is great at playing with (and playing off of) the most beloved tropes of fantasy. Both of them have a grasp of that circuitous, somewhat too-clever style of British wit reminiscient of Douglas Adams. Put them together, and you get Good Omens, quite possibly one of my favourite books of all time.
The premise of Good Omens is simple: the Antichrist is an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t particularly want Armageddon to happen. An angel and a demon, each softened from millennia of living among humans, are of similar minds and also working to avert the End. Caught in the vortex of these supernatural beings are human characters are all types, including a descendent of seventeenth century witch Agnes Nutter, whose nice and accurate prophecies are coming in handy.
If you like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, if you like Douglas Adams or absurd British humour, you will like this book. You’ll think it’s offbeat and clever and even laugh-out-loud funny at points, and you’ll see the rich humanistic subtext exposed for what it is and appreciate that this book is more than just entertainment. If you don’t like these things, then you won’t like this book. You’ll think it’s too corny or too quirky or tries too hard, and you won’t appreciate its sense of humour at all. (And that’s fine.) But it’s that simple.
Still not convinced? Here’s some examples taken, I have it on good authority, from Good Omens:
Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours—he was incredibly good at it.
All tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.
Along with the standard computer warranty agreement which said that if the machine 1) didn't work, 2) didn't do what the expensive advertisements said, 3) electrocuted the immediate neighborhood, 4) and in fact failed entirely to be inside the expensive box when you opened it, this was expressly, absolutely, implicitly and in no event the fault or responsibility of the manufacturer, that the purchaser should consider himself lucky to be allowed to give his money to the manufacturer, and that any attempt to treat what had just been paid for as the purchaser's own property would result in the attentions of serious men with menacing briefcases and very thin watches. Crowley had been extremely impressed with the warranties offered by the computer industry, and had in fact sent a bundle Below to the department that drew up the Immortal Soul agreements, with a yellow memo form attached just saying: ‘Learn, guys...’
I try not to lob a large chunk of quotations into my reviews too often. In this case, however, I feel that it’s the most appropriate way to give you a sense of the novel’s warm, almost cozy voice and tone. Good Omens doesn’t so much present the apocalypse as mull over the apocalypse and its attendant phenomena (including Atlantis, UFOs bearing messages of peace and cosmic harmony, and confused Tibetan monks tunneling into Lower Tadfield).
If I were to stop my praise at “it’s funny”, though, I would be doing this book a disservice. Many books are funny—it’s not particularly difficult. What makes Good Omens so great, what earns it a place among my favourites, is what Gaiman and Pratchett do with regards to Armageddon. Re-envisioning Armageddon is certainly not an original concept in literature. Rather than treating Armageddon as Judgement Day, as the punctuation-full-stop at the end of humanity’s worldly existence, Gaiman and Pratchett take a moment to pause and consider what Armageddon really is, in the context of this whole Heaven-and-Hell thing. And where humans fit into the mix.
The whole plot of Good Omens is possible because Crowley screws up. He doesn’t supervise the switching of the baby Antichrist with another, innocent baby. As a result, the Antichrist grows up in the wrong household, completely free of angelic or demonic influence and intervention. Adam Young grows up, as Crowley later notes, human. So when the clouds gather and the storm comes, Adam has to make a decision about the fate of the world, and he does so as a human boy with human experiences rather than some kind of supernatural entity.
The theme here is that humans aren’t good, and we aren’t evil either. We’re a mixed bag—good and evil, often in surprising and bewildering combinations. We are the ineffable part of God’s ineffable plan, because of that whole free will thing. Angels will act as Heaven’s agents, demons as Hell’s. Neither considers whether Armageddon is actually a good idea; they just act. But as Adam points out, the entire notion of some kind of apocalyptic battle in which millions (if not billions) die is wasteful and stupid. Armageddon as written definitely makes for a dramatic climax to the Bible, but it’s far from a good end-of-life plan for humanity.
The battle between fate and free will is a potent motif in Good Omens. Crowley constantly says he doesn’t have free will, yet he manages to subvert the will of his hellish superiors quite effortlessly. (He later jokes that this is because he learned free will, which I think is so cool.) Humans, on the other hand, supposedly have free will—but Anathema and Newton are trapped in the mousewheel of referring to Agnes’ prophecies, which are as nice and accurate as she promises. And, to be fair, they actually come in handy. Without spoiling the ending, however, I think Gaiman and Pratchett come down in favour of free will, at least in the case of those two.
And Adam Young? He is, to paraphrase a psychologist in a book far, far away, just this boy, you know? A boy and his dog. Because it always comes back to that, doesn’t it: a boy and his dog, standing against injustice. And it doesn’t have to be a boy and his dog; these are merely symbols. It’s that unity of childhood innocence and empathy for life. By innocence, I don’t mean that children are ignorant of ills—Adam and his friends know all about nuclear disasters and whale hunting, even if they aren’t clear on the Spanish Inquisition. Rather, I mean that they haven’t yet grown into that practised cynicism of adulthood, that apathetic, “that’s the way there is” about the world. They haven’t learned to say, “it can’t be done” yet. That innocence, and that empathy, make great things possible.
Good Omens is one of the most optimistic, upbeat books I’ve ever read. It’s hilarious, in my opinion, and it’s also about the end of the world. I don’t know how else to commend or recommend it.