Novel * Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett * British Near-Apocalypse * 1990
What a tremendously silly book. I suppose if you see the name Terry Pratchett on the cover, one should probably expect some rampant British silliness. Which I did, so I was not disappointed. If you’ve never read any of the Discworld novels, you’ve failed in your priorities. Go ahead and get started on that, I’ll wait. Okay, now that you’ve finished The Colour of Magic, we can proceed. Pretty good, right? Those books are like extended Monty Python fantasy sketches, and this novel is written in much the same fashion. It’s comprised of a variety of nonsensical situations told in a dry, meandering, British kind of way. I am fairly confident in proclaiming that the impending doom of all life on earth has never been more lighthearted and fun.
Good Omens is a religious Apocalypse, straight out of the good old Church of England. The narrative is filled with angels and demons, none of which come off as particularly threatening. The primary supernatural players in this story are Crowly, the serpent-demon, and his angelic counterpart Aziraphale. These two goofballs have been on Earth since The Beginning, and have rather acclimated to being human. Despite being under orders from their respective commanders in Heaven and Hell, both demon and angel have become friends, and furthermore have come to enjoy human society. This becomes problematic when it is understood that the Antichrist is going to be born, ushering in the Armageddon in his wake. Neither Crowly nor Aziraphale are very interested in another celestial war, and yet they are still compelled to ensure that the Apocalypse is triggered according to plan.
This plan involves a kid named Adam, who also happens to be the Antichrist. Adam was to have been brought up by Satanists and trained in the ways of evil demagoguery, however there was a moment of incompetence when it came to the art of Satanic baby-switching. As it happens, Adam ends up in the care of perfectly normal English citizens in a perfectly normal English village and receives no proper Antichrist education whatsoever. Meanwhile, the impending celestial war triggers the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (more technically the Three Horsemen and One Horsewoman, except they ride motorcycles in deference to the technology of the time). Oh, and all of this is happening according to the forgotten prophecies of a 17th century witch: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. The word ‘nice’ of course meaning precise or exact. Agnes Nutter’s ancestor is the only person who can decipher the prophecies, even though she’s not particularly great at it. Also she has to deal with a Witchfinder named Newt, although he’s not particularly great at his job either. All of these weirdos are set loose in an off-kilter world that’s about to end.
If there is an overall, relatively serious theme to this book, it would be that Heaven and Hell are essentially outdated concepts that have been outclassed by human society. The immortal representatives of the eternal realms, Crowly and Aziraphale, find themselves largely marginalized in the workings of the world. Further, they seem to enjoy their removal from the interventional policies of Biblical times. Crowly, the demon, spends some of his time with minor temptations and silly things like ensuring a particular motorway is designed to resemble a Satanic symbol. Mostly Crowly just enjoys the luxuries of human civilization: classic Bentleys, classic Queen, and sleep. As human civilization rolls on, the demon has found that there simply isn’t any evil the Dukes of Hell could conceive of that the human mind hasn’t thought of first, so demons are for the most part redundant. Besides, the population has grown so quickly that the old-fashioned one-on-one demonic service of the past simply isn’t efficient any longer.
When it becomes clear that the Apocalypse is on its way, the threat of losing human civilization is most alarming to Crowly and Aziraphale largely because it represents the loss of comfort. The former stands to lose his car, the latter will lose all his books. They then hatch a plan to forestall the End Times, which is to jointly raise the Antichrist so that the son of the devil learns both angelic and demonic traits. Of course the trouble with that is, they get the wrong kid. Turns out, the Antichrist grew up without any supernatural guidance whatsoever, and was set loose on the world without even realizing what makes him special. The circumstances surrounding Adam are all purely human in nature. Common incompetence ensures that Adam grows up safe from the meddling of Heaven and Hell. Left alone, Adam becomes a perfectly normal eleven-year-old kid. His favorite thing in the world is hanging out with his misfit friends playing around his hometown. Danger only comes when he perceives a threat to his way of life.
That threat is embodied by the Three Horsemen and One Horsewoman Riding Motorcycles. This lot has been modernized somewhat, due to the retirement of Pestilence (a little premature on that one, given recent epidemics), so that now they are War, Famine, Pollution, and Death. Not unlike the ministrations of Crowly and Aziraphale, the influence of these four are largely redundant. Humans do a better job of all these things than the supernatural, symbolic beings can manage. Still, when Adam begins to learn of the horrible things humans are capable of, he freaks out. As he becomes disillusioned, his latent power begins to grow, which manifests itself in some rather outlandish situations involving excessive amounts of fish and somewhat befuddled aliens. The desires of the Antichrist are, ultimately, those of an eleven year old kid who only wants to worry about being an eleven year old kid. In the end, humanity is saved because Adam wanted to preserve his small-town existence.
That’s all well and good, but nobody is here to read a treatise about the bucolic splendor of English village life. Good Omens is a good time. In a field of fiction that is heavy on oppressive atmospheres and tragic circumstance, sometimes it’s nice to read a goofy book where everyone lives happily ever after. That’s what this is. It’s a masterfully crafted comedy that leaves you feeling pretty okay about things, at least for a little while. And sometimes we could use a reminder that everything isn’t so dire as it seems.