Mar 23 2009 3:59pm

Humorous Humanist Armageddon: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens

The idea of Good Omens is “Just William the Antichrist.” William was a character in the books of Richmal Crompton, a typical small English boy who was always getting into trouble but who possessed a kind of angelic innocence despite everything, and everything always turned out to be all right. For instance, when he pulled the lever in the train marked “In emergency stop train, penalty for improper use five pounds” (because he thought it if he pulled it just a little bit it would make the train slow down) it turned out that just at that moment a thug was menacing a woman in the next carriage and William was a hero. In Good Omens, Gaiman and Pratchett use a similar little boy, Adam Young, to do a comic take on Armageddon.

It’s an interestingly odd book, hilariously funny, very clever and not much like anything else. Heaven and Hell are trying to bring about Armageddon. Their agents on Earth, an angel called Aziraphale (who runs a second-hand bookshop) and a demon called Crowley (who drives a 1926 Bentley) who have had an Arrangement for quite a few centuries now by which they work together, realise that they quite like Earth and don’t want it to be destroyed. And this is the theme of the whole book, that it is humanity who are the best and the worst, Heaven and Hell don’t stack up.

“Listen.” said Crowley desperately. “How many musicians do you think your side have got, eh? First grade I mean.”

Aziraphale looked taken aback. “Well, I should think—”

“Two,” said Crowley. “Elgar and Liszt. That’s all. We’ve got the rest. Beethoven, Brahms, all the Bachs, Mozart, the lot. Can you imagine eternity with Elgar?”

Aziraphale shut his eyes. “All too easily,” he groaned.

“That’s it then,” said Crowley, with a gleam of triumph. He knew Aziraphale’s weak spot all right. “No more compact discs. No more Albert Hall. No more Proms. No more Glyndbourne. Just celestial harmonies all day long.”

“Ineffable,” Aziraphale murmured.

“Like eggs without salt, you said. Which reminds me. No salt. No eggs. No gravlax with dill sauce. No fascinating little restaurants where they know you. No Daily Telegraph crossword. No small antique shops. No interesting old editions. No—” Crowley scraped the bottom of the barrel of Aziraphale’s interests. “No Regency silver snuffboxes!”

Earth is stated to be better than the unseen Heaven, which is specifically said at one climactic moment to be indistinguishable from Hell. Very odd. It’s a relentlessly humanist message, as if Pratchett and Gaiman couldn’t quite summon up enough belief in the Christian mythos even to make fun of it. That I think is the flaw in the book. You can’t quite take it seriously, and not because it’s supposed to be funny (It is funny! It takes that seriously enough!) but because there’s a lack of conviction when it comes to the reality of the stakes.

There’s no problem with magic, or with the angelic and demonic nature of Aziraphale and Crowley. There’s no problem with the way all tapes in Crowley’s car turn into “Best of Queen” or the way they’ve been friends for centuries because they’re the only ones who stay around. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are done wonderfully, and very memorably—Famine sitting around designing nouvelle cuisine and diet food and getting rich people to starve themselves, Pollution contaminating everything he sees, War the war correspondent always first on the scene, and Death, Pratchett’s Death who speaks in block capitals, busy working. (There’s a wonderful moment when he’s playing Trivial Pursuit and the date of Elvis’s death comes up and Death says “I NEVER TOUCHED HIM!”) There’s a woman called Anathema Device who’s the descendent of a witch called Agnes Nutter who left her a Nice and Accurate Book of Prophecy, which is always and specifically right, but written in a very obscure way. There’s a pair of inept Witchfinders, being funded by both Heaven and Hell. There’s Adam and his gang of eleven-year-old friends, just hanging out and being themselves. And there’s the world, the wonderful complex intricate world which is, in something like the opposite of Puddleglum’s wager, better than what’s been ineffably promised.

When I’m not reading Good Omens, I always remember the funny bits and the clever bits and the wonderful interactions between Crowley and Aziraphale. When I’m actually reading it, I’m always disconcerted by the way in which there’s a disconnect in the levels at which things are supposed to be real within the universe of the book.

Ian Tregillis
1. ITregillis
I need to go reread this now. It's been too many years since I've read it, and I think I'd get much more out of it the second time around after reading this review.
Chris Taylor
2. Sidereal
I've got to say that I found this book underwhelming in the extreme. It was my first Gaiman and my first Pratchett, and on the basis of this book, I've never read another thing by either of them. It wasn't a painful read, but it did not live up to the reputations of either of the authors.
Sandi Kallas
3. Sandikal
I read this last year. I'd seen it on the book store shelves for years and never picked it up. I thought it was blasphemous and sacrilegious. I also laughed my head off. I really loved the baby-switching scene. ("Damien is a nice name.") The book also made me think about things. What if the Antichrist ended up with normal parents and normal friends? What if his world was about just being a kid, being loved and hanging with his friends? Would he still be the Antichrist? Famine's modern-day strategies cracked me up. And, I thought Crowley's point that people were perfectly capable of creating evil without him was perfect.

Although I am a Christian, I didn't find the book offensive at all. I probably should have, but I may not be the right flavor of Christian to take offense at a bit of ridicule.
Tex Anne
4. TexAnne
I'm an Episcopalian, which is probably why this book has always struck me as a very C of E sort of Apocalypse. It doesn't hurt that Crowley and Aziraphale both look like Lord Peter in my head.
Stefan Raets
5. Stefan
I love this book. Love love love. I also love my actual edition of it - a battered old mass-market paperback - because it has traveled the world with me, and because it's signed by both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. People told me I was nuts not to get a brand new shiny hardcover edition when I had the chance to have them both sign it, but I don't care --- my copy is ratty and old and bent and about one step away from falling apart, and I love it.
Eric Scharf
6. EricScharf
I read this book in the mid-90s and I thought it was cute, but I also remember thinking "this would have seemed much funnier during the Cold War." It never occurred to me that any contemporary reader could take Revelations seriously enough to warrant satire; it had to be a metaphor for the Apocalyptic arms race.

Of course, back at the dawn of the Long Boom, we all thought such silliness was over and done with.
7. SteelBlaidd

That's to bad. Unfortunately it is one of the weaker books for both of them. Prattchet is probably one of the finest satirists in any language and at his best one of the deepest. His most recent Discworld "Making Money" was scarily prescient about the current fiscal collapse. Colon and Nobby Nobbs are one of the finest comic duos ever, and it takes a truly incredible writer to make a man reciting a childrens' book at the top of his lungs ( WHERES MY COW? IS THAT MY COW? NO THAT IS A HORSE?..) a Crowning Moment Of Awesome not a farce.
8. clovis
Personally I adore this book though I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to either Pratchett of Gaiman (Small Gods and Smoke & Mirrors since you ask). It was Pratchett's first attempt to write a story with a contemporary setting and it shows. As always with Pratchett, it is about the triumph of the little people, the overlooked, in this case humanity. As Cowley says at the end, armageddon will be heaven and hell versus humanity and I think the lack of detail about heaven and hell is deliberate. They are not important and after all, who knows what God is up to. 'You can't second guess ineffability' as Arizaphele says. I'll also forgive the book a great deal for its masterly summing up of middle class England's attitude towards religion: 'Mr Young avoided church and the church he avoided was the good old Church of England'.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Clovis: Yes, he wouldn't have dreamed of avoiding any other church! I know so many people like that you wouldn't believe.

Eric: It was published in 1990, and so must have been written right at the end of the Cold War with peace breaking out all around it. I don't think it is a metaphor though, even though the sword of War is explicitly the US nuclear arsenal. It doesn't have that tone, for me. It's all part of the "people are wonderful, and terrible, people are enough" theme.

Sandikal: I've never heard anyone say they're offended by it if they've actually read it. I wonder if a desire to avoid offending people was why they didn't describe the forces of Heaven much, apart from poor Aziraphale. But the thought of the real Armageddon being Heaven and Hell in alliance against Earth is very much not what you'd expect. It reminds me in a way of Martin's The Armageddon Rag where good and evil have the same face.
Paul Howard
10. DrakBibliophile
Sandikal, I thought their Antichrist was more a reaction against the movie versions of the Antichrist. I've never thought of the Antichrist as the literal son of the Devil. I've thought of the Antichrist as a human seen as god-like by his followers.


PS, their theology stunk.
Marissa Lingen
11. Mris

I never thought of Puddleglum's wager as about going to heaven. I thought it was about how we live *now*. That in fact the reality or unreality of heaven was not the point, because even if there was no Narnia it was better to live as a Narnian.

I suspect I am projecting like crazy here.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Mris: Yes. It's about how we live now, because it doesn't matter whether it's true or not. It still has to be an offer of something better for it to work. What Puddleglum says is that whether or not there's a Narnia, he's going to believe in it because it's better. Which it clearly was, for Puddleglum at that moment, lion better than cat, sun better than lamp, etc. What I think Pratchett and Gaiman are saying quite explicitly in the passage I quoted is that Earth is better than Heaven, no Bach, no little restaurants where they know you, etc. Now I have no problem imagining a Heaven with little restaurants where they know me -- in fact I seem to specialise in imagining Heavens full of books, but that's just me -- just as well as Puddleglum thought he might have imagined the sun. But you have to have that imagination of that better thing, and it has to be better, not worse, or there isn't any point.
Kate Nepveu
13. katenepveu
Sidereal, I remember that I wasn't that impressed by it the first time through, and then I re-read it and it was astonishing how much more I enjoyed it.

I'm not saying that you ought to re-read it, mind, just a data point.

Jo, that's really interesting about the levels of reality. Maybe that's why I think it goes on for one peril too long.
14. dwndrgn
Well, as to the religion involved - it doesn't have to work for an athiest. To me it was a story - in whole - that demonstrates that people are both better and worse than we expect so we should always greet the new with an open mind. Of course, I could be completely wrong but since I'm me, it doesn't matter!
Chris Taylor
15. Sidereal
Kate, I wouldn't consider myself morally opposed to revisiting it, but I doubt it will happen, given the fact that my to-be-read pile nearly has its own zip code....

But it's interesting to wonder about the kinds of books that don't leave a huge impression upon first reading, but are much better the second time through. I tend not to re-read things I didn't absolutely love the first time through.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Dwndrgn: I was talking about whether it felt "real" within the context of the book in the "suspension of disbelief" sense, not in any wider sense.
17. SWS
I'll never forget my first exposure to a Terry Pratchett book - my mother reading aloud from The Colour of Magic because it was so damn funny she had to share, even if the only one available was her daughter who might have been a tad young for the jokes. I think it's much easier to appreciate Good Omens when you compare it to the end-times early in the Discworld series and can really have a good laugh about the four horsemen of the Apostrophe. I've been waiting for years for Good Omens the movie, and really thought it was happening when the hardcover was reprinted, but alas, not so.
Soon Lee
18. SoonLee
I read "Good Omens" in original HC & loved it.

At the time, I recently started reading Pratchett (not just Discworld but the YA & SF stuff too) and Gaiman (Sandman and other comics) independently. So a collaboration between the two was a happy find.
Eric Scharf
19. EricScharf
I don't think Pratchett & Owens meant for it to be a Cold War metaphor, but to me that's the only reading that had any traction. You had an ideological standoff between two self-perpetuating systems that were increasingly detached from the rest of humanity, who had independently created a world of worth that was now held hostage. Whether the conflict had been terrorizing us for 40 years or 40 centuries, it felt subversive and redemptive to see the apocalypse short-circuited by the smart aleks.

Similarly, Brazil was made 20 years too early.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
SWS: I believe there is going to be a Terry Gilliam movie, or at least I heard from Neil that the rights had been sold. Terry Gilliam being Terry Gilliam, don't hold your breath, however.
Soon Lee
21. SoonLee
A bit more info on the "Good Omens" movie here. Looks less and less likely.
Emily White
22. Emilyw
I remember enjoying reading it, and now feel tempted to re-read.

I think having read 'Mist over Pendle' helped.

There's always seemed to me something very familiar about the book's treatment of heaven, hell and humanity. I'm not entirely sure of the pedigree, but I have a suspicion too much Rudyard Kipling may have something to do with it.
Soon Lee
23. SoonLee
Emilyw @22:

It's ("Good Omens") a very English story.
Scott Raun
24. sraun
Late to the discussion - for some reason I only get around to reading on Sunday morning.

Good Omens occupies an interesting spot in my mind. I adore all the funny bits, and can't read it. The horror underpinnings are too obvious, and I can't read horror. I'm not certain I can explain exactly what I mean, but IIRC, Elizabeth (formerly of Dreamhaven, now of Uncle Hugo's) knew what I meant. In a really basic way, it's a horror story base with a comedy overlay.

Elizabeth tells me that I'd probably find all Gaiman to have the same problem - it's been true for the couple I've picked up. I certainly don't have it with Pratchett!
Pete Watson
25. blackcrowe76
Love this book, remember laughing a lot at the companions of the riders of the apocalypse when I first read this at school years ago. Really Bad Things. Just checked my book shelves - it's still there! (reaches to shelf...)
Interestingly, it was the first book by either Gaiman or Pratchett that I read. I jumped into all the Pratchett ones straight afterwards, though strangely it took me til 2003 to find Gaiman again, through the brilliant Smoke and Mirrors. Not really into Graphic Novels or comics, and still not though love Sandman.
David Lev
26. davidlev
@katenevpeu and @sidereal I had the interesting experience of liking it the first time i read it, being unimp;ressed the second time, and LOVING it the third time

As for this being Pratchett's first contemporary book: I thought he had started either the Bromeliad or Johnny Maxwell series by then.
27. Denny Lien
Two years plus late to the thread, but two comments: while you say the book is not much like anything else, I think premise-wise it's rather like Parke Godwin's WAITING FOR THE GALACTIC BUS (as I recall it anyway). So why do I love GOOD OMENS and felt blah to lukewarm toward the Godwin? I dunno... / Also, my very favorite moment in the book may be the Hellhound getting domesticated into wanting to be a good little doggie. (Even though I'm a cat person.)

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