Good Omens

By Neil Gaiman, A Comedic, Apocalyptic, Wonderful, Beloved Novel

“I mean, pointing out the Tree and saying ‘Don’t Touch’ in big letters. Not very subtle, is it? I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain or a long way off? Makes you wonder what He’s really planning.”

I recently found myself wanting some sort of inspiration (and faced with a lengthy plane flight). And there’s something about a really well told and solidly constructed book that just feels satisfying. It seemed like a good time, then, to re-read Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Good Omens is a comedic, apocalyptic, satirical novel that is much loved by many. The concept is high-brow, but the comedy in it is decidedly low-brow. It traverses the same territory as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the fall of man and the battle between Good and Evil) and the main story arc is the impending Armageddon. Meanwhile, the plot is carried along by the Anti-Christ, the Anti-Christ’s gang of childhood friends, the Four Horsemen, a duo of Witchhunters, a gang of bikers, an angel, a fallen angel, the last remaining descendant of a soothsayer and a whole host of other characters.

The inquiry on which the story implicitly builds is biblical (though it’s message can be appreciated by almost anyone, I think) – if God exists and has a plan, where does free will come in? And why do we have or want free will, and where does it fit into God’s plan?

Good Omens draws from Paradise Lost’s answer to this question: that the powers of Hell are angels who have fallen from Heaven; that the pull between Heaven and Hell are necessary for there to be free will; to truly have free will means that we have the power to use it, poorly if we choose; that Earth was set in motion as a battle between between the two ultimate powers that be; and good and bad are a balance, they enhance one another, and the price we pay for the pleasures and sorrows of free will is that free will requires us to make difficult decisions.

Like Paradise Lost, the book opens with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It then jumps forward in time to the birth of the Anti-Christ. His presence on Earth indicates to the forces of Heaven and Hell that the apocalypse “is nigh,” as the book states, and that the Armageddon will culminate in the ultimate battle between good and evil on earth. These events, however, had been foretold by a witch hundreds of years ago, giving the residents on Earth a sliver of opportunity to stop the impending apocalypse, in the face of powers of Heaven and Hell who have been waiting millennia for a battle both powers are eager to engage in.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are both primarily science fiction writers – Pratchett moreso than Gaiman – but I’m not much of a science fiction fan, and I love this book. Terry Pratchett is a wonderful constructor of worlds – he is the author of the Discworld stories and has an amazing grasp of splicing together an internal logic for worlds he draws out of thin air. Neil Gaiman, I think, brings the heart component to the story. I think his work has an empathy, tenderness and emotional resonance that makes him a very beloved writer. Separately, they are both very good. Together, they are sort of wonderful.

At its heart, Good Omens is a book about the apocalypse for optimists – its message is a positive one, but almost an admonishment as well. Small actions, good or bad, have resounding effects. And with free will, comes responsibility over our actions.

At the end of the book, the power to re-create the world lies in the hands of one boy:

“Think of all the things you could do! Good things!”

“Like what?” said Adam suspiciously.

“Well…you could bring all the whales back, to start with.”

He put his head on one side, “An’ that’d stop people killing them, would it?”

She hesitated. It would have been nice to say yes.

“An’ if people do start killing ‘em, what would you ask me to do about ‘em?” said Adam. “No. I reckon I’m getting the hang of this now. Once I start messing around like that, there’d be no stoppin’ it. Seems to be the only sensible thing is for people to know if they kill a whale, they’ve got a dead whale.”

Good Omens is very light-hearted in its tone, but asking its readers to consider some serious topics. It is in some ways respectful of Christian ideals, while at the same time questioning anyone’s ability to point to certain things and state what God would or would not have wanted. I’m a non-Christian, but I think it’s a book that almost anyone with the least bit of curiosity about the world could enjoy or at least appreciate. (And the novel’s immense popularity reflects that, so this is not really a particularly earth-shattering conclusion.) It is also very funny; I’m probably making the book sound much more serious than it is. If you haven’t read it, you should. Happy 2015!