There is no better time in history than right now for Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s 1990 novel Good Omens to experience a revival.
Politically and environmentally, the Year of Our Lord 2019 has been another trash fire year in a seemingly unending string of them; certainly a mere glance through social media will convince you the end of the world is nipping at our heels, as every day we’re inundated with news that makes the case. Even our escapist fantasy entertainments are overloaded with grimdark slogs through violence and war.
Now is the perfect time for Good Omens to bust in and remind us that the end of the world is scary, yes, but it can be a really good time. It’s a lesson Pratchett and Gaiman’s book has been imparting for nearly 30 years, and now, with a television adaptation dropping and interest in the book rising, pop culture seems primed to take heed.
Good Omens was originally released into a startlingly different world, one without without iPhones or Netflix (or other online streaming video providers that we won’t mention here). Though always battered by partisanship, the political atmosphere was far less inhospitable (never mind the literal atmosphere). The internet was in its infancy; tech fans were still goggling over the Sony Walkman. It sounds like ancient history—thirty years that in some ways seems like thirty eons. Despite this, Good Omens feels oddly timeless. Never mind the differences in technology (they still have landline phones!); the book itself is built on a foundation of religious absurdism that will never go out of style, strengthened by core themes of friendship and love between, of all non-people, a demon (Crowley) and an angel (Aziraphale).
It’s the story of the coming of the Antichrist, and of the two preternatural gents trying to stop him from bringing about the end of the world (because they’ve grown pretty fond of it over the millennia). Along the way, they deal with witches, witchhunters, hellhounds, the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, and an absurd number of truly excellent footnotes. Magic’s answer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s the gold standard of funny fantasy, brought to us by two of the best writers the genre has ever produced. The combined powers of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman deliver us a story full of inventive adventure, heart, and humor (it’s anyone’s guess who contributed more of which element, though I’d guess Pratchett did a lot of the footnotes). It’s absurdly philosophical at times, a mirror held up to our absurd civilization by a grinning jester in sunglasses (perhaps while Queen plays distantly in the background).
Oscar Wilde once said, “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” The masks here are worn by an angel/demon duo who love humanity so much they’ll risk just about everything to save it, even if it means going against their bosses in Heaven and Hell to do so—though also only because they screwed things up so badly a decade earlier years ago that they’ve kind of sort of lost the Antichrist. Look, even immortal beings procrastinate, ok? They got around to managing the apocalypse eventually. It’s fine.
As a novel, Good Omens is a panacea for all the darkness of the modern day. You hear that, Game of Thrones? I’m calling you out specifically. Now that the War for the Iron Throne is over it’s time for some fantasy that brings back color and whimsy. Sure, it’s the end of the world, but we can still have some fun.
Crowley and Aziraphale stand with the most lovable characters in all of fantasy fiction. They are fabulous together and just as wonderful apart. They spring fully formed onto the first page of the novel, quite possibly literally the original odd couple. Crowley’s sarcasm and Aziraphale’s earnest nature form a perfect yin and yang, and it’s easy to see why they turn their backs on their respective factions to work together. What’s the point of being an angel if Heaven don’t even have sushi bars?
The supporting is also stacked: from grouchy witch hunter Shadwell, to dippy middle-aged spiritualist Madame Tracy, to the precocious, preternatural, possibly Anti-christlike Adam Young, this is a story full to bursting with larger than life characters. Some of them are played for laughs, while others are artfully arranged archetypes, but every single one of them is memorable, and the banter that peppers their interactions is just so sinfully good.
This is a novel that can be reread it every few years, whenever you need to feel a bit better about yourself and humanity in general. It’s almost cleansing, a warm cup of tea for the soul, a cheeky smile after a spectacularly bad pun, a hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years. Nothing is sugar coated in it: bad things happen. The world is seconds away from ending. But even in its darkest moments, it never slips and falls into the mud of depression and despair. It acknowledges that those things exist, yes, but it doesn’t dwell on them. It looks at the challenges laid out before us and says with a smile, “By God (or Satan), I am going to make things right!”.
We have never needed a story like this as badly. It boldly declares that we are headed to hell in a handbasket, but still have a chance to… turn that basket around? (I may have lost the thread of that aphorism). It relies on comedy and wit instead of violence and bloodshed. It’s a novel of resistance, a story of what we can do when we band together, a bright light in the dark void of our current political and cultural reality.
The best comedy, like the best horror, tells us something true about ourselves. Good Omens tells us about the power of working together, the importance of friendship, and the urgent need to pay attention to the environment. It tells us that we can change who we are for the better, and in doing so, help change the world. It’s just the apocalypse we need right now.
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