Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sun Feb 16 20:53:22 EST 1992

Raymond's Reviews #187

%T Good Omens
%A Neil Gaiman
%A Terry Pratchett
%I Berkeley
%D March 1992
%O trade paperback, US$8.95
%P 354
%G ISBN 0-425-13215-3

A blurb on this book says "it could catch on with the Douglas Adams crowd". This is quite true but mildly unfair to Terry Pratchett, who is both a more intelligent and a much funnier writer than Douglas Adams. He proved that repeatedly in the Discworld novels, and demonstrates it again in this sly deconstruction of Christian eschatology.

Another blurb says "Imagine The Omen as done by Monty Python" and that's much nearer the mark. After 2000 years, Armageddon is nigh and the Antichrist is scheduled to manifest in the womb of the wife of the American cultural attache in London. Only, er, there's a bit of a mixup. Sister Mary Loquacious, a Satanic nun of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, inadvertently switches the tyke with the newborn son of a salt-of-the-earth English couple from Lower Tadfield.

The demon Crowley (Hell's chief illegal resident, as it were, on Earth) and his counterpart Aziraphale (Heaven's ditto) spend a great deal of time and effort trying to corrupt/enlighten a perfectly ordinary human being who seems remarkably unaffected by the experience. Meanwhile, odd things are beginning to manifest around a little boy in Lower Tadfield....

Mind you, neither of these two is very happy about the oncoming End of the World. One gets used to sunsets and Bach and good restaurants; but orders are orders. In fact, they reached something of an agreement about 1060 A.D. and ever since have been --- well, collaborating is such an ugly word. But the mixup is messing with the schedule and that Can't Be Allowed. They set out to track down the missing Antichrist.

Meanwhile in Lower Tadfield, a charming young witch named Anathema Device is looking for the source of the disturbance in England's ley lines. All this was prophecied by her ancestor Agnes Nutter --- but Goodie Nutter's prophecies are couched in such mangled language that it's seldom possible to make sense out of them before the thing they predict has happened.

And then the Antichrist meets Anathema and the fun really starts. Because this kid's faith quite literally can move mountains. And Anathema fills his head with the flakiest brand of pop occultism imaginable.

Anybody who's read any of Pratchett's previous work at all knows the results are going to be hilarious. I'm not sure what Neil Gaiman brought to the party, but the collaboration is just as witty and wise as Pratchett's solo stuff. Everyone from the Dukes of Hell on downward (or, er, upward) bumbles around with all the cheerful, vague incompetence and/or deranged intensity you'd expect (frequently both at once).

But the real stinger in this book is that underneath the humor Pratchett at Gaiman really are addressing the Problem of Evil. They recognize (as I think any honest thinker must) that there's an unresolvable contradiction in the Judeo-Christian picture of Good and Evil, one sure to come around and bite you in the ass if you start thinking seriously about the mythos of the "End Times". Rather than trying to rationalize away the problem or mumbling evasions about the unknowability of the mind of God, they use it as the mainspring of the plot --- and at the denoument they tackle its implications head-on. The results are almost Swiftean in their power and irony. Doing that much philosophy while maintaining a high giggle level isn't easy, and I heartily commend them for having made it work.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sun Feb 16 20:53:22 EST 1992

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>