Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reading Recommendation: Good Omens

"It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people." (From Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett)

Neil Gaiman with Good Omens by celebdu on Flickr.

So, cards on the table, this will be a glowing review. I think everyone should read this book. Good Omens is one of the three books that are tied for first place in my list of favorite books. I don't even know how many times I have read this by now, and last spring we purchased the audio version of it for a family trip, so I now have it to listen to as well as read. This is one of those books that I feel needs to be not just read and enjoyed on a personal level, but one that needs to be shared with others. In fact, the reason I just read it again is because I had to buy a new copy, since I pressed my old one on my baby sister, feeling that she needed a good laugh and hoping she would enjoy it.

It's not just that Gaiman and Pratchett are two of my favorite authors already (though I will confess I read this book because of Gaiman and then started reading Pratchett because of this book). Sure, that is a mitigating factor in why I enjoy it so much, but even if I never read a single other thing by either author, I would still keep this book to read over and over and over again as I go through life.

The book sets out to answer a question that I am not sure many of us have ever stopped to ask ourselves. What would happen if the Antichrist was born, and then Heaven and Hell lost him without realizing it for eleven years? Such a question probably should lead to much studious and serious debate, certainly. In the hands of Gaiman and Pratchett, however, it leads to uncontrolled fits of the giggles, a general sense of well-being, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, despite how terrible we know they can be, people aren't really all that bad, after all.

Good Omens centers around an angel and a demon, Aziraphale and Crowley, respectively, who realize the apocalypse is nigh and decide they'd really rather not see that happen. They've been here on Earth, you see, since the beginning of it all, and they've both grown rather fond of the place. Over the last several thousand years they've also gotten quite used to each other, and although they work for different sides, they long ago realized they have a lot more in common with one another than with their respective bosses. So they'd rather not see the world wiped out in a brawl between Heaven and Hell. They have to be careful, of course, so no one in either realm sees what they are doing, but they work out a plan. Aziraphale and Crowley decide that what they will do is provide equal heavenly and demonic influences to the Antichrist as he grows up, so that maybe they will cancel each other out and when the time comes to destroy the world, he won't.

There's only one little problem with their plan.

The boy that the pair (and everyone down in Hell as well) thinks is the Antichrist, christened Warlock at the urging of a Satanic nun, is not actually the "Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness." He is, in fact, just a boy. There was a bit of a mix-up at the hospital, you see, owing to the presence of a second baby being born at the time.

So the actual Antichrist, a boy named Adam Young, is brought up all on his own without any extra influence from Heaven or Hell. He knows not of his powers, nor of the role he is to play in the end of the world, which is scheduled to happen right around his eleventh birthday. He just grows up like a normal little boy in a lovely little village in England. So, when it is time for the apocalypse to start, well, it all goes a bit awry, doesn't it?

The line quoted above, about humans being fundamentally human is a very important one, I think. For me it completely sums up what this book is actually about. In addition to Aziraphle, Crowley, and Adam, Gaiman and Pratchett treat us to many other wonderful characters. Most of them are human (a few of them are demons), and their reactions and actions throughout the events of the book give a lot of insight into how the authors feel that people tick. I don't really think they are that far off either.

We also get some colorful, though light-handed, commentary on some of the environmental issues plaguing the world today. I am a little saddened about how many of the issues brought up in this book, which was first published in 1990, are still relevant today, more than twenty years later. On the other hand, the bits about rain forests and the leviathan both bare an amusing amount of poetic justice that even today's readers can still appreciate.

Something I have always loved about Pratchett's writing is the fact that he seems to convey a believe that in life, people tend to get what they deserve. That seems to run through Good Omens as well. There is also an underlying vein of speculation about predestination (there I detect more of the hand of Gaiman, I think). Does everything really happen for a reason? How much of it is all down to the ineffable plan, and how much of it is us just bumbling around in the dark?

Perhaps a book about the apocalypse shouldn't be funny. But the humor in this book is something that I feel makes it that much more accessible to wider audiences, and I think that gives us all a better opportunity to think about what we've done. Or haven't. If you are familiar with Gaiman's work, you know that comedy isn't at the forefront of his literary output, but it is there, for those who care to look. Pratchett, on the other hand, seems to deal almost in the slapstick end of the spectrum. But the two combined produce something that most closely resembles the humor achieved by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books. I think that may be one of the reasons why I so easily accepted this book into my heart, as I am quite fond of Adams and, more specifically, his understanding of humor.

So. I know the apocalypse is some pretty heavy material. I realize that reading about the actual end of the world can be a turn-off for some people. I realize the religious tones implied in such a work, or the perceived mocking of one's cherished beliefs, can also be a turn-off. But. This book takes all of those topics and deftly puts them together in a way that makes the events funny without making fun of the elements comprising the whole. I think this story is accessible and, more importantly, enjoyable to people of all different creeds, beliefs, and nationalities. As I said before, in the end, this book will probably make you think a little bit, sure. But it will definitely make you laugh.

And who doesn't need a good laugh once in a while?

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