Tuesday, January 13, 2009

GOOD OMENS by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch is a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I am a fan of both authors. The book is a comedy and a spoof of Antichrist/devil/end-of-the-world movies, particularly The Omen. Here, the Antichrist has been born into the world, the powers of Good and Evil are ushering in Armageddon, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are running amuck. An angel and a demon, who are friends and who like humanity, conspire to avert the end of the world.

The writing style here isn’t what most readers would expect from either Gaiman or Pratchett – it’s looser, sillier, and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. More than anything else, it’s reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character of Death makes an appearance here in an iteration very similar to the Discworld Death, and the humorous footnotes (which are some of the most entertaining parts of the book) are here as well.

Good Omens has an extraordinarily large cast of characters, many of which appear only tangentially to the story, and it may take readers half the book to sort out who’s who, even with the list of dramatis personae at the beginning. This also means that few characters get spend large amounts of time “on screen”, and so it’s that much harder for the reader to develop any kind of real interest in them.

While Good Omens is mostly amusing and thoroughly silly, it’s just not that funny (they aren’t the same thing at all). And the story isn’t compelling on its own, in part because nothing is taken seriously, and in part because this antichrist/apocalypse theme has been done ad nauseum already. So a lot of it feels like we’ve been there, done that.

This is not to say that the writing is not clever. It is. With Gaiman and Pratchett, you may be assured that it is clever. But cleverness on its own, without being grounded on any kind of hard foundation (like a real plot, or a few serious aspects of the world the authors have created), is built on sand, and doesn’t get you very far. This is, for example, the biggest difference between Good Omens and most of Pratchett’s excellent Discworld series.

In Good Omens, heaven and hell are equally matched, and the forces of Good aren’t all completely good just as the forces of Evil aren’t all exceptionally evil. The point the authors make with all this is that humanity can be good and evil on its own, without divine influence. While that may sound objectionable, the book isn’t interesting enough to make this worth fussing about to any great degree (also the reader notices from the beginning that the forces of good are all mostly jerks, throws out any connection these beings as portrayed may have to his own spiritual beliefs, and goes on with the story).

Good Omens is, on the whole, reasonably amusing, but it’s silly without being particularly funny, and it’s ultimately a disappointment, especially to those of us who are fans of the authors.