This article originally appeared in SFX magazine. Or at least, I think it did. I never did get a copy . . .
The problem with funny books – I mean, really funny, giggling-uncontrollably-whilst-everyone-in-your-crowded-train-car-speculates-about-whether-perhaps-someone-ought-to-call-the-paramedics sorts of books – is that you can get so wrapped up in the pleasure of reading that you forget to take the story seriously. That would be a terrible mistake in this case, because Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a seriously funny book.
Any attempt to encapsulate the story is doomed to fail, but lets just say it’s about the arrival of Anti-Christ (who gets accidentally switched at birth with the wrong baby by a slightly clumsy satanic nun) and the coming battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell (well, except for the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley who’ve become rather good friends over the centuries and would just as soon the Earth not be destroyed, thank you very much). Of course, you can’t have the end times without the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse making an appearance: War, Famine, Death and Pollution (Pestilence retired in 1936) as well as their hangers-on, the Four Other Horsepersons of the Apocalypse, whose members include Grievous Bodily Harm and Things Not Working Properly Even After You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping.
Oh, and there’s a bit with a dog. Well, a hellhound, technically, but even that doesn’t work out as expected.
Good Omens is a very English book, which makes you wonder how all those poor souls who had to translate it into so many different languages once it became a bestseller managed to make sense of the endless stream of distinctly British references. In fact, if ever a book didn’t deserve to age or travel well, it’s this one. Written in the late eighties and published in 1990, Good Omens embraced the technologies, celebrities and social aggravations of the period. This alone should have doomed it to irrelevance – and yet with minimal adjustments, the fabulous 2015 radio drama produced by the BBC proved not only that both the humour and underlying social commentary of the book apply equally well to our own era, but also provides grounds for optimism about the upcoming 2018 television adaptation.
Neil Gaiman, acting on a posthumous request from Terry Pratchett, has signed on to write the six-episode miniseries. No doubt Gaiman’s talent and passion for the project will ensure that the humour and satire, the eccentric characters and devious plot twists will all be carried forward from page to screen. As a longtime fan, however, my hope is that this new incarnation will also bring forward the book’s subtle but distinctive political theme – one which may either delight audiences or send them racing to their respective social media bubbles in search of suitably vitriolic posts that validate their sense of being absolutely right about everything. Because while Good Omens takes shots at everything from religion to fad dieting, the real targets of its satire are those who demand that human beings take absolute sides against one another. Heaven and Hell get equally skewered in this – notably in the revelation that they’re both unintentionally funding the same Witchfinder Army. More significantly, it’s precisely the series of unpredictable friendships that violate these traditional divisions – between an angel and a demon, a witchfinder and a prophetess, and most importantly between the Anti-Christ and a bunch of punk kids – that provide the chance at salvation. For a book full of supernatural characters and events, Good Omens turns out to be a profoundly humanist book, and one that resonates even more for me in this polarised age than it did when I first read it twenty-five years ago.
See? I meant it when I said that Good Omens is a very funny book that’s worth taking seriously.