January 2013 Discussion – Good Omens

Reader beware: here there be spoilers. This is a discussion, NOT a review. We (the glorious and fearsomely beautiful powers that be) shall be reviewing the book, yes, but we do so to open a discussion based upon intimate details in the plot. Please do not read further unless you’re either taking part in the discussion or you don’t care about being spoiled.

If you do and you are, don’t come crying to us.

You’ve been warned.

_________________________________________________________________

The Book Club commences! Remember to let us know if you posted a review on your own blog. As we’re gracious overlords, we’ll even include a link.

Before we get into this, a few ground rules. To discuss this book we’re going to have to (at some point) discuss religion. Be respectful. Thus far I know we’ll have a few flavors of Christian, Wiccan, atheist, and a few of a more spiritual persuasion. We have no compunction against deleting any intolerant comments. So play nice.

We also promised a giveaway, didn’t we? So, take part in the discussion and we shall be randomly selecting someone to win a chapbook of Colin Gilbert’s poetry! It’s good stuff, it is, and this particular chapbook is suitable for school children as well. The more you take part, the better your chances of winning. Just don’t be a jerk and post things just to post. We’re quick on the uptake and will delete your nonsense quicker than Meghan finishes off an apple pie.*

*note: that is, very quickly indeed.

That being said, let’s get onto it!

Review

I have a 2007 Harper Collins edition of the book, which also comes with a 2-page forward and two other extras: one 4-page story called “Terry Pratchett on Neil Gaiman” and one 5-page story called “Neil Gaiman on Terry Pratchett”. The forward discusses the current cult-like status of the book while the latter two bits tell each author’s rendition of how they met, how they wrote the book, and their thoughts on the other man. Honestly, if you can get your hands on these I’d highly suggest them.

Speaking of “the current cult-like status of the book”, I warn you now: this book will go through more damage than any book you’ve ever known. It’s something about the very nature of the book and I don’t quite understand it. I’m on my second copy (which is a really good track record, actually). The first I lent out and it was never returned. That happens a lot with Good Omens. So does lending it out and getting it back slightly more destroyed than before.* And you’ll destroy it to. Drop it in a bathtub, have it held together with celo-tape. You name it, it will happen to this book.

(*What is it with people borrowing books and giving them back in bad condition? I HATE this. If I lend you one of my precious books, I expect it returned in the same condition [which is pristine, unless it’s Good Omens]. I think I should get book plates that read, “If you break this spine then I will break yours.”)

The story is about the Apocalypse. It’s time for the Anti-Christ to come into his powers and bring about the end of days. Problem is, Hell seems to have misplaced him (the Anti-Christ), and Heaven isn’t too sure where he is, either. To top is off, certain emissaries of both Heaven and Hell kinda don’t want the world to end. Cue hilarity. What results is a rather deep and poignant discourse on free will, predestination, and God’s ineffable plan. Deep issues like this are best explored through comedy. Aristotle stated that tragedies concentrate on the virtuous, while comedies concentrate on the less-than-virtuous. So it is here. I mean, the main characters in Good Omens are the Anti-Christ and an angel and a demon who don’t actually want (what they think is) God’s plan to come to fruition. They don’t play the roles they’re supposed to, whether that be good or bad. In fact, everything and everyone in Good Omens is a shade of grey. (This is, arguably, a discourse on human nature, but more on that later.) The point is, when you think about it, this is a story that best be told through comedy.

The style and tone are very Pratchett-esque. I think this has something to do with Gaiman deferring to Pratchett’s writing when they were collaborating; at that point, Pratchett was far more published than Gaiman. This isn’t a Pratchett novel, though; there are definite differences between the voice in Good Omens and the voice in Pratchett’s other works. Gaiman and Pratchett’s voices meld together and become a third entity. And it works. It’s seamless; it doesn’t feel like two people writing one book at all, if feels like one. And can we please talk about the footnotes? I’d totally forgotten about them (I think I always forget about them until I’m rereading the novel). They add so much to the novel, both in humor and back story. I feel like this might be an idea born from Pratchett, but I’m not entirely certain. I wonder which author came up with the idea of the footnotes first?

I think the central theme is the question of human nature. Adam is the Anti-Christ, but he’s raised as a regular human with no influence from either Heaven or Hell. What results is Adam as a representation of humankind as a whole. Is he evil because he’s born evil? Is he good? Are humans a blank slate?

I also enjoy that we as readers don’t find out precisely how Adam turns out in the end. The ending really isn’t an ending, but it’s not necessarily ambiguous either. The conflict is resolved (the Apocalypse doesn’t happen as everyone supposed it was going to), but we don’t know how it will turn out later, whether Adam will succumb to his evil nature (if he is evil by nature) and bring about the end of the world later on. Instead, we’re struck by God’s Great Punchline – we just don’t know what will happen, and no other being (besides, perhaps, God, although even that’s not a given) knows how it’s going to end, or if it will. It’s a situation that’s mirrored by Anathema Device throwing away the second part of Agnes Nutter’s prophecies. The rest is left for us to find out as it happens, not to read in a book. There’s even a line at the beginning of the Eleven Years Ago section:

“This proves two things:

Firstly, that God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players,* to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

(*i.e., everybody)

All of this, of course, was foreshadowed in the beginning. When Crowley and Aziraphale are discussing the fall of Adam and Eve they go back and forth over their own natures. Aziraphale states that he’s not sure it’s possible for Crowley to do good, and Crowley later (sarcastically) quips that he’s not sure Aziraphale can do evil. This is, of course, because they’re both worried that they had. As Crowley states:

“‘Funny thing is,’ said Crawly, ‘I keep wondering whether the apple thing wasn’t the right thing to do, as well. A demon can get into real trouble, doing the right thing.’ He nudged the angel. ‘funny if we both got it wrong, eh? Funny if I did the good thing and you did the bad one, eh?'”

And of course, who’s to say what’s right or wrong in this case? And who’s to say that what we think is the way things are isn’t actually completely wrong and ludicrous?

Question

Ok! Onto some questions. Feel free to pose your own, answer any and all of these, and to comment on what others have said.

  1. What do you think is the main idea behind the novel? Do you think it works?
  2. How does the humor work with the subject matter?
  3. Do you think that in the world of the novel there’s a divine plan? Were the events in the book part of some larger plan unknown by any other character, or is there no plan at all? Explain.
  4. Do you think Adam would have ended up differently had he not been lost? How?
  5. Do you think that Aziraphale and Crowley are distinctly either good or evil? For that matter, do you think any character is either good or evil? Why or why not?
  6. How do you think humanity is portrayed as juxtaposed with the angels and demons?
  7. How do you think this novel treats Christianity? Is it more or less favorable, more in line with different views, etc? [Again, this is all based on the novel; no arguing about your own beliefs unless you’re somehow applying it to how it relates to the novel.]
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11 Comments

Filed under Discussion

11 responses to “January 2013 Discussion – Good Omens

  1. Joy

    I will answer the second question first… I think because of the subject matter the humor works. And works very well. It gets not only a point across without stepping on too many toes, but it also brings a few questions to light that normally wouldn’t have crossed the minds of some, if not most… Particularly the scene played out above, where Crawly wonders about the right and/or wrong about the whole apple thing…

    Let me ask this… Would it be right to keep Adam and Eve sheltered and naive of everything, basically, and wrong to let them taste the full potential of life? Almost like keeping a kid from going outside to play because they could get hurt… It happens, that’s life… Isn’t it?

  2. Very good. This also brings up what “good” and “bad” are, and if God (in this instance) is capable of being one or the other.

  3. Joy

    I think for the question of “good” and/or “bad”, you will get different answers depending on who you ask. What is good to one person or group is not necessarily the same as someone else’s version or view. One would question Aziraphale’s decision about giving his sword to the “couple” after being cast out… but as Aziraphale is an Angel and cannot do “wrong” who’s to say?

  4. Dan

    I think you’re spot on, Joy; personally, I think one of the book’s prevailing themes is exactly that, the relativistic nature of morality, with the notion that there is a clear-cut distinction between “Good” and “Evil” being an all-too simplistic and untenable notion. (This is where the humour plays an important role, highlighting the silliness and absurdity in holding such an absolute view on morality.)

    The hosts of heaven and minions of hell fall into the traditionally accepted buckets of “Good” and “Evil” and their eternal battle is telling in that, as Adam alludes to with his Johnsonite allegory, neither side really wants to win. Without the other they’d lose all definition, just as you cannot easily identify “hot” without knowing “cold” and vice-versa.

    Humanity, despite it’s flaws, thus becomes superior to those supernatural beings. A messy amalgam of good, bad, and everything in between we don’t need some clearly defined rule or authority to tell us what is right or wrong. We’ll kind of stumble along and hope that more of do right by one another than the opposite. I like to think that Adam Young, a few years later, would rather enjoy reading John Locke.

    It’s also telling that Aziraphale and Crowley, so long surround by humans, have had their concrete moral boundaries eroded a bit. Left to their own devices (pun intended) they’ve strayed from the strict authoritarian rule of Heaven and Hell and become self-aware and learned to be individuals, responsible for their actions and free to determine their own morals.

    I’ve more to say, clearly, but I think that’s good for now. 🙂

  5. Yup, I totally agree with you both!

    However, I don’t think there’s “moral eroding” involved with Crowley and Aziraphale’s actions. One of the other main ideas behind the book is that no one and nothing understands what the divine plan is (if there is any; we also don’t know that). All the non-human players are playing the parts they THINK they should, except Crowley and Aziraphale. They show something similar to free will with their actions.

    If we accept traditional Catholic mythology, humans are the only creature with free will. As such, they’re the only ones who can choose their own path; all others have it laid out for them and can’t go against it. As Crowley and Aziraphale aren’t human, they should have no free will or ability to go against the path chosen for them. That means they were MEANT to go against the Apocalypse.

    If that’s the case, obviously God’s plan all along was to have the Apocalypse fail. (I think I may have already said all of this in my review.) My question is, what do you think was the point of having the Apocalypse fail? How might that fit into a bigger plan, or what result would it have? Or can we, the readers, not know this?

  6. Dan

    Oh, I think you may have misunderstood my erosion comment: I don’t think morality itself was was eroded. We see throughout their histories that both Aziraphale and Crowley question (or, in some cases, flat out defy) the traditional assumptions about what is “Good” or “Evil” and that comes to true fruition with the impending apocalypse.

    It is seemingly the influence of humanity on them that causes the erosion. Which leads to the interesting notion of free will. Aziraphale himself, toward the end, indicates that perhaps this *was* all part of the ineffable plan, that he and Crowley must’ve been meant to assist stopping the apocalypse for the very reasons you describe.

    But can we truly say the humans in novel have anything resembling free will? Everything is seemingly pre-determined, as indicated in the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. From the initial three-baby-monte at Adam’s birth to the actions of Newt and Anathema was written about hundreds of years in advance — so did they really have any choice in the matter? If anything, one might argue the book argues *against* the notion of free will as traditionally thought. (Even the delivery of Agnes’ second tome indicates that, all along, it was known that the apocalypse would not occur and that her original prophecies were meant to lead all the relevant parties to certain points in their lives and not to the end of the world.)

    Moreso, were we to accept the Catholic notion of free will, then Adam would also be without free will, as he is technically not human but a supernatural being born of the devil.

    So let’s assume that this was all pre-determined, the apocalypse was meant to almost happen but to not. Why?

    The simplest answer is that it’s part of the ineffable plan, something too grand to be understood. This, of course, assumes that such a plan exists.

    I think the answer might be a little more complex, however; the book paints a fairly deistic worldview — an unseen God sets it all in motion but does not, seemingly, meddle or interfere in the actual events. If that’s the case then there are a few possible reasons for the the almost-apocalypse:

    1. God, knowing that it would happen, thought it would be entertaining.
    2. God, having set the ball in motion, played no direct role and it was simply the next event in a series of causally determined events.
    3. The almost-apocalypse was not necessarily to affect the whole of earth, the human race, or the hosts of heaven and hell but was, in fact, simply a necessary event in the evolution of our primary characters.

    I think I lean toward the third, given that much of the book seems to focus on beings being a product of their environment and not beholden to their nature. As the book wraps up we see how the effects of the near-apocalypse have affect each of them, even as the world itself slowly forgets and returns to pre-apocalyptic state.

    I don’t think we’re meant to envision some grandiose change to the world, just a series of small ones among the group. And perhaps, just maybe, those little changes will have a rippling cause on the rest of the world. And perhaps, just maybe, they won’t.

  7. *sigh* No, I understood you. I just really didn’t explain myself well because my brain was jumping all over the place (it’s like a hyperactive puppy today).

    There’s always been a free will/precognition paradox with Christianity. How can you have free will if God also knows everything that’s going to happen?

    I think that Adam, while supernatural in some way, IS human. Jesus was (in this tradition) fully human, yet also fully divine, and the Anti-Christ is in many ways a mirror to that. It’s never said WHERE Adam came from in this novel, so I think perhaps it’s best to assume he’s human (otherwise things get very confusing). Regardless, it seems as though most of the characters here exert free will, even the supernatural ones. That could just be the writing;I doubt Gaiman and Pratchett sat down and pondered whether or not they were giving characters too much free will; I think they just came up with funny bits and strung everything together and formed a narrative.

    I LOVE your theory on whether or not there was a divine plan! I think you nailed it (though I’d be really interested if anyone disagrees in any way). Knowing Gaiman and Pratchett, though, it’s quite possible that their reasoning behind the Apocalypse happening as it did was that God was bored.

  8. Dan

    Trust me, I understand hyperactive-puppy-brain-syndrome and so am sure not all my points are coming across as clearly as I’d hope!

    As for Adam’s origins, I’ve always operated under the assumption that he was not, in fact, human; he’s delivered to Crowley by Ligur and Hastur and I figured they brought the basket straight from daddy’s home in Hell. I think they were going for the nature/nurture argument and thus despite being a literal hellspawn his human upbringing was what allowed him to prevent the apocalypse.

    Which makes me wonder about Aziraphale and Crowley as well; perhaps Gaiman and Pratchett did have a point in granting so much free will — what if their point was that all sentient beings (including demons and angels) have free will but those stuck in Heaven and Hell never recognize that ability within themselves because they are so predisposed to accepting the status quo? Aziraphale and Crowley both believe they don’t have free will — Crowley even makes mention of it early on — but both show indications of having some.

    In that case, perhaps the unseen God really has simply set the ball rolling and is just sitting back enjoying the show — kind of like a crazy, intricate, domino setup.

    And probably because he was bored.

    Unrelated but I like to think that Good Omens happens in the same universe as Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series; it’s been a while since I’ve read them but some of the descriptions of the four horsemen — specifically Pollution’s history — seem similar. Have any of you ever read that series? Thoughts?

  9. Andy

    I haven’t read the series that Dan mentioned, but I did have an interesting thought on the Four Horsepersons in Good Omens. What struck me reading through the book this time was how at least three of the Horsepersons were actual “people” at the start. The were individual personifications of their roles, even if the were merely covers. War was Carmine Zuigiber, Famine was Raven Sable, and Pollution is Chalky. There is a change in these three Horsepersons as Apocalypse draws close:

    “The other three looked up. There was a barely perceptible change in the way they stood there. A moment before Death has spoken *they*, the part of them that did not walk and talk like human beings had been wrapped around the world. Now they were back.” (p. 322 in my edition.)

    They begin to take on physical characteristics of there roles, War with bullets for teeth, Pollution oozing. They become more demonstrably allegorical. All except Death. As Prachett and Gaiman write, “Only Death hadn’t changed. Some things don’t.” He’s also the only one of the Horsepersons that survives intact. In this book, much like good needs evil for its definition, life needs death to have meaning. Just a thought.

    I had also forgotten about the footnotes, which are great comedy. They reminded me a play I studied in school, Henry Fielding’s Tragedy of Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great. For comedic effect, they play is heavily annotated with footnotes. Both the play and the footnotes mock heroic tragedy: the play with its ridiculously overwrought plot and the footnotes with their ridiculous mock erudition. For instance the first line of the play (the fourth word, actually) has a footnote that takes up half the page, citing the dramatic example of Corneille, Joseph Addison, and other tragedians of the time. It’s a technique used in other parodies and satirical fiction, Fielding was the first one to come to mind.

    Also, minor detail, but I like how the “dramatis personae” refers to “Adam (An Antichrist).” Not “The” but “An.” I honestly missed that my first time reading the book. (And my American media conditioned brain just went “sequel”.)

    • Dan

      Funnily enough, Andy, there was rumor of a sequel — 668 – The Neighbor of the Beast — but it was deemed unlikely to happen once Gaiman moved to the States.

      As for your comments on the Horsefolk of the Apocalypse, I think it’s the anthropomorphization of them that really made me think of Incarnations; basically in that series each of your major eternal type roles (Death, War, Time, Fate, etc) were basically “offices” held by former humans. But that’s getting a bit off-track…

      I do like your note about the balance between Life and Death and the mutually dependent relationship that exists there which means that Death does not, and cannot, change.

  10. I love you two. That is all.

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