This is an article in tribute to Terry Pratchett. He passed away due to his Alzheimer’s illness and a Just Giving fund has been set up in his name: https://www.justgiving.com/terry-pratchett/
RIP Sir Terry Pratchett, thank you for all your wonderful work.
“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.”
Kit: I’ll start this article by apologising for the lack of the usual Kick Ass Stories last week. I was part the way through writing one when Terry Pratchett’s death was announced. As he was an author who reached out to such a vast number of people, myself very much included, I decided to drop my usual project and write something as a tribute to his work. And as I review stories it’s only fitting I review one of his. My favourite book of his is Good Omens. As it exists outside of the long-running Discworld franchise that he is most famous for, I thought it would be a good way to introduce him to any unfamiliar with him.
This also happens to be one of my brother’s favourite books so he graciously accepted my request to help me out with this article. We thought two people reviewing the book would be more appropriate, to reflect how the book was a collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Besides, it shaped both of our childhoods, so it only felt right to do it together. Be warned, whilst the worst spoilers have been avoided…
Jon: …we have occasionally put a foot wrong in our attempts to tiptoe around them, and have, in a couple of cases, decided to jump right onto them, and do a jig with our metaphorical discussion feet.
Kit: Jon, what do you like about Good Omens?
Jon: Well, I find it crazy that this book is about as old as me. Despite this, it still manages to be really darn funny. Every page will have at least one laugh on it. And not in a ‘oh, it’ll put a wry smile on your face kind of way.’ This book will have you laughing out loud, in public, on a train, looking a bit weird.
Kit: It really is a book you can pick up and read over and over again. We have both read it many times…
Jon: …probably too many. I really like how so much is packed into a pretty short book. You’ve got ‘Adam and the Them’, Azriphale and Crowley, the Four Horseman, The Witches, and the Witch-hunters. Five different plot threads, which all tie up neatly together, in just the length of a regular book. As much as I love a sprawling epic, it can be really hard these days to find time for something like ‘Game of Thrones’.
Kit: To jump in, I love how Adam, named after the first human, acts as a midpoint between heaven and hell…
Jon: …reinforced with him nicking an apple at the end…
Kit: …exactly. One of the other things that should be said is how, even though it is a comedy about religion, god isn’t the bad guy.
Jon: That’s a thing I really like. It isn’t just saying ‘all belief is silly’, which is quite a juvenile point to make. It mocks, to an extent, organised religion, and all its fancy frivolousness. But God, the actual Big G, is presented as being all knowing, all-powerful and ineffable.
Kit: It takes religious dogma, and people’s interpretation of it, and keeps its critique on that. In the book, the most evil demons of hell cannot match the evil man can do…
Jon: …just like Heaven cannot match man’s potential goodness. Crowley, the demon, just stumbled onto the Spanish Inquisition, and was shocked by it, but also quite happy to take credit for it. Then you’ve got the different cities that have been claimed by Heaven or Hell…
Kit: …with Milton Keynes, appropriately, being considered a tie between them. It is one of the few books that takes the idea of the bible being true, with fossils being a joke on palaeontologists, and Earth being a 6000-year-old Sagittarius, and thinks through all the implications of this. It is something so rarely done. Take Vampire: The Masquerade, the RPG, where Cain is labelled the first vampire. A cool concept, but the implications of the bible being true are never fully explored.
Jon: …and it does it in a far smarter way than many of its competitors. A lot of things that came out of the 90s asked questions like, ‘what if God was bad, and the Devil was good’. Sure, that has shock factor, but all you’re doing is flipping the roles. All you’re doing is going “Ooh, look at me, I’ve depicted an angel being a prick, aren’t I radical?” Instead, we have a world where all the non-omniscient beings are just trying the best they can, and hoping things will work themselves out in the end.
Kit: Another wonderful touch is how the changes in the line-up of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse show how religion has to adapt over time.
Jon: Pestilence took one look at Penicillin and thought, “ah, screw this, I’m out”…
Kit: …and so he has been replaced by Pollution, an issue more fitting for a time when Climate Change is more likely to kill us than the plague. Or how Famine has modernised by selling diet food. A fan theory I like, which is probably bollocks, is how the Deaths of this book and the one found in the Discworld, whilst having different personalities, have a lot in common. Have you ever seen them in the same room? Obviously not, they exist in different universes…
Jon: …and are fictional…
Jon: To put my Discworld nerd hat on, it is worth pointing out that in the book Reaper Man, Discworld’s Death is made mortal. Pratchett goes into the idea that this version of Death is just one of many, and it ends, if I remember correctly, with him meeting the multiverse spanning embodiment of all deaths in all worlds, of which he is just a sliver. With that in mind, the idea that these two Deaths are connected is pretty sound. As for shifts in personality, the Death in the first couple of Discworld books is really quite mean, and it takes him a while to become a little more human.
Kit: Just like how Azriphale and Crowley became more human the longer they spent on earth! Good Omens and Discworld are canon!
Jon: Yep! I’ll take the Discworld nerd hat off now.
Kit: I like how the book is divided into chapters, with each one representing a single day, letting you countdown to the apocalypse. You know the apocalypse is coming, but for a while you have no idea how, and then you’re suddenly afraid all of your favourite characters are gong to die.
Jon: And in the end, crisis is averted because Adam is just allowed to grow up, rather than have people try to force their wills upon him.
Kit: In this book, each author plays to their strengths, and it leads to something incredible being created. It sounded like a really stressful process….
Jon: …sending bloody floppy disks back and forth…
Kit: …yet it somehow manages to have one consistent voice, although it is very much Pratchett’s humour that comes through. Gaiman is great at adding a darker tone, but Pratchett nails the humour.
Jon: The comedy does a great job of humanising the characters, making you like them more, rather than just be a way to break from the seriousness. When it comes to the first draft, the rough split of it was Pratchett wrote ‘Adam & the Them’, whilst Gaiman wrote Azriphale and Crowley, the four horseman, and all of that other, grander scale stuff. Gaiman, as shown by American Gods, is great at the epic scale, while Pratchett’s books really shine when it comes to the more intimate and personal. Even Discworld, one of the longest running fantasy series out there, is made up of lots of small, focused stories, rather than a bunch of ‘Lord of the Rings’ style trilogies.
Kit: One thing that is a shame is how there were once noises of a sequel, but it is unlikely that it’ll come to pass now. They did mention the potential title of ‘668: The Number of the Beast’, but when Gaiman moved to America, that was put on the back burner. Obviously, it can’t really happen now.
Jon: It must have been really stressful to write.
Kit: There was a great article in the Guardian by Gaiman about working with Pratchett. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/24/terry-pratchett-angry-not-jolly-neil-gaiman)
To wrap things up, if you enjoy Good Omens, it is definitely worth reading more Pratchett.
Jon: I’d recommend Small Gods. It is also about religion but makes other points. It is also stand-alone, so you don’t need to have read the fifteen-or-whatever Discworld books written before it. As for more Gaiman?
Kit: Check out American Gods. More serious, more epic in tone, it really develops Gaiman’s ideas.
Jon: Absolutely. If you made a Venn diagram of these two books, and added a third circle representing Somerset, the crossover between the three would get you Good Omens.
Kit: So there you have it. Terry Pratchett really was a fantastic author. As well as being a great author he campaigned for people’s right to assisted suicide. If you’re interested please check out some of his thoughts on the subject here: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/feb/02/terry-pratchett-assisted-suicide-tribunal
And Finally, the link to the just giving site set up in his name. https://www.justgiving.com/terry-pratchett/
Kit and Jon