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Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 1 — Book review: “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Originally published in 1990, Good Omens — the novel co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett when both still early in their writing careers — was reissued in 2006 by the Science Fiction Book Club.

It was one of 32 important sci-fi titles that the book club reissued as part of its 50th anniversary collection.

This edition includes various supplements about how the book got conceived and midwifed, notably an essay by Pratchett about writing with Gaiman, and one by Gaiman about writing with Pratchett.

In that latter essay, Gaiman — who went on to produce such novels as Stardust, American Gods and Coraline — had this to say about his writing partner for Good Omens:

It was the way his mind worked: the urge to take it all apart, and put it back together in different ways, to see how it all fit together.

It was the engine that drove Discworld [the setting for Pratchett’s enormously popular and hilariously inventive fantasy series of 41 novels] — it’s not a “what if…” or an “if only…” or even an “if this goes on…”; it was the far more subtle and dangerous “if there was really a…..what would that mean? How would it work?”

This, it seems to me, is a description of how both Gaiman and Pratchett approach the toil and delight of a career in literary invention.

“If there was really a…..”

“What would that mean?”

After all, Good Omens is a novel about the birth of the Antichrist, the spawn of Satan, the bringer-on of the Second Coming of Jesus, the spark of the Apocalypse, the subject of fear and horror and terror and dread for two centuries.

Gaiman and Pratchett play it for laughs.

Well, that is a bit over-simplified.

Gaiman and Pratchett play it with the realization that human beings, being who and what they are, are going to be somewhat inept at whatever they’re going to do, even if it involves such a world-shattering task as bringing the spawn of Satan to the moment of Apocalypse.


These things happen

So, Good Omens envisions a world in which the baby boy who is to become the Antichrist is born into a modest hospital where — well, these things happen — he is switched accidentally for another baby boy who comes into the world at the same time.

As a result, the subtle forces of heaven and hell spend eleven years quietly vying for the control over a perfectly innocent little boy named Warlock Darling, the son of an American ambassador, while the real child of Satan, Adam Young, grows up as a normal kid with three normal friends.

This all comes to a head over a four-day period in which the angels and demons realize their mistake and focus all their attention on Adam who is learning more and more the sort of powers he has although not exactly how to use them (kind of a parallel for sexual awakening…with equal foreboding).

Meanwhile, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — War, Famine, Death and, in this version, Pollution — come riding into the action on huge motorcycles with four wannabes following in their wake.



Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Those wannabes are Hell’s Angels by the names of Big Ted, Greaser, Pigbog and Skuzz. And, it seems to me, they’re a measure of the differences between Gaiman and Pratchett, as well as between Gaiman’s readers and Pratchett’s readers.

My suspicion is that the Gaiman readers love the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse, but they may find Big Ted and the others a bit too, well, silly.

Much of their conversation is about how they are changing their names to match the badass-ness of the real Four Bikers. As a result, following War, Death et al are Grievous Bodily Harm (Big Ted), Cruelty to Animals (Greaser), Things Not Working Properly Even After You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping But Secretly No Alcohol Lager (Skuzz) and Really Cool People (Pigbog).

Actually, a few pages on, the one wannabe’s name gets even longer, and the text notes that he is now

Treading in Dogshit (formerly All Foreigners Especially The French, formerly Things Not Working Properly Even After You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping, never actually No Alcohol Lager, briefly Embarrassing Personal Problems, formerly known as Skuzz).




Too silly or not enough?

As more of a Pratchett fan than a Gaiman fan, I loved their discussion of what names they wanted and why they were selecting them and the responses of the others. But, for the fans who like Gaiman more than Pratchett, I suspect it’s all a bit, as I say, silly.

So, Good Omens may be sillier than Gaiman fans would prefer, and it may not be silly enough for Pratchett fans.

But, for both, for more than a quarter of a century, it’s been a fun ride into the Apocalypse.

And out again.


Patrick T. Reardon


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