Spoilers for Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (book and television series).
By their own admission, neither Gaiman nor Pratchett expected Good Omens to be as popular as it subsequently became. There is a nice and accurate reason why: it is not very good.
Bear with me.
Gaiman and Pratchett are both excellent authors, but for whatever reason, this book falls flat. To be fair, it may be because I am not the intended audience (I suspect it is supposed to be for a younger demographic than I was when I first encountered it). It may also be that I am taking it too seriously: it is a comedy after all, and all comedy falls apart if examined too closely. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that there are issues with the book which should be warning signs, things for writers to avoid, rather than themes onto which to latch.
Gaiman and Pratchett both have certain themes to which they return multiple times. They are particularly interested in the human spirit (in a secular humanist sense, generally speaking) and its relationship with spirituality. To this end, in Discworld, American Gods, Sandman and so on, the worlds are constructed to make it clear that deities, for all their power, depend upon humanity for their existence, which is a way of stating that religious beliefs only have power insofar as people attribute power to them. Indeed, in Small Gods (a superior book), one of the characters, confronted with a deity whose existence he denies, states, ‘[I still don’t believe in you! Don’t think you can get around me by existing!]’. The strength of characters’ atheism is compared favourably to true belief by characters in these works as well. In a sense, Gaiman and Pratchett are implying, deliberately or otherwise, that it is integrity of belief which should be respected, not necessarily content.
There is a danger of lapsing into self-satisfied smugness with such a statement, but interpreting their work charitably, I do not believe that is their intention. Good Omens is dedicated to the Anglican-Roman Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton, after all, who is clearly one of Gaiman’s favourite writers, appearing as he does by visage rather than character in Sandman.
Not only that, but the need of humans to believe in something is not itself presented as bad, necessarily, in any of these works. Nevertheless, that power ultimately rests with humanity is an important theme. In Discworld and American Gods, the theme is important because the gods are shown, generally speaking, to be petty, self-serving, and generally awful. Insofar as they have any virtue, it is because they have humanity impressed upon them somehow (such as Om’s humiliation in Small Gods and the way he learns from Brutha’s example).
This does not work quite so well in Good Omens. The book and series conclude by reflecting that the real Armageddon will be metaphysical forces against humanity, in a slightly ham-fisted extension of the narrative themes. Nevertheless, we find ourselves invested in the schemes of Aziraphale and Crowley against the other forces at work in a world that is like ours and also quasi-biblical, with the ongoing comedy being fuelled by the fact that Christians were almost, but not quite, right, and a witch was.
Incidentally, this is a mild example of a trope which has yet to be named but which always assumes that Christians are in the wrong: witches, psychics, followers of other religions, conspiracy theorists and so on will always be proved right or get supernatural powers which justify their right to exist, but Christians do not. Presumably this is seen as a way of criticizing overbearing religious authority, but all it does, really, is raise uncomfortable questions like ‘if the witches all have real magic and the pagan gods are the real gods… why Christianity?’ And the answer is usually that Christianity became dominant through PURE BIGOTRY. But I digress.
The safety net for the metaphysical clumsiness in Good Omens consists of two parts. Firstly, it is a comedy (but that can only go so far as we shall see) and secondly it is implied that God is up to something and not necessarily in a nice way, much like the God in the Old World of Darkness. It is also, sadly, in these places that the world-building goes awry.
Comedy is an inherently experimental art and there are so many genres with different conventions I could not possibly do them justice on a blog. Good Omens relies upon wordplay, farce, subversion, parody, a little satire, and character-driven comedy. Not unlike The Simpsons.
Unfortunately, for character-driven comedy to work, characterization must be strong and consistent. Recent seasons of The Simpsons have been weaker because characters have become the tired clichés they were originally intended to lambast, and so punchlines are simply the dreary culminations of scenes which have nothing to do but refer to their own tired formulæ.
Aziraphale and Crowley have enough characterization to carry themselves, but not everyone else. Discworld is full of secondary characters who largely exist to provide punchlines or act as foils, but the secondary characters in Good Omens have neither enough room to act as foils nor enough colour to provide punchlines (barring a few exceptions). The comedy is further undermined in the television series because the adaptation seems to view the audience with sneering contempt, and explains every punchline at such length that it sucks all the joy and pace out of a format which relies heavily upon snappy pacing. David Tennant’s excellent, Atkinson-esque slapstick, portraying a demon painfully walking on consecrated ground, which he strings out for quite some time, has no climax at all. Instead, he loudly announces the blindingly obvious (‘Consecrated ground!’) and then the dialogue has to pull itself away from what is, in context, a peculiar outburst. In fact, throughout the entire series, I only caught one joke which was not immediately explained or hobbled, and that was a gag in the soundtrack.*
The Simpsons, at least in the early series, worked because its tight characterization meant that the humour could develop as a logical consequence of a character’s established perspective rather than as a series of cut-away gags or non sequiturs. Awkward Zombie has been able to stretch out humour over a very long period of time and in a difficult format by ensuring that characters have distinct and consistent patterns of behaviour. Take any two comics involving Marth and it is obvious why he is doing what he is doing. Characters in Good Omens often have distinct and consistent quirks (like Newton Pulsifer’s strange effect on technology) but a quirk is not characterization, and so these characters are unconvincing and their dialogue is weaker for it.
The second error with world-building is an inconsistency in the metaphysical aspect. Good Omens seems to want to maintain three propositions simultaneously: firstly, that angels always do things which are objectively good and demons do things which are always objectively evil, at least if they want to avoid Bad Things(tm); secondly, that good and evil are ultimately just equally valid points of view, because evil comes with fun and excitement whereas good is restrictive and uninventive; thirdly, that good and evil residing in people is a necessary prerequisite to humanity.
Now, setting aside for a moment that point the second worked for Nietzsche, sort of, but that this is not a book of Nietzschean philosophy, the third is really testing the meanings of good and evil by making such a point. It is indeed true that humans are capable of and live lives embodying both good and evil but that is not what the story is saying at this point. It is as ridiculous to assert that fun is evil (or that fun leads to evil, or evil leads to fun or… you get the idea) as it is to assert that goodness or evil are necessary prerequisites to humanity. This third idea is also not a throw-away joke, it is the summation of the story thus far, told in a moment of seriousness when the resolution of themes should be made clear in context, the reason for the satire and the parody readily apprehensible; yet this ridiculous assertion is not reflected in anything else that happens in the story, except possibly in an occluded and clumsy way.
Fantasy writing often falls into this trap, perhaps as a way of trying to invert the formula and having noble demons, virtuous witches and the like fighting against corrupt clergy. The problem is that a person who believes himself to be good is not necessarily good. The entire history of literature tells us that we do not own, and usually do not fully understand, our own identities but that they develop from a complex interaction of relationships. Just because I believe myself to be good or evil does not make me so. I rely upon other people to tell me about myself and thereby learn who I am.
Thus, when the Kingpriest (who defines himself, and is explicitly defined by others, as good) of the Dragonlance series invites destruction because of his overwhelming goodness which threatens to disturb the necessary balance between good and evil, Weiss and Hickman tie themselves into knots trying to establish how extreme goodness becomes evil, or how someone can do
evil unbalancing things whilst blinded by their own goodness, or how goodness can be bad, or why a balance between good and evil is necessary or desirable; and ultimately, they cannot do it, because they are trying to impose some sort of consequentialist ethical paradigm upon a universe whose deities sign up to moral positions based on intention and then run with them. I hope to explore how to resolve this kind of quandry another time but for now my advice is ‘avoid like the plague’.
For now, however, it suffices to say that the angels and demons of Good Omens are just as bad as each other, and so the definition of goodness is essentially arbitrary, which means the stakes are… what, exactly? Humanity’s freedom from metaphysical tyranny? Is Aziraphale the only good angel, because the others are only “good” (that is, in no real sense)? Is Armageddon only actually there for the redemption of angels and demons?
Exploring alternative takes on reality and morality is great. Indeed, much of what makes Discworld and The Sandman so much fun is precisely that: Morpheus’ sense of right and wrong have atrophied compared to his senses of self-righteousness and duty. The gods of Dunmanifestin are all self-interested and lazy. These all work, but for whatever reason – the vicissitudes of collaborative work, the focus on one-liners, it just not being that strong an idea – Good Omens does not. When building a world, and especially when exploring morality, it is essential to define terms and, if the writer is not confident in doing so, it would probably be a good time to read some philosophy. The A Very Short Introduction series is a good place to start (in most cases) but many philosophers’ works are available to read for free online. One could also get a crash course by watching The Good Place which, like Good Omens has good in the title and, unlike Good Omens, is.
Here are some alternatives that Good Omens could have presented.
- God and Satan are, in fact, near equivalent in power and Earth is their battleground, and neither is what Christians believe them to be. This would explain the copious amount of “not so different”-itis and give both Aziraphale and Crowley a more interesting dilemma.
- Taking an Aristotelean/Nietzschean dimension, “good” and “evil” are fairly arbitrary terms, denoting different ends of a scale, not mutually exclusive concepts. Heaven’s denizens are Apollonian and Hell’s are Dionysian.
- God is altogether weirder than anyone could have guessed and the split between Heaven and Hell is over conflicting understandings of God’s instruction (not unlike in Demon: The Fallen).
Of course, all of this could have been irrelevant if the story had been funnier. I might not have noticed the gaping plot-holes and the fractured world-building. Then again, their other works are so consistent that perhaps Good Omens would have stood out simply by dint of contrast. So, if writing a parody of the end of the world, one way to improve would be to be funnier. Pro tip.
Just as it is necessary to establish the metaphysical agents (as explored in previous posts) when building a world, it is necessary to establish ethical parameters. In your fictional universe or fictional take on reality, is good objective, subjective, or something else entirely? In some senses, the writer need not actually delve into it, but what he must not do, as is the case in Good Omens, is have goodness mean and be multiple conflicting things.
I could also be missing the point: maybe the whimsical journey through the End Times is the charm of the story and it just was not for me. Maybe sitting lightly on any moral pontifications was a deliberate device to avoid seeming preachy. Perhaps, coming early in their careers, this collaboration accentuated the author’s respective weaknesses (Pratchett’s early characterization is pretty shaky, for example). Perhaps. But it seems to me that if a writer wants to poke fun at good and evil he needs to be clear in his own mind what they are.
Oh, and whilst I am being pedantic (which is always), apocalypse means revelation (from the Greek for unveiling) not the end of the world, and witches were not burned in England. That was for heretics.
*For the curious, in the scene which depicts Aziraphale’s love of the gavotte, the accompanying music is an adaptation of I am a courtier grave and serious from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, whose second verse begins, ‘Now a gavotte performed sedately’.