THE ILLUSTRATED GOOD OMENS. By Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Paul Kidby. Gollancz. $65 793 words
Good Omens, published in 1990, is a cult classic. It has sold over five million copies and is now an Amazon/ BBC television series scripted by Neil Gaiman, who wrote in 2006 that "the book is a funny novel about the end of the world and how are all going to die". But it is not just a great story. It is a book of Swiftian satire infused with an ultimate belief in the essential decency of human nature.
Gaiman and Pratchett, who died in 2015, recount, in epilogues to the book, that they first met in a London Chinese restaurant in February 1985, when Gaiman, a promising graphic book writer, was interviewing Pratchett on the first book of Pratchett's now famous Discworld series.
They obviously struck a creative chord because, in 1987, Gaiman sent Pratchett the first 5,000 words of "William the Antichrist," which was inspired by Pratchett's love of Richard Crompton's famous 'Just William' series. Pratchett built on that story for a published collaboration, largely conducted through floppy disks, which incorporates Pratchett's signature footnotes and Gaiman's mythological allusions, set within a decidedly British humorous framework.
The new hardback edition comes with 12 full-colour illustrations of the characters in the TV series and five black and white line drawings by long time Pratchett Illustrator Paul Kidby. Michael Sheen is the prudish, antiquarian bookseller angel, Aziraphale and David Tennant the cynical, yet softhearted, Bentley driving, demon Crowley.
Crowley was the serpent responsible for the fall of Adam and Eve, but his original conflict with Aziraphale over the fate of Earth has mutated into a comfortable status quo, since "our respective head offices don't actually care how things get done". So it comes as a considerable shock when the they learn that the Antichrist has arrived on Earth.
A Satanic worshipping nurse, Sister Mary Loquacious. has however mixed up babies and the baby Antichrist is delivered to the wrong family. Adam Young, the intended destroyer of Earth, is thus raised as a normal child in the idyllic English village of Lower Tadfield, a setting which enables Pratchett to riff the childhood gangs of 'Just William'.
Matters come to a head when Adam is 11. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been reincarnated as bikers with Pollution replacing Pestilence, because penicillin has largely reduced pestilence. Crowley and Aziraphale must combine to prevent Armageddon, but in the end it's up to Adam.
The satire and humour of Good Omens is as vibrant as ever, as indeed are issues like climate change. Adam says, " Everyone's goin' around usin' up all the whales and coal and oil and ozone and rainforests and that, and there'll be none left for us. We should be goin' to Mars and stuff, instead of sittin' around in the dark and wet with the air spillin' away".
Gaiman has said on the politics front ,"the weirdest thing is how a novel that was written literally 30 years ago feels really a lot more apt now than it did then . . . The lovely thing about it being angels and demons is that you don't actually have to be talking about the Tories or the Republicans or Labour or the Democrats or any specific political party".
Martin Sheen has said an interview, "People actually think that Trump is the coming of the Christ. Or the Antichrist. People are actually talking about this in fairly mainstream circles. That gives Good Omens a different context to when the book came out. You've got these two main characters who are very much in their own echo chambers - or should be. Yet the action of the piece requires them to break out of those bubbles".
Some of the technology has dated, but the cassette music of Queen, which constantly plays in Crowley's Bentley, M25 tailbacks, and references to James Bond are clearly still current. Pratchett's footnotes range over a variety of topics including "Burger Lords', childhood gangs, decimal currencies and collecting of first editions.
My signed copy of the first edition of Good Omens, with annotations by Pratchett and Gaiman, now resides in the rare book collection of the University of Sydney Library. It was interesting, in their separate Meet the Author events in Canberra, how they jousted over their role in the writing of Good Omens. Gaiman recounts, in the Foreword, bizarre happenings with fans at book signings, including one fan who had his arm signed and returned half an hour later to show the inflamed ink signature tattooed by a nearby parlour.
Fans will relish what Gaiman has called, a "shiny new copy" of Good Omens, especially as he notes in the foreword, "if your previous five copies have been stolen by friends, struck by lightning or eaten by giant termites in Sumatra".
- Colin Steele is a Canberra reviewers.