Reading “Good Omens” at the End of the World
The 1990 comic novel feels extra relevant today—not because of the recent miniseries, but because of imminent doom
In the beginning, there were volcanoes. Ruthless, sulfurous vents that blew rock and ash sky high and that oozed magma into the sand that was once the floor of an ancient ocean.
Thousands of years later, I walked into Big Bend National Park and found a paradise of sorts. Cradled in the bowl of the Chisos Mountains lies a deciduous forest, encircled by scrub desert mountainsides. At the top of these giants are grassy plains, an Eden-like harbor of life in the West Texas desert. I hiked to the top and watched the sunset over the mountains of Mexico on the other side of the Rio Grande.
Hundreds and hundreds of miles north and west, along the shores of the Columbia River that divides Oregon from Washington, and all throughout the long mass of California, forests and tree-lined ridges are blackened and scarred from months of fires. Fires caused by years of drought, caused by changes in the climate. And all over the country, the world, there are few natural refuges or idylls that are unscarred. There are a thousand little ways that we’ve made this world worse.
Over this last year, I’ve been all over the U.S., driving from national park to national park. I’ve seen subterranean caves, primordial cypress swamps, canyons cut by the Rio Grande, the breathtaking grandeur that is the Redwood tree. But I’ve also seen skylines of belching smokestacks, pesticides rained down upon fields, more street corner litter than you could fill a small rare books shop with. It’s all around us, the splendor of nature and the evidence of the harm we’ve done. And the more I see, the more I think about Adam Young, the boy protagonist of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 comic novel Good Omens, and also the Antichrist.
Adam Young has been on my mind because of his anger about the environment. My anger has been a slow, boiling thing, while Adam’s ignites quickly and burns bright. Before he turned 11, “no one had even used the word environment in Adam’s hearing before.” And then he meets occultist Anathema Device, who opens his eyes to the world outside of himself in a single conversation. She tells him all about the hole in the ozone layer and dying whales, gives him some New Age magazines to read, and she’s unwittingly made an antinuclear environmentalist. He wants a better world to grow up in.
Good Omens hasn’t just been in the back of my mind, but in the forefront of a lot of other people’s too. The long-awaited miniseries, written and produced by Neil Gaiman, was released on Amazon Prime at the end of May. The show’s popularity has also put the book on the New York Times best sellers list for the first time.
To be alive in 2019 means having the world’s end, or at least its destruction, on your brain’s back burner. It’s difficult to read Good Omens and not see our contemporary world. In an interview with The Guardian about the Good Omens miniseries, Neil Gaiman noted that “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 … I mean, if I could trade, I would have a much duller world in which we had to try and convince people that an apocalypse was likely, instead of having the world that we’re in, where the nuclear clock is ticking closer and closer.” The jokes and tactics that Pratchett and Gaiman used to convince their readers that the end of the world could be nigh hit much harder as the world around us is starting to look even worse than an imagined, if comical, Armageddon.
Good Omens is not about the world ending through man-made climate change, though environmental concerns are always present in the book. It is more directly focused on the angel Aziraphale, the demon Crowley, and the final battle between Heaven and Hell—which is to be brought about by Adam Young, the Antichrist. Through a series of errors (Crowley lost him), Adam has grown up without any influence from his Satanic parentage. Aziraphale and Crowley, who like the world very much and don’t want it to end, race to find the misplaced Antichrist and head off the end, while the infernal and ethereal legions gather, and the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse ride to ground zero. The clock ticks down. The threads of plot and prophecy and people are woven together and pulled tight as all converge at a military base in Tadfield where the apocalypse is supposed to happen.
Still, part of the genius of Good Omens is that it never portrays humanity as the helpless victim. Even with literal angels and demons abroad, it’s humans who have to save themselves—and humans who are responsible for most of what’s gone wrong, at least everything that’s not being directly driven by an occult hand. Early in the book, it is observed through Crowley’s perspective that people “were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse.” Crowley is often at a loss for how tempt humans to do evil because “but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves.”
This is because humans are good, bad, and everything in between. And, of course, human morality is never just that black-and-white binary. Unspeakable things (like the Spanish Inquisition) have been done in the name of ostensibly benevolent religion. Industrialization that made goods cheaper and more available started the descent into global warming. Experiments done in the name of scientific progress gave us nuclear weapons. In Good Omens, humanity made these things and now they are available for Heaven and Hell to use for world’s destruction. We don’t really know how the world will end, and neither do Crowley and Aziraphale—though Aziraphale does note that “thermonuclear extinction has always been very popular.” The scary part is that the pieces are in order and, whether with good intentions or not, we put them there. We may not have meant to destroy our planet, but we’re doing it anyway. Good Omens points this out with particular clarity.
In a 2006 interview with Locus Magazine, Gaiman commented that “you can actually tell [readers] things, give them messages, get terribly, terribly serious and terribly, terribly dark, and because there are jokes in there, they’ll go along with you, and they’ll travel a lot further along with you than they would otherwise.” I can’t think of a better book to comment on the direness of our environmental situation than Good Omens.
Pollution waits by the riverside. He is the youngest harbinger of the apocalypse, born from humanity’s ability to advance in medicine and their inability to clean up their plastic or stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. The banks of the sluggish, fetid river are barren, except for the pale, languid figure. This river was a popular spot for fishers and lovers, but that was before Pollution lent an artistic hand: “Now white and brown sculptures of foam and sludge drifted serenely down the river, often covering it for yards at a stretch. And where the surface of the water was visible, it was covered with a molecules-thin petrochemical sheen.” Only the sunrise is beautiful.
Pollution is the culmination of humanity’s efforts to, as Crowley might say, make the earth worse. Climate change has been part of the human story since we started cutting down forests for fuel and fields and redirecting rivers for irrigation. A side character, Jaime, observes that, “the shame of it … was that his children were growing up thinking of trees as firewood and his grandchildren would think of trees as history.” Environmental destruction is something that we’ve passed down from generation to generation, but that is coming to a head. The responsibility to stop this destructive ecological inheritance rests on the shoulders of today’s youth, just like the responsibility to start Armageddon rests on the shoulders of Adam Young.
Or the responsibility to stop it. He may be the Antichrist, but Adam is the book’s most committed voice on the environment. His powers, unimpeded by the directives of Heaven or Hell, instead latch onto concerns he encounters in New Age magazines: the rainforests, the whales, nuclear power. (A nostalgic, late-’80s set of worries—were we ever so innocent?) In the run-up to Armageddon, we see Adam remove the nuclear material from a power plant, which keeps pumping out clean energy. He destroys whaling ships by raising the Kraken. He causes the South American rainforest to grow back at time-lapse speed. (Not all of these scenes make it into the TV series, in which Adam’s role is reduced to give more space to the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale—a curious choice, given how much more crucial these worries are to an 11-year-old today.)
At the point where the wheels of the Apocalypse are in full motion and Adam understands his place in it, his eyes have just been opened to how big and grand the world is, but also to all the people and powers at work destroying it. “It’s all very well for them,” 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.” He understands—both because he’s a precocious child and has the knowledge and power of the son of Satan—the need and the urgency to do something to stop the end. He hears the ominous ticking.
The apocalypse in Good Omens is not our apocalypse, but Adam holds up a metaphorical mirror to show readers the state of the real world—or, at least, to understand the gravity of their actions. He does not stop the apocalypse using environmental means, but he is motivated by the environment. He admonishes Heaven and Hell (and religion) for “tellin’ people it’s all sorted out after they’re dead.” If people stopped worrying so much about the afterlife, Adams says, “they might start thinkin’ about the sort of things they’re doing to all the environment and ecology, because they’ll still be around in a hundred years’ time.” Religion aside, the tactics for which Adam criticizes the bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell are remarkably similar to those of modern politicians—particularly in the United States—who create so much noise through argument and what-abouting to distract us from the reality of climate change and muddy that reality with cherry-picked or false science.
In the pages of Good Omens, Adam Young speaks for the generation of children and young people that will have to heft the consequences of the abuse that their elders heaped upon the planet. In many ways, he echoes contemporary teen activists like Greta Thunberg. Adam tells his friends that “It makes me angry, seeing the way those old loonies are messing [the world] up.” “People’ve been tryin’ to sort it out for thousands of years,” he says, “but we’ve got to sort it out now.”
In a recent speech before U.K. Parliament, Thunberg tore into her elders, saying, “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to … You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.” Or the teenage climate-change activists called to testify before U.S. Congress, among whom was 18-year-old Aji Piper, one of the plaintiffs suing the government for using a “national energy system that emits prodigious amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and ultimately threatening their right to a prosperous future.” All of these children, fictional and otherwise, demand to be listened to. (But only Adam can fix it by himself, effectively by magic. Other child activists have a more difficult road.)
Adam is an effective mouthpiece because he was written with the wisdom of men who have seen the world’s evils, but his voice is still innocent (well, as innocent as the spawn of Satan can be) and apolitical. Wisdom and innocence together are potent.
In the end, he subverts his destiny and saves Earth—from the imminent danger, but not from everything that’s wrong with the planet or humanity. The cosmic powers decamp to regroup— they will still have their war, at some point. And the humans are left with all the harm they’ve wrought, and the self-destructive impulse that makes them keep doing it. There is so much more to be done in the real world, if we’re going to make things better. The weight of this knowledge can feel like too much. So what do we do? Go to the coast and admire it while it’s still there?
For 35 days across December 2018 and January 2019, the U.S. government was shuttered in a record-breaking shutdown. During that period, national parks were left open, but were largely unmanned while workers were furloughed. Chaos held sway at Joshua Tree National Park, where visitors off-roaded across the delicate expanses of desert, knocked over signs and gates, and even cut down some of the precious Joshua trees. Three weeks after the government returned to work, I visited Joshua Tree. I witnessed the desert park that is a forest of Gaudi-esque gneiss rock palisades peppered with cholla and prickly pear and, of course, groves of Joshua trees. I even got to see the desert landscape washed clean under a blanket of snow. National park officials announced that the damage done at the park would take 300 years to heal. Knowing this gave me a deeper appreciation of the finiteness of life around me. As Adam Young says, the only thing that might help is for people to know that “if they kill a whale, they’ve got a dead whale.” The chopped down Joshua trees won’t come back; if we kill the Earth, it won’t come back.
But while the trees continue to grow and the snow to fall, there’s some hope, isn’t there?