Monday, December 20, 2010

"Serious Discussions of Identity? In a Fantasy Novel?!"

Josh Jerome responds to his titular interlocutor:

Detractors of the fantasy genre are quick to call it escapism, indulgent nostalgia, or any number of terms that amount to it being an insubstantial art with little meaning or value. While it's true that some fantasy is utter pulp fiction, there are many works within the genre that tackle real-world issues in ways that only fantasy can. An excellent example of a substantial fantasy novel is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The book is a satirical take on the Apocalypse, with numerous angels and demons all working towards the ultimate battle between Heaven and Hell. The three principal characters--the angel Aziraphale, the demon Crowley, and the Antichrist Adam--are all examples of conflicting identities. According to the Great Plan of which John wrote in Revelations, all three of them are meant to be instrumental in bringing about Armageddon. The only problem is, they happen to like the world, and ending it would just ruin all their days.

The thing about angels and demons is, they were created without free will. Each of them has a job to do in God's Plan, and to contradict it is to go against the very nature of their existence. Of course, over six thousand years living among people, some of that free will starts to rub off. Aziraphale and Crowley reached a working friendship somewhere in history, to the point that one will do the other's job if they happen to be in the neighborhood. The decision to try and avert the Apocalypse is made by Crowley (being easier for him since demons are, by definition, rebels). Crowley then has to persuade Aziraphale to go along with it, pointing out the sheer insipidity of a world in which Heaven wins the Last Battle, but the point that gets him on board isn't a philosophical one. It's the lack of sushi. For an angel to actively attempt to subvert God's order is no small thing--just ask Lucifer. Conversely, Crowley's defiance of Hell's shot at checkmate consigns him to torments that the damned could look at and say "at least I'm not that guy."

Due to a breakdown in communication, the plan to give the new-born Antichrist to Satanist parents fails spectacularly. Because of this, the child is given the name Adam and raised in a pretty vanilla family--he has friends, gets into trouble (like any other boy, just with a bit more style), and ends up with a decidedly human outlook. It's important to note that the main reason Adam rejects his Antichrist tendencies is because of a "what have I done" moment that occurs when he imposes his will on his friends. He later explains to Beelzebub and the Metatron that he's not going to let the world end, since that wouldn't prove anything. He then proceeds to disallow Satan's appearance on Earth. In overcoming his birthright, Adam is able to override the next-best thing to a deity.

By having the main characters overcome their natures through exertion of their free will, Gaiman and Pratchett make a strong point: a person (or even an odd divine being) isn't shunted into certain actions just because "fate" says so.

Though one example is hardly enough to sway the opinions of those that turn up their nose at fantasy fiction, Good Omens is far from the only fantasy novel that deals with substantial issues. The genre, by virtue of being something other than an orgy of verisimilitude, is able to present important issues with just enough contextual baggage to thoroughly examine them.

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