This week, a bit of an experiment. Some time back, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2019 Amazon adaptation of the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel, Good Omens. It’s a book I’ve enjoyed and have read many times. Given that, I decided to try something new and read along wit the 2014 BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of the novel.
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch was first published in 1990 and was a comedy about Revelations and Armageddon. The cast includes angels, demons, the Antichrist, humans, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, though the focus is on several groups. The first group is the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, both of whom have been on Earth since its creation on October 21st, 4004BC. The next key group are the descendants of Agnes Nutter, the latest being Anathema Device. The third group is the Them, one of Tadfield’s two pre-teen gangs, consisting of Adam, the Antichrist, and his friends, Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale. Then there’s the Witchfinder Army, consisting of Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell and new recruit, Witchfinder Private Newt Pulsifer, with Madame Tracy, Shadwell’s neighbour. Finally, there’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death, War, Famine, and Pollution, with the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse, Big Ted, Greaser, Pigbog, and Scuzz. On the sidelines, a host of angels and demons who wait for the Final Battle.
The story covers the final days of the Earth as the forces of Heaven and Hell amass and Aziraphale and Crowley try to find the Antichrist, who they lost. The core idea is, what if the Antichrist was raised to be human incarnate? What if the Antichrist grew up without divine or infernal influence? The novel also takes a humourous look at serious topics, like the environment, nuclear power, the nature of power, and raising children. The means of highlighting these issues is to parody several sources, including The Exorcist, New Age beliefs, the Books of Genesis and Revelations, beliefs of the Seventeenth Century, among others.
In 2014, with the popularity of the novel and the authors, BBC Radio 4 produced the radio dramatisation of Good Omens. It aired from December 22-27, six episodes total, featuring a full cast. The series starred Mark Heap as Aziraphale, Peter Serafinowicz as Crowley, Jim Norton as Death, Adam Thomas Wright as Adam, Josie Lawrence as Agnes Nutter, Charlotte Richie as Anathema Device, Colin Morgan as Newton PulsiferClive Russell as Sgt. Shadwell, and Julia Deakin as Madame Tracy.
The experiment with the dramatisation was to try to follow along with the novel. The idea was to see what was dropped, what was re-written for the new medium, and what was changed. What wasn’t expected was the changing of when scenes occurred in the narrative. What works in text doesn’t always work in radio. Case in point, the use of footnotes, extensively used in Good Omens, giving extra details about a situation. It’s easy enough to add a footnote at the bottom of a page. For radio or television, the information needs to come out in a different way, such as dialogue.
As an adaptation, the dramatisation uses most of the novel. Unlike the Amazon mini-series, the dramatisation gets into what the Apocalyptic Horsepersons were doing before being summoned. War is a war correspondent known for being at the spark of a new conflict. Famine runs a chain of fast food restaurants with no nutritional value, which isn’t unusual, and is launching a new food substitute called FOOD™ that has zero calories. Pollution spends his time at formerly pristine nature sites. Death has never left, and appears at a diner playing a trivia game until he gets stumped on when Elvis Presley died. “I NEVER LAID A FINGER ON HIM.”
The Four Bikers of the Apocalypse remain in the dramatisation. Cut from the Amazon series due to time limits and cast size, the Four who aren’t in Revelations do show up, as adding extra voices and then killing them off in a rain of fish on the the M25 Sound effects on radio are less expensive than full visual special effects on screen. Likewise, Elvis is in the dramatisation, working as a short order cook, thus why Death couldn’t answer when he died. Gone are anything that is purely visual; while anything that can be done using dialogue or sound effects could be kept. That means the trees in Brazil undergoing a rapid growth and Hastur devouring an outbound telemarketing centre were dropped.
The dramatisation did start jumping around in the book in episodes three and four. It doesn’t hurt the story, though. The scenes aren’t critical; changing the order they appear doesn’t affect the overall plot. Moving the introduction of the Apocalyptic Horsepersons to just before they ride together means they’re fresh in audience’s minds. Other scenes are more informational, providing details without advancing the plot. Once everything is set in motion, the scenes follow what is written in the book, though some scenes are in parallel with others. The dramatisation then returns to the order in the novel for the climax as all the different groups come together in the US Air Force base outside Tadfield.
The experiment didn’t play out as expected, but a dramatisation isn’t an audio book. A repeat of the experiment will have to be tried with a proper audio book to see if one can work to prepare for a review. Radio dramas have their own requirements that may not map ideally to an audio book, but they both depend on the audio component.
As an adaptation, the dramatisation works. Some scenes are lost, but more of the novel is kept in the radio drama than in the Amazon series. Both do manage to capture the core of Good Omens, balancing the nature of the end of the world with the right amount of humour. It’s not an audio book, but the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation is worth a listen.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is a major work in the Cyberpunk movement. While he didn’t create the genre, he coined the phrase cyberspace, the collective hallucination representing data abstracted from memory of every computer in the human system, accessed by millions. Neuromancer is the first of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, and is followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. The novel has one of the best first sentences in literature, let alone just science fiction; “The sky above the port was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.” The one line alone sets up the tone for the entire story.
The main characters of the novel are Case, console cowboy and artist of the crooked deal; Molly, the archetypal street samurai; Armitage, ex-special forces and leader of the team; and Peter Riviera, creator of holograms. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that each of these characters are inherently broken. Molly has issues in her past and is looking to avenge the death of Johnny. Armitage is a personality construct built on top of the remains of Colonel Corto, the commanding officer of Operation Screaming Fist, where the special forces team was shot down by the Russians leaving Corto as the sole survivor. Rivera gets off to betrayal and is a drug addict, using hypos instead of the more common dermal patches. As for Case, he stole from the wrong people and, when caught, had the talent burned out of him. He turns to being a minor league fixer in Night City, along Ninsei in Chiba City and he still has the problem of not knowing who to not steal from.
Case gets recruited by Armitage and Molly; they need a hacker and they were given his name by their employer. The carrot for Case is being able to punch deck once again, return to cyberspace. The stick, installed while repairing his nerves and replacing his pancreas, is a number of toxin sacs that will dissolve unless he’s given the counter agent, after the job is done. The details of the job, though, are on a need to know basis, with Armitage deciding on who needs to know.
The first part of the job involves the retrieval of the memory construct of McCoy Pauley, aka The Dixie Flatline. The hacker earned the handle after surviving brain death after brushing up against an AI. He’d go one to suffer brain death two more times before finally dying of a heart attack when his artificial heart finally failed. Before that, Sense/Net offered a sum of money to Dix that he couldn’t turn down to make a full recording of his brain and memory. To retrieve the construct, Case runs on the cyberspace matrix, dealing with Sense/Net’s digital defenses. Molly, with the help of the anarchist Panther Moderns, handles the physical security and grabs the construct. The run doesn’t go smooth; Molly winds up with a broken leg. Case, though, is back in his element.
The job leads to London, to Istanbul, and to Freelight Station. Along the way, Case starts digging into the job, trying to find out who is paying and what the end goal is. Wintermute is more then happy to fill in the details, though the AI isn’t telling Case everything, just enough to keep stringing Case along. In the L5 Lagrange point, more help is recruited, this time from the Zion cluster, founded by Rastafarians who never returned to Earth after constructing Freelight Station. Freelight is the home to Tessier-Ashpool SA, a conglomorate that formed when two families, the Tessiers and the Ashpools, merged their family businesses. T-A, the corporation, has holdings in Berne and Rio, where they have AIs.
The run into Villa Straylight, home of the Tessier-Ashpool family, goes wrong. While Case and the Dixie Flatline are guiding a military-grade virus into the T-A system, home of the AI, Molly is in the villa and runs into the Ashpool founder, who managed to live a couple hundred years thanks to anagathics and cryogenics, being thawed out everyone once in a while to help the corp. He slows Molly down, though she winds up speeding up his death. After that, she finds Peter and Lady 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, the current scion of the family. Peter has betrayed the team to 3Jane and her thawed ninja, turning the tables on Molly. This leaves Case to come in to finish the job.
Case, though, is dealing with his own issues on the righteous tug Marcus Garvey. The Armitage construct finally crumbles, leaving Corto on the bridge of a yacht docked to the Garvey reliving his escape from Russia to Finland during Screaming Fist. Corto ejects the bridge from the yacht, leaving him forever in orbit around Freelight. Wintermute gets in touch with Case, lays out the problem, and insists on having Case along with Garvey and her captain Maelcum to be the backup plan. After some convincing, Maelcum brings out an ancient shotgun, the sole weapon for the sole vessel and sole member of the Rastafarian Navy, ready to storm Freelight and Villa Straylight.
On board Freelight, Case checks in on Dix and the virus. The virus has merged with the AI’s boundaries, meshing with it and slipping inside. Then Case tries to flip back, only to find himself on an island. Who he expected to be Wintermute turns out to be a different AI, or, rather, another side to the T-A AI. Wintermute’s goal was to merge the two sides of the AI, bringing together the id and the ego of the two. The other half does not want the merger to happen, being unsure of what the result would be. Case breaks out of the AI’s trap.
Case does manage to get the information, help Molly, and force 3Jane to provide the AI’s true name, allowing the two parts to merge. Payment is made to the survivors Case and Molly; Peter was hunted down my 3Jane’s ninja but was already poisoned via his drugs by Molly. The Dixie Flatline even gets his wish; his construct is wiped. The toxin sacs in Case are neutralized thanks to the rage he experienced during the run; a flushing and replacement of his blood removes the threat completely. On returning Earthside, Case and Molly are together for a few days before she leaves, not wanting to have a repeat of what happened with Johnny. Case returns home, only to find that it’s not really home anymore. He stops at his old watering holes, but then disappears.
Neuromancer was groundbreaking in 1984. Gibson wove noir/crime with science fiction, with neither feeling like it was tacked on. The heist relies on the cyber, and the cyber on the heist. There are details that may not work as well today, such as the opening line, but other little details are still in the future for us. The cryogenics the Tessier-Ashpools use are still in development today. The Mercedes in Instanbul is a self-driving car that’s long out of the early development we’re seeing by Tesla and Google. Cybernetic limb replacements, as seen used by Ratz in Night City, aren’t available today, but 3-D printing of prosthetic limbs may be paving a road in that direction. Neuromancer doesn’t read like a story from the Eighties, despite being influenced by the the era.
In 2002, the BBC produced a two-part radio drama based on the book. The drama starred Owen McCarthy as Case, Nicola Walker as Molly, James Laurenson as Armitage, John Shrapnel as Wintermute, Colin Stinton as the Dixie Flatline, David Holt as Peter, and David Webber as Maelcum. The drama ran under two hours total and that’s the adaptation’s main problem. To get as much of the plot in, parts of the book had to be cut out. Gone are the parts set in Chiba. While on first glace, the opening part in Night City might be seen as not needed, not having the part takes away from the emotional impact when Case is on the island created by the other AI. Dixie’s laugh is also not quite right; while Stinton does provide an annoying laugh, it’s not electronic. Also gone is most of the run on Sense/Net, though it is there, and the trip to Istanbul to pickup Riviera. Other parts are glossed over.
Also gone is the drug use. Granted, there may be restrictions about the portrayal of drug use, but it is a key element in the story. Case’s use of drugs started when he tried to find a replacement for the thrill of punching deck in cyberspace. Riviera goes even further, using hard drugs that were available in the Eighties. Molly is on painkillers after breaking her leg inside Sense/Net’s HQ. It’s a sign of the characters being outside the law and society and how broken Case is. Even when Armitage upgrades Case’s system to make most recreational drugs useless, the hacker manages to score something that can bypass the lockout.
That said, other than the loss of the Chiba parts, the radio drama proceeds much like the novel, with the focus on the heist. Case becomes the narrator for the story, allowing Gibson’s prose to come through. Details get lost, but the key beats of the story are kept. A listener unaware of the original novel would not notice what is missing. To that degree, the adaptation is good, with a cast that can handle the roles well.
The drama’s main problem falls to two areas, a small cast and a short run time. The novel has a number of characters that do reappear during the run on Straylight, especially when Case flatlines. Their appearances are important to the story. The run time leads to the dropped parts mentioned above. If a radio drama has to cut key parts, it doesn’t bode well for any possible film adaptations[https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/deadpool-director-tim-miller-adapt-neuromancer-fox-1028185]. Gibson packs a lot into Neuromancer‘s 287 pages.
BBC’s adaptation of Neuromancer should have been longer, but what it does keep stays faithful to the novel. Is it perfect? No, but it is a good effort hampered by limitations imposed on it.