Anathema Device, Feminist Hero

13 Mar

Terry Pratchett died today.

I know that this isn’t exactly shocking news, since he has been very public about living with Alzheimer’s and was a passionate advocate for assisted suicide (although his publishers have said that his death was “natural and unassisted”). People nerdier and smarter than me will write better tributes to Pratchett, and I will read them all greedily, although they’ll be a poor substitute for any further books he might have written. But I do want to take a moment to talk about one of Pratchett’s characters and how fucking rad I think she is. She’s been a feminist hero of mine since I was nineteen, back in the bad old days when I rejected the label feminist and instead preferred to call myself an “anti-capitalist” (spoiler alert: you can be both). The character’s name is Anathema Device, and she’s from Good Omens (1990), a book Pratchett co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, and she is just perfect.

The first time we meet Anathema, she’s eight. She’s lying in bed, reading a book of prophecies with a flashlight. The book, it turns out, was written by an ancestor of hers, Agnes Nutter. Agnes, who was burned for witchcraft in the 17th century because what else are going to do with a woman who can see into the future, was great at being psychic but shitty at marketing. The copy that Anathema has is the only one in existence, mainly because literally no one bought the book after its first and only printing. Which maybe makes sense, since it’s both so obscurely accurate that it’s often only useful after the fact (like the advice “Do Notte Buye Betamacks,” a prophecy for 1972), and mostly it just tells the futures of Agnes’ descendants. It ends with the apocalypse, at which, Agnes prophecies, Anathema will be present.

Anathema always goes by her full, improbable name. You’d think someone would shorten it to Ana or Annie – especially since the definition of anathema is “a person detested or loathed” or “a curse” – but no. She’s a four-syllable, say-my-whole-name kinda gal.

Anathema, at age eight, is described as being “a bright child, with a pale face, and black eyes and hair.” That’s really the only description we get of her for the entire book. Pale, dark hair, dark eyes. We don’t know if she’s gorgeous, or ugly, or fat, or skinny, or tall, or short, or just sort of average – which is pretty magical in and of itself, given how invested most books (especially those of the fantasy genre) are in describing the appearance of women.

Part of it may be that Anathema’s too busy doomsday prepping to are about how she looks. The next time we meet her, she’s nineteen and zipping around the countryside on her bike, tracking ley-lines and, I don’t know, doing other witchy stuff. Because of course she’s a witch; she even subscribes to special witch newspapers. But she’s more than just a sorceress in training – she’s basically an early version of a Social Justice Warrior.  According to the book:

“Anathema didn’t only believe in ley-lines, but in seals, whales, bicycles, rain forests, whole grain in loaves, recycled paper, white South Africans out of South Africa, and Americans out of practically everywhere down to and including Long Island. She didn’t compartmentalize her beliefs. They were welded into one enormous, seamless belief, compared with which that held by Joan of Arc seemed a mere idle notion. On any scale of mountain-moving it shifts at least point five of an alp.”

One of my favourite scenes in Good Omens is when Anathema sleeps with Newton Pulsifer, this dude she’s just met. She knows she’s going to sleep with him, because it’s in Agnes’ book (along with about a billion lewd/encouraging comments from Anathema’s various ancestors in the margins). Having it foretold that you’re going to sleep with someone makes consent a bit tricky – after all, is it really your choice, or are you only doing it because the book suggested it? On the other hand, Agnes’ seeing is described as a kind of backwards remembering, so in that sense she can only prophecy the future as it has already happened.

Or something.

Anyway, the point is that Anathema has known her whole life that she’s going to bone a guy with a weird name. What happens afterwards is just perfect:

“‘That was wonderful,’ said Newt.

‘Good,’ said Anathema, ‘The earth moved for everybody.’ She got up off the floor, leaving her clothes scattered across the carpet, and went into the bathroom.

Newt raised his voice. ‘I mean, it was really wonderful. Really, really wonderful. I always hoped it was going to be, and it was.’

There was a sound of running water.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘Taking a shower.’

Then Newton’s like “… maybe we can do it again?” but Anathema shuts that down real quick by telling him it’s only prophesied that they’ll fuck once and only once.

I just love Anathema so much. She’s sensible, smart, independent, feminist as fuck, and funny. She’s a total boss at not giving a fuck (which, ok, fair enough, it’s possible that having a book that tells your future and also knowing that the world is going to end when you’re nineteen take away whatever fucks you had to give), and meets all of her detractors with a cold, hard stare. She also has her PhD. She’s nineteen and she has a witch and she has her PhD. I literally defy you to create a better character than her.

I’m more than ten years older than Anathema, but I still aspire to be like her. I want to be as unafraid and as fierce in my beliefs as she is. I want to work with the same dedication and drive that she does. And, I mean, obviously (this should go without saying) I want to be a un-fuck-withable witch biking around and flipping everyone off.

Thank you, Terry, for creating Anathema. Thank you for all the amazing, multifaceted female characters you wrote over the years. I know that I’m not the only one who’s drawn strength, encouragement and humour from them, and I’m sure your daughter (a kick-ass lady in her own right) will turn to them many times in the days to come.

Thank you for all the gifts you gave us. I hope your passing was swift, and suffering is eased. Sleep well.

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11 Responses to “Anathema Device, Feminist Hero”

  1. Annika (@AnnikaAstra) March 13, 2015 at 6:32 am #

    Pratchett wrote so many wonderful women. Anathema, Spike, Tiffany, Granny…. Today was mostly full of tears after hearing the news, but this was really lovely. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. AmazingSusan March 13, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    YES!

  3. momtheobscure March 13, 2015 at 5:05 pm #

    I so have to read this book now!

  4. Yuki Matsuno March 13, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Thank you for that great piece. Good Omens is one of my all time favorite. Love the recasting of Anathema Device as a SJW. Very inspiring!

  5. southsidesocialist March 13, 2015 at 7:38 pm #

    Reblogged this on Mitherings from Morningside and commented:
    Absolutely

  6. Heather March 14, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    For me it was Tiffany Aching & Susan & Granny Weatherwax. They are all strong women who don’t care about people’s opinions and are so strong they don’t need nor want men. Usually they help men and rescue them instead.

  7. thanushan10 March 16, 2015 at 3:48 am #

    goodddd

  8. Caro. Norto. (@caronorto) March 16, 2015 at 7:43 pm #

    Love Anathema, love Terry, love this.

  9. nzmockingbirdgrrl March 17, 2015 at 8:08 am #

    Granny Weatherwax is my feminist hero – that’s a woman who knows her own mind. Terry Pratchett and his wonderful mind will be well missed. I think I started grieving the day I read he had alzheimers.

  10. maamej March 18, 2015 at 10:57 pm #

    She’s one of my favourites too, although really, I love all of his major female characters, including the salacious Nanny Ogg and the vampire with a coffee addiction whose name I can’t off the top of my head remember. Like you, I’m greedily reading wonderful Terry Pratchett tributes, thanks for writing yours.

  11. aprilkrgonzales March 26, 2015 at 3:43 pm #

    I also found the description of her amalgamation of beliefs to be wonderful and encouraging! It was so good to read about a feminine character who was steadfastly devoted to a variety of causes. I think that we get this idea that we have to limit ourselves, or devote ourselves to one cause, because it’s simplistic. Anathema really showed me that we don’t have to be limited by anything other than time, and to use our time with the best intentions. Thanks for writing!

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