Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer

As stated previously, Eoin Colfer reluctantly accepted the task of writing a sixth book in Douglas Adams' science-fiction/comedy magnum opus The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Adams himself died in 2001, nine years after the publication of the fifth book in the series. Bridging the gap was probably more than enough of a challenge for Colfer, but he had an even bigger obstacle to keep in mind, an obstacle which in this case is presented to you in the form of me, the Hitchhiker fan. And the worst part is, unlike writer's block or editors or computers crashing and erasing all that masterful writing you had just forgotten to save after sixty pages leaving only the first three pages you intended to throw out anyway, the fan comes in at the end of the process. The fan determines your level of success, to a point.

I say "to a point" because Colfer had a fair amount of built-in success with this writing venture. Millions of readers the world over know and love the Hitchhiker series, and millions of readers the world over know and love Colfer's own Artemis Fowl series (and there is bound to be some overlap). When you've got an artist that sells, selling a product that sells, chances are, you're not going to lose money. I haven't checked the numbers, but I'd feel safe betting that Colfer and his publisher are sitting pretty on this one.

But the measure of success for a writer doesn't come in the sales, it comes in the critical response and (sometimes more importantly) the respose of the amateur critic (read: the general public, i.e. you and me). So Colfer's built in sales can be discounted for the rest of this review. Sufficed to say, Colfer had multiple barriers to overcome when writing this book.

When we last left the heroes of the Hitchhiker series, Douglas Adams had managed to kill four of the original main characters (one of them twice) as well as two new characters. For the record, Marvin The Paranoid Android turned himself off for the last time at the end of book four (So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish) while Arthur, Ford, Trillian and a Trillian from a different dimension were all killed off. At the beginning of the fifth book (Mostly Harmless), we find Arthur's lady love from book four has vanished in a hyperspace accident. Also, Random (Trillian's daughter by Arthur's sperm-bank deposit) was killed. Zaphod, the two-headed insane Galactic President, hadn't been seen since the end of book three (Life, The Universe and Everything).

Eoin Colfer's first barrier, therefore, was how to reunite four dead people with an absent character (just four; Marvin's story had ended positively enough and only four were present where the last book left off, as the Earth was destroyed yet again). And inexplicably, the book opens with an old man who you slowly suspect to be Arthur sitting on a beach reminiscing until a bird arrives and warns of a low battery. Two more scenarios play out, one with Ford Prefect living the high life until an octopus warns of a dying battery and the last with Trillian interviewing her own daughter while a small furry animal delivers the warning. And suddenly, the four find themselves in the midst of the Earth being destroyed, at the end of the last book.

Before the Earth is destroyed, however, Zaphod returns, and together the five disembark only to find themselves in need of rescue yet again. This is what Colfer has done; he has taken the structure of the original story and tweaked it. Originally, Ford and Arthur are rescued from the Earth by the very people working to destroy it, only to find themselves in need of rescue again moments later by Zaphod. In this case, Zaphod's rescue is the first and then a character by the name of Wowbagger arrives and saves them (Wowbagger being an immortal being who made brief appearances in book three).

This far in, it is clear that this is not and will not become a Douglas Adams novel. It is Colfer, through and through, which is comforting. Had anyone attempted to write the sixth book that Adams may have written, reader backlash would have been immediate. We as fans know that Adams was incomparable, and also that that was not always a good thing.

Adams had a quick and witty pen, but he was never a novelist. In fact, the first book in the series could be seen as nothing more than a series of events happening to the main characters while they absorb them. They were passive, especially Arthur who never grew out of that role as the series went on (except for briefly in the third book). Colfer, on the other hand, has a firm grip on what drives a novel (plot) and how plot should be driven (by the characters, rather than at the characters).

Read as a book by itself, And Another Thing... would bring a mild chuckle at times. It's the references which are its strength and weakness. Making jokes about Arthur's desire for a good cup of tea help keep the story grounded in its legacy. However, whenever Colfer goes onto one of his many Adams-esque tangents (Adams once said that when he was having trouble with the plot he was working on, he would invent a small sub plot and put it into the context of the story he was writing just to help it along; for instance the sub plot in book three about the Starship Titanic), Colfer delves into names of places and people which Adams had used before. This seems to be overkill; with each reference to Port Brasta, the Land of Brequinda, the Squornshellos system, Zarniwoop, Van Harl (oh, did you know Zarniwoop and Van Harl are the same person? according to Colfer, they are), and so forth, I would cringe. It was as if Colfer was at my elbow, nudging me in the side to say, "See, I know the first five books just as well as any of the hardcore fans. How else would I know about planets like Hastromil and Han Wavel?" We get it, Colfer, and we wish you'd come up with your own names.

These side-tracks don't always end this way. A particular story about an Atheist smuggling himself into Valhalla in the belly of a goat contains my favorite line in the whole book; while trying to cut himself from the goat's belly as it is being roasted above a fire, he reaches for his knife to find it is not there. "Where's my nothingdamned kife?" he asks. And one of these mini-plots concerns the man who invented the sub-etha network (the galactic equivalent, in this book anyway, of the internet) who went by the name of Doxy Ribonu-Clegg. Legend has it that as he lay on his back in a field on his home planet and gazed at the stars, he imagined all the space to be loaded with information and promptly discovered ways to transmit information through that space. Readers will smile and acknowledge this as a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams himself, concerning the story of how he came up with the idea for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria. The name Doxy Ribonu-Clegg is a hat tip to Adams' initials DNA, while the suggestion that he may have invented the internet being attributed to the fact that the way Adams visioned the fictional Guide, the internet (and specifically Wikipedia) have fulfilled that vision and with smart phones and the Amazon Kindle, the Guide is all but a reality now.

The main difference between this part of the series and the previous five parts (aside from the name on the cover) is that each character (including Arthur) has a clear motivation now. Zaphod wishes only to make money from a small band of humans he sold a planet to; Trillian wishes to give more attention to her daughter. Ford wants to dismantle the power structure at the Guide's offices which had suffered a takeover by the beuracratic Vogons. Random wishes to make a change in the galaxy, to grow up and become a leader. Wowbagger wishes to regain mortality. Thor (who plays a major role) wishes to regain his popularity which suffered a blow in recent times due to a compromising video posted on a galactic youtube site. And Arthur wishes to find Fenchurch again, and to live a peaceful life once and for all, to escape his bad luck and constant imminent doom.

We have to remember, though, that this is Arthur Dent we are talking about here. The only book in which he got what he wanted was the fourth one, and by the beginning of the fifth it had been taken away from him. So the question the reader has in mind now should be, will Colfer let Arthur Dent be happy? Well, you'll have to read to find out.

But the overall question is, will Colfer make the fans happy? My answer to that is the same as above; you'll have to read to find out. This is certainly not what Adams would have written, but if you come in expecting that you were never going to be happy. You have to approach the book without any expectations other than there will be characters with whom you are familiar. In the end, the book reads less like the sixth in the series and more like homage to the series, and to its creator who we all still, eight years later, miss. Which is not to say it's not worth the read. I will be stashing this on my bookshelf, to the right of the first five books in the series. I knew as I read it that it was not Douglas Adams' part six, but it still felt like it fit. As for Eoin Colfer, he has earned himself an appreciative nod from me. I know I could never, in a million years, have attempted to take on such a monumental task. I only hope that he knows how much I respect him. As far as I am concerned, he overcame the greatest barrier; me.

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I know some readers may have been expecting part two of my Sunny Day Real Estate review, but I had to get to this before too long. Sunny Day Real Estate's newest album has been out nearly ten years, an extra day won't make much difference. Colfer's book has been out for eight days, I figured I should get this out while it's still a new book. But come back tomorrow for more Sunny Day rants, and the following day for more. That's right, I'm promising to blog for the next two days, which would make my consecutive day blogging total 4 days (five if you don't count weekends, but, I mean, seriously, you can count weekends). I look forward to bringing you some consistency which is not just consistently not blogging!

1 comment:

Timothy said...

I'm listening to the audio book right now, and I have to say I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

Most of all, though, I think I'm enjoying listening to Simon Jones read it to me.