(2009) Eoin Colfer, Hyperion Books, £18.99, hrdbk, 288 pp, ISBN 978-1-401-32358-5
Space is big. Really BIG. You won't believe just how mindboggingly BIG it is. I mean you may think it is a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space... And so you might think that there are plenty of room for reviews of many different types of Eoin Colfer's sequel to Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but you would be wrong!
If you the reviewer are a dyed in the wool, tried and tested Douglas Adams fan, and the review complains that the book, And Another Thing…, is not Douglas Adams or a proper Hitchhiker tale then you are open to criticism for being narrow minded. Meanwhile non-SF reviewers from the broadsheets and artsy-fartsy 'literary' pages (who never consider SF as a worthy genre of any real artistic merit) can rubbish disparaging reviews of Colfer's sequel by simply lambasting the reviewers as folk who must be SF fans and so by implication capable of real artistic analysis.
On the other hand if you praise Colfer's And Another Thing, and you are writing for a website that has (ahem) a modicum of street gutter credibility, then your review had better hit the SF-readers' nerve as all the hundreds of thousands of SF enthusiasts that have read Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will see right through any fallacious analysis when they come to read And Another Thing for themselves and any respect the reviewer may have had will go right out the window.
Even though it is eight years after Douglas Adams' death and 17 years since the release of the fifth book in the Hitchhiker's trilogy, let alone the 31 years since the first broadcast, feelings of regard for the original work have not abated. SF enthusiasts and mainstream literati who like good SF (but don't like to call it such as it is supposedly one of the much lesser genres) still hold the work in high esteem and the memory of Adams with great affection. You dare not say a word against any of Hitchhikers' progeny. This means that the poor old SF reviewer is in a bit of a bind unless Colfer really has actually managed to capture the essence of Douglas' writing in a hard-SF comedy of ludicrous proportions. The odds are that the reviewer will be accused of either being myopically narrow-minded or – perish the thought – that lowly creature a science fiction enthusiast. All of which in turn might make the average Concatenation site visitor wonder a little as to how Colfer's offering will be reviewed here. Well, I am not going to duck the question but first you need the basics of the plot.
The set up of Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing is exactly that of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, more specifically it starts where Mostly Harmless (part five of the trilogy) leaves off. And if you don't know of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy then check out that link and go away and listen to the original Radio 4 series: this review is not yet for you.
Meanwhile, back at the start of And Another Thing, Ford, Arthur and Trillian somehow (I'll leave that for you to find out but it is a fine treatment) manage to escape the destruction of the night club and planet. Re-united with Zaphod and the 'Heart of Gold' spaceship off they go to a colony of the remnants of mankind where, on the rainbow bridge to Asgard they have an encounter with Thor. Meanwhile the Vogons are tracking down those who escaped Earth's destruction…
This is all the plot you need to know to as either you will want to read Colfer's sequel cum homage or not. So how has Eoin Colfer played it with And Another Thing? He had two broad options open to him. He could have re-worked some Adam's jokes and in essence skirt around or re-tell the same story. This would undoubtedly please die-hard hitchhikers but for the rest of us (and perhaps even some of them) we may wonder why go to the effort? Alternatively, he could do something new but then risk alienating all of us who love the original work. Like the SF reviewer Eoin Colfer, stepping out from under Adams' shadow, is equally in a bit of a bind: he would have to tread a fine line.
To Colfer's credit he announced that he was doing his own thing but using Adams' characters: it was his way of treading the afore fine line. I have to say that personally I had my qualms on hearing this as while I have no objection to a completely new adventure, doing one's own thing sounded a bit too vague for my mind. Still Colfer's has a fine reputation for writing juvenile fantasy and claims to be a Hitchhiker fan. So he could be a safe pair of hands. Here then, to my mind, is the rub. What is a Hitchhiker fan?
Personally I am a fan of the first radio series of Hitchhikers up to and including the Christmas edition. In book terms that is really books one and two with elements of three. While I enjoyed elements of the second radio series, it did not have the magic or coherence of the first. Personally I felt that the success of the first series really propelled Adams' to continue hiking: certainly his writing elsewhere – while good – did not get Hitchhiker acclaim: for example, 'Dirk Gently'. Tales also reached us of how painful it was for Adam's to write becoming the consummate procrastinator, and indeed that he increasingly found it so. Furthermore, I could not help but feel he preferred (or easier) doing radio and TV scripts than novels. Scripts can allow the radiophonic workshop and actors bring their own contribution to the party. In the end the author killed off his Hitchhiker creations at the conclusion of the fifth book and in one sense it was a relief for us all. We do tend to forget how Adams ran out of steam and indeed the last couple of episodes of the original series saw the great man needing a bit of help from John Lloyd. Perhaps one indication of this lack of steam was the slow decline in the number 'Guide' entries that peppered the books and radio show. Indeed the final Adams' book the Guide itself malfunctions giving no useful information at all.
Of course if you are not a hard SF fan then you get different things out of Hitchhikers. You will not get the sound, SFnal reasoning (and it is reasoned) that pervades the first series (Man uses logic to destroy God's existence, goes on to prove black is white and then gets killed at the next zebra crossing), but pick up on other elements of plot and humour. This is perfectly fine but you will not appreciate the great change of pace after the first two books. Colfer reveals himself not to be a steeped in hard SF thinking. On his own website he identifies Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett as possibly the only authors to be able to do justice to Hitchhikers. Here, though two out of three is not bad, it is definitely not spot on (Fry allegedly hates SF other than the stuff he likes such as Hitchhiker's, 1984 and such, but then he says that such grand works are not real SF). Colfer citing Fry as a potential Hitchhiker author does demonstrate that Colfer does not get SF even though he himself is a fantasy writer (fantasy being SF's speculative fiction cousin). In short, And Another Thing does not have the logical SF Hitchhiker humour, though it is very humorous in its own way and Colfer does keep the gags coming so that inevitably some of them hit. (I say gags as for me personally they are not full-chortle jokes.) Colfer also can write and here there is no doubt about that. What Hitchhiker fans will love is that the book, 'The Guide' itself, is back and there are plenty of entries. (Hurray.)….
So what do we end up with is very much as Colfer promised. Adams' characters having a Colfer adventure with Colfer humour. Alas Colfer humour is more founded on fantasy than SF and even though Colfer uses SF tropes (spaceships, aliens, computers…) they are ill-fitting loose clothes to the body of the plot. However, if you are not really into the SFnal side of Hitchhikers and are more of a fantasy person, or even someone more at home with mainstream writing, then Colfer may well for you deliver the goods in abundance. For my mind what we have is fanfic (fan fiction). This is not to denigrate Eoin Colfer who is a self-confessed Douglas Adams admirer, hence a fan. Nor is it disparaging of Eoin Colfer as a writer, as some fanfic can be of extremely high quality indeed, and better than a lot of professionally published works. Therefore what we have with And Another Thing is fan fiction: good fanfic undeniably but fanfic nonetheless. All of which begs the question as to why, after all this time, a sequel was attempted?
Here the answer as to 'why?' is due to the nature of the space-time continuum. You see space is big. Really BIG. You won't believe just how mindboggingly BIG it is. I mean you may think it is a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space... Similarly, the number of sales of the original books was big. Really BIG. 15 million copies of the original five Hitchhikers books have so far been sold in the British Isles alone, which means that out of a 65 million population there are getting on for 3 million Adam's readers in our Isles: that is nearly 5% of us, or getting on for one in twenty! Even if the publishers and author gets a meagre 0.1% of the sales of this then they are looking at tens of thousands of sales here alone and far more overseas. Of course they will do far, far better than this. At the end of the day a small fraction of a really BIG number is itself rather sizeable… A small fraction of Douglas can't be that bad.
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