Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Eoin Colfer - "And Another Thing..."
It was with some trepidation that I started this book. I bought it on release, yet couldn't quite bring myself to read it. Fear of disappointment was my main worry. I'm a massive fan of Douglas Adams' work and of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy franchise in particular. I heard the original radio series when I was in my teens and instantly fell in love with the hapless Arthur Dent. Since then, I've devoured everything to do with the series -- books, radio adaptations, the television series, audio books -- I even managed to derive some pleasure from the movie (though not as much as I'd hoped... it was zarking awful).
Was a sixth book really necessary? Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the series, brought the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's "trilogy" to a definite, albeit bleak conclusion. Yet, despite its gloominess, for me at least, it was a worthy ending. Everybody died. The earth blew up. There was closure -- not to mention the comforting reminder that everything that's supposed to happen in life invariably does -- and there's not a whole lot you can do about it.
Except the ending was too depressing even for Adams -- so he always intended to write a sixth instalment, presumably with the aim of giving his now dead characters a more upbeat send off. Plus, as Adams shrewdly noted, five was the wrong kind of number. Six was better. Unfortunately, and to the horror of fans everywhere, Adams died on 11th May, 2001, as did, seemingly, all hope of seeing his beloved characters again.
Then miraculously, on 16th September, 2008, an announcement was made that a sixth volume of the “trilogy” would be published in late 2009, penned by Irish author, Eoin Colfer (writer of the Artemis Fowl series). Initially, Colfer seemed like an odd choice. Most of his back catalogue catered to the young-adult demographic. On the plus side, Colfer was a proven comedy writer -- but the big question remained: could Colfer pull it off?
The answer, in my opinion, is both yes and no. The first hundred pages or so I found an odd reading experience. All the old characters were there -- Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, Trillian, Random, even Fenchurch -- but something about them felt different. Adams' humour was offbeat, unique and often cerebral; Colfer's witticisms, despite being astute and undeniably well tailored, just don't reach that same level of brilliance, and as a result, the book's characters sometimes speak with blander voices. Their comebacks lack sharpness. In fact, for the first third of the book, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was reading fan-fiction. Well written fan-fiction, admittedly -- but something about it just didn't feel right.
By the time I reached page 100, however, something clicked into place. Perhaps it was just a case of acclimatising myself to Colfer's writing style -- or maybe I'd just stopped endlessly comparing Colfer's style of narrative to Adams' -- but once the transition had been made, the story suddenly came to life.
The main difference between this book and other books in the series is that it focuses less on Arthur Dent (who's relegated to a supporting character) and more on anarchic, ex-President of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox. At first, this was something of a disappointment to me. For five books now, Arthur's been the eyes and ears through which we've experienced the whole adventure. His stuffiness, his Englishness, are all part of the series' appeal. It's proper English sci-fi -- with proper English accents, lovely cups of tea, quaint humour, and familiar locations. But of all the characters in Colfer's book it's Arthur who feels the most alien (as in strange, not other-worldly). Maybe Colfer is just too Irish to pull off a convincing English gent, I'm not altogether sure, but basing the novel on Arthur would have been a huge mistake.
So the decision to make it Zaphod-centric, despite initially seeming like the biggest mistake known to man, actually turned out to be the right move. Adams' Zaphod and Colfer's Zaphod feel the same. Zaphod's cool, he's funny and more importantly he's neither English nor Irish, so his whacky personality isn't so much tied to geography as it is his massive ego. And Colfer writes great dialogue. Zaphod sparkles throughout this book. He's full of his own self importance, stupid beyond belief, and delivers some hellishly funny one liners.
And there also are enough returning characters to make this book feel like a genuine entry in the Hitchhiker's canon. Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz makes a welcome return (awful poetry and all), as does the immortal Wowbagger (still hell-bent on insulting everyone in the entire universe). Trillian Astra is also back, as are the cows that love to be eaten, so there are plenty of familiar faces to keep the aficionados happy.
There are some fascinating new innovations too. The Tyromancers are worthy of singling out, religious folk from the planet Nano, with their mantra of “appease the cheese”, and their perpetual fear of Edamnation. And Irish property developer, Hillman Hunter (who's seemingly been cursed with the same naming illness as Ford Prefect), provides a nice bridge between Adams' older characters and Colfer's newer creations.
The question remains: was the ending of book six an improvement on book five? Well, undeniably, less people died. That's always a bonus. And, true, most of the characters did finish this story happier than at the end of book five (i.e. they were less dead). But Colfer did seem to dangle a far happier ending in prospect for poor old Arthur -- only to yank it away again at the last minute. What a zarker! So happier - yes! But more satisfying? I suspect that's for the individual to decide.
If you're a fan of the series this book's well worth a look -- even if it's just to scream "sacrilege!" at the end and wish Edamnation on Eoin Colfer.