June 18th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *And Another Thing* by Eoin Colfer

Finally, after nearly a year of rereading the other 5 books in the series, plus Douglas Adams’s post-humously published collection, *The Salmon of Doubt*, I finally sat down to read the sixth book in my beloved Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, And Another Thing written by Eoin Colfer after Adams’s death at the request of Adams’s widow.

Let’s be honest and say that I could not be completely objective with this book. I loved the original 5 despite their myriad flaws because of their author’s deft touch and weird mind. Writing is personal, and it disturbed me profoundly that someone was going to try to write in someone else’s style–seems like wearing someone else’s underpants to me.

Colfer does come, at times, tantalizingly close–some of the gags and non-sequiteurs and, truly, a lightness with language are refreshing to see: “I’ve seen a few things in my day and in my night too” “Ford’s fingers tapped the air impatiently, eager to wrap themselves around a tankard handle.” Someone killed by a laser is “frittered by the beams” and a cheese-worshipping cult fears “Edamnation.” Haha, to all of it.

Though I enjoy that stuff, and read hopefully and attentively throughout, I knew what the problem was going to be as soon as I saw the book, and I am surprised someone else (aka the editor) didn’t have the same immediate reaction: it’s enormous. 340 page, in a 6×10 format. I have the first four books in an omnibus format close to 6×10, and none of them weighs in at much more than 150 pages (albeit a bit smaller font). In that, I think Adams knew what he was doing–these are books of Pythonesque jokes and silliness, nothing you want to see endless extended. While the HHG characters are much stronger than most mainstream genre parody comic novels, they are still not *all* that well-fleshed and one tends to get sick of them and their prat-falling ways after oh, about 150 pages. I was surprised to read in *The Salmon of Doubt* that Adams agonized endlessly about these creations, because they feel so fresh and also so slight–something he and friend might have come up with on a long car-trip and written down on the pitstop at Denny’s.

So while I can’t disagree with critics who say that Colfer nails Adams larkiness very well, I am pretty adamant that what his misses is Adams’s judiciousness with the use of lark. There are a number of “guide notes” in all the books in the series–short passages explaining the esoteric alien concepts that Adams (and Colfer) created to flesh out the galaxy. These notes are supposed to be quoted from the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide, so they have that famous wit and irreverency. However, Adams’ notes are pretty rare, a light and goofy sprinkling, whereas Colfer’s come up every couple pages or, on a few occasions, twice on the same page. One of them, quite late and at the height of the action, actually announced that it was short so as not to interrupt flow, and I almost stamped my little foot–this book is precious short on flow.

Another flow issue is that every character has a plotline or at least a point of view, and there are a lot of characters. For our usual contingent, Trillian wants to recapture her daughter’s love but finds herself meeting the man of her dreams, Arthur is reunited with his true love but in digitized form, Zaphod gets involved with the gods of Aesir, Random loses a husband and plots to gain control of the galaxy and destroy her mother’s happiness (Random’s events are the most, er, random of anyone’s), and Ford…well, Ford doesn’t actually have much going on in this book, but we see a bunch of scenes from his POV anyway. He’s as funny as ever, and somewhat nicer than ever before (this is Colfer’s first book for adults and he seems a bit fonder of people learning their lessons and seeing the power of good than Adams ever was).

In addition to our old friends, we gain some new ones: Wowbagger the Immortal, who had a very few lines in a previous book (I think it was *Life, the Universe, and Everything*, but I refuse on principle to look it up–the principle being that I know no one cares); a Vogon father and son team that are (still!) bent on exterminating the humans, Thor and many of his godly and demi-godly friends (Adams devotees will note that while Thor has never before shown up in a HHG book, he was in one of the Dirk Gently novels); a faux-Irish flimflam man, and…I think that’s everyone. But who knows!

My point is that there was way too much going on in this book. I read it in less than a week and I don’t think I am a sloppy reader, but I would often put the book down for half a day and be simply unable to work out what was going on when I picked it back up. Adams’ books, in addition to being shorter, were far more focussed than AAT–often several of even the major 4 characters were left out, or largely so. In addition to being confusing, Colfer’s rapid cutting back and forth made it difficult to even care what happened to anyone. I admit, this has long been a problem with the series–after umpteen jokes, it’s hard to care who falls in love or into an abyss–but it is even harder when you can’t remember anyone’s names.

I actually don’t know a lot about Eoin Colfer other than that he is a successful kid and YA novelist, but I suspect him of watching a lot of TV and perhaps writing for it. Many of his scenes were utterly impenetrable to me until I pictured them on a soundstage–and then they were funny. There was a lot of bickering and people popping in and out behind walls and radioing each other from afar, and pretending to do one thing while doing another–I wasn’t around for Laugh-in, but I am pretty sure I have the reference right.

And in that sense, I think the new book is true to the series’ roots as a radio show–disjointed, episodic, gag-oriented and inconsistent. I laughed, I admit it, but ten minutes later I usually couldn’t remember at what.

The flap notes state that AAT is going to bring HHG to a new generation of readers–presumably that means the new generation is expected to *start* with the 6th book, since it is shiny and new, and then be drawn into the back-catalogue. I admit, I am old and not of the hyperlink generation, but I can’t imagine how this is going to work. The book makes vague reference to many of the events in the preceding books, but not so that a neophyte could actually understand them. But the past is rarely abandoned, so you can’t just read AAT as a stand-alone novel–you are constantly being reminded of what came before, even if no explanation follows up. Even I couldn’t follow it all, and I’ve read all the books in the past year! Of course, maybe I’m not so smart as I think I am!

What this review basically boils down to is that I really liked Douglas Adams and I wish he weren’t dead. He was *not* an A+ writer, and many of the issues Colfer is encountering he inherited from the master (not least of which is how to write a sequel to a novel which ended with all major characters being killed). Colfer does an ok job with a tough gig, but if there is a 7th book (as was strongly hinted), I’m afraid I’m just going to have to bow out of the party. Time to let that new generation take over.

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