I've been catching up on my reading recently, and one book that's been sat on my shelf since last year is Eoin Colfer's 30th anniversary contribution to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this being the sixth volume of three – setting out his commitment to Adamsisms from the start. The sixth book, And Another Thing (Penguin, 2009) has full backing from Adams’ widow, but is inevitably going to receive mixed responses, both from the Hitchhiker’s faithful and from the casual reader.
I’ll set my stall out from the beginning. I read the first Hitchhiker’s book as a young teenager in the early ‘90s and, whilst the phrase “life-changing” is grossly overused, it certainly changed my view of what could be achieved within the realms of science fiction and comic writing at the time. I then slavishly followed the series through to its (extremely) bitter end, consuming the various different iterations of the same jokes through the media of books, radio, television and film (I am perhaps thankfully unexposed to the stage version). Even as a die-hard Douglas Adams fan, who defended the likes of Mostly Harmless when it came out, I would find it difficult to argue that his Hitchhiker’s writing didn’t deteriorate as the series progressed. Adams seemed to become increasingly negative towards his baby, and with his death in 2001 it seemed the series would end on a downer note, despite his alleged regrets about this state of affairs. Many fans disenfranchisement continued with 2005’s disappointing film adaptation, which, despite some interesting touches, suffered from the plain old fact that there’s only so many times that you can tell the same joke before it becomes tired. Taking all of this on board, it is perhaps unsurprising that this sixth book by an upstart author sat on my shelf for eight months before I picked it up to read it; I think it’s fair to say that my expectations were not high.
That last sentence may read as a little unfair; Eoin Colfer has made a decent name for himself off the back of his successful Artemis Fowl series of children’s books, which I was moderately fond of. And I can say with total honesty that Colfer has made a complete success of his stab at being more-Adams-than-Adams. The book picks up directly from the end of Mostly Harmless, just about avoiding the cliché of it all being “just a dream” by virtue of Adams’ stock fallbacks of parallel universes and the Infinite Improbability Drive. The yarn then pretty much continues as business as usual, with all of the usual suspects showing their faces – Arthur, Ford, Trillian, Zaphod and importantly Random and Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged (the only notable missing face is Marvin the Paranoid Android, killed two books previously). Without giving away too much of the plot (well, little more than you’d find on the blurb anyway), the rest of the plot concerns the Vogons pursuing the last remaining humans that have set up camp on a Magrathean-built holiday planet run a lunatic cod-Irishman, a bizarre love affair hindered by suicidal immortality, and a whole pantheon of itinerant gods (including Cthulhu, Gaia, Thor and a giant slab of cheese) looking for a new bunch of followers. So far, so Douglas Adams, although I suspect a healthy dose of Pratchett when it came to inspiration as well.
But the writing is the important bit. Colfer’s obviously gone for being as close to Adams as possible in style (which makes it a wonder in and of itself that he’s been so successful) but pleasingly, it’s the ways in which he differs that make this book a success. Whilst Adams had a tendency to write in a somewhat convoluted style, Colfer, perhaps due to his background as a children’s author is somewhat snappier, hamstrung only occasionally by the repeated Guide intrusions and “Further Reading” segments. But his characterisations are spot-on, wisely choosing this to be Zaphod’s story, leaving the morose Arthur and tripped-out Ford somewhat to the sidelines. Douglas Adams always had a good sense for incorporating science and popular culture, and it’s nice to see that Colfer has continued this tradition, incorporating many concepts that would perhaps have seen alien to Adams; the repeated gag of Random acting as teenage goth had me laughing out loud, although that may be a reflection of the company I keep. The plot overall is resolutely more upbeat than any of the last three Adams-penned books, despite the continuous Arthur Dent nay-saying, and makes for a far more entertaining read for it. You can’t help but feel that Douglas would have been proud.
The only question really remaining is whether I would like to see any more of them written. Whilst, to my mind, a triumph, I still can’t quite get round my fan-boy desire for them to just let it rest. However, on this particular occasion, I am happy to hold my hands up and say that my preconceptions were wrong: this is a fine memorial to Douglas Adams’ work, and a highly entertaining, if lightweight, effort that should also appeal to the more casual reader.