DeFlip Side #102: H2G2 Redo

DS102.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

A very wise man once wrote:

“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

Those words, of course, sprung from the wit of the late, great Douglas Adams, just one of the many memorable passages that can be attributed to his wholly remarkable creation, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s been nine years since Adams died, and 18 years since the final Hitchhiker’s book Mostly Harmless, in which the Vogons permanently removed the Earth from the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, resulting in the apparent death of most every main Hitchhiker’s character.

But author Eoin Colfer has come swooping in at the 29th second, rescuing Arthur, Ford, Trillian and Random from oblivion, and continuing their adventures anew in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy’s sixth novel, And Another Thing…another creation that many Hitchhiker’s die-hards may regard as a bad move.

The title “And Another Thing…” is taken from a passage in the fourth Hitchhiker’s book So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish and speaks volumes about Colfer’s pragmatic approach to taking up the Hitchhiker’s mantle, a respectful and self-deprecating hedge against negative backlash from fans who’d argue whether anyone but Adams is worthy of writing a Hitchhiker’s book:

“The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying ‘And another thing…’ twenty minutes after admitting he’s lost the argument.”

Unfortunately, Colfer does lose the argument for the most part. And Another Thing… isn’t particularly bad, but it’s not particularly inspired either. To put it in Hitchhiker’s terms, it’s Mostly Unnecessary.

Picking up right where Mostly Harmless left off, And Another Thing… has Arthur, Ford, Trillian and Random improbably rescued from the final destruction of Earth by none other than Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Heart of Gold. But Zaphod (being Zaphod) botches the rescue, forcing them to seek help from Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, who just happens to be passing by Earth to deliver some more insults. Wowbagger reluctantly saves them, and the story spirals out from there.

It’s a farfetched opening, even taking into account the residual effects of the Infinite Improbability Drive.

“So okay. Ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking, huh?”

—Zaphod Beeblebrox, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Despite this, it’s easy to reason why Penguin and Hyperion decided to bet on a new Hitchhiker’s book and why the Adams estate sanctioned it. Money, sure. But who can resist a smile at the prospect of getting reacquainted with the characters that most every Science Fiction fan (me included) has loved for decades?

Unfortunately, once this initial rush has subsided, and you get on with the task of actually finishing the book, its shortcomings become apparent. Not to say that the novel isn’t enjoyable at times; many of the individual character bits are dead on, evoking more than a few laughs. But in the end, And Another Thing… suffers from two key failings.

The first is in its treatment of Arthur Dent. Colfer does a fine job with Arthur’s characterization. Arthur acts and sounds like the Arthur we know and love. But that actually winds up working against Colfer as the novel progresses.

In Arthur, Adams created the ultimate passive protagonist. He is a character who essentially does nothing but react—oftentimes poorly—to the mayhem unfolding around him, yet he somehow remains the focus and driving force behind the plots of five novels. That Adams was able to successfully perform this narrative sleight of hand time and again illustrates his considerable writing talent.

“Very deep. You should send that into the Reader’s Digest. They have a page for people like you.”

—Arthur Dent, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Colfer clearly understands that this inherent, fatalistic inactivity is what makes Arthur tick, and he appropriately has Arthur doing very little and expecting the worst. But as a result, he can’t think of anything to do with Arthur, and Arthur kind of stays in the wings, moping about on Wowbagger’s ship and pining for Fenchurch.

Into this narrative void steps the book’s true main character, Zaphod. Zaphod’s schemes give And Another Thing… its narrative drive, and Colfer once again writes him very well. But Zaphod’s lunacy is most effective when it’s juxtaposed against the comparatively rational behavior of the other Hitchhiker’s characters. Colfer’s choice to make him the book’s lead borders on fannish overindulgence—like Zaphod’s ego, too much of a good thing.

“If there’s anything around here more important than my ego, I want it caught and shot now.”

—Zaphod Beeblebrox, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The second of And Another Thing…’s key failings are the Guide entries themselves. From its inception, the Hitchhiker’s Universe has been presented through the narrative lens of the Guide, which paints the cosmic backdrop through which Arthur and Ford tramp, and explains the strange things that they encounter along the way. As a result, the Guide acts as an omni-present narrator, and its entries are an organic and crucial element in the storytelling (with the additional benefit of being hilarious). It once again points out the narrative complexity that underpins Adams’s seemingly simple comic romps.

Colfer brings none of this subtlety or cohesiveness to his Guide entries. Instead, they are literal asides, dropped into the text wherever he thinks they might make for a good joke. As a result, his Guide entries are more distracting than enlightening, blurbs that sit on the page like narrative speed bumps.

Still, the absence of Adams’s masterful panache isn’t a deal breaker. Taken on its own terms, And Another Thing… is a fun book packed with plot and fully steeped in Hitchhiker’s lore. Colfer clearly holds the source material in reverence and doesn’t introduce anything apocryphal to Adams’s creation in an attempt to put his own stamp on it, yet neither does he try to out-Adams Adams. As he said in this interview on the Hyperion website:

“One thing I didn’t want to do in this book is try and imitate Douglas. I wanted this to be in my voice. But having said that… you have to keep the spirit of the book. There’s a certain style and a certain rhythm that I wanted to still be there.”

So if you’re an open-minded Hitchhiker’s fan, it can’t hurt to give And Another Thing… a try. If the worst happens, and you hate it, it still doesn’t take one iota away from Douglas Adams’s legacy. And if the infinitely improbable comes to pass and you love it, you’ll be heartened by the fact that Colfer leaves room at the end for the story to continue.

However, I feel pretty confident that most readers will emerge from the final chapter in a state of utter ambivalence, which is still a kind of win for Colfer, since they likely wouldn’t be adverse to trying further sequels.

But there is undoubtedly a contingent of hardcore Hitchhiker’s fans out there who refuse to read And Another Thing… because of what they perceive as Colfer’s most glaringly unforgivable sin: he is not Douglas Adams. To that Colfer says:

“I’m not finishing it off and I’m not trying to carry the torch for Douglas… But I’m presenting you with a possible ending in a possible alternate universe which you may find amusing.”

I’ll vouch for Colfer’s sentiment on this one. But if you still refuse to take his word for it—or mine—and insist on ranking And Another Thing… on the spectrum of Hitchhiker’s disappointments, then you probably won’t find it any more offensive than Mostly Harmless.

Lest we forget, no matter how much we may want to, the series ended on a fairly dismal note. So we shouldn’t judge Colfer’s writing too harshly. Sometimes even Douglas Adams himself couldn’t manage to make six times nine equal 42…

“I’ve always said there was something fundamentally wrong about the universe…”

—Arthur Dent, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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