I’m no stranger to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy1. A lot of people are no strangers to the 5-book trilogy, either, which is why there was quite a ballyhoo when Eoin Colfer was selected to continue the series on behalf of the late Douglas Adams.
There are, therefore, a number of questions to be asked about And Another Thing…. The first is “Was Eoin Colfer a good choice to take up the mantle of Douglas Adams?” The second is “Should the Hitchhiker’s series have been continued at all?” The final is “Was the book decent?”
Since the first question is predicated upon the last, let’s skip both for the time being. Broadly speaking, everything about this book is necessarily qualified by the need for its existence. After all, there are purist who dislike even Adams’ last two books—I among them—because they’re more or less derivative rehashings of the first three, which were significantly more inventive and funny. Even the most generous of critics would probably agree that even if the last two books weren’t bad, they were no better, and probably worse, than the first three.
The only likely reason that this posthumous extension was ever attempted is Adams’ own suggestion that the series should be extended to include a sixth book. Oddly enough, Colfer’s effort here was not the capstone that Adams imagined; rather (at least I think this is the case), it is the first in several new additions to the series. Certainly, the events of And Another Thing… set the stage for a seventh installment.
The choice of Colfer was a bit of a strange one: apart from his Artemis Fowl series—which, however good it may be, has always been overshadowed by Harry Potter—he has few other bona fides. He admits that “Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman [or] Terry Pratchett” could have gotten away with writing the book, but has to prove himself.
Assuming that the continuation of the series was not a fatal mistake—without which any further review would be moot—how can we rate Colfer’s attempt? Pretty good, actually.
Whenever a piece of writing is finished posthumously, the person doing the painting and spackling is faced with a dilemma: should he or she ape the original author’s style, diction, and syntax as closely as possible? For a particularly inventive writer, wouldn’t this more or less guarantee the editor to failure? Alternatively, should the writer simply attempt fidelity to the spirit of the author’s work rather than resorting to a desultory sort of impersonation? Though I find much of Colfer’s choice of writing style to hew closely to Adams, it is clear that he chose the second route. If I had been living in a cave and had no idea that Adams was dead, and was handed all six books in the series, without names, I would be unable to tell that they were written by two different people; I am, of course, not the vociferous sort of Douglas Adams fan that cried and shat themselves which Adams’ widow gave Colfer her blessing.
And for those who thought that So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish and Mostly were themselves desultory impersonations of their predecessors, And Another Thing will be a somewhat refreshing change of pace, since Colfer aims for the fundamentals: the story is straightforward and pithy, not at all long Adams’ later works. Colfer tries so hard to fit in all of the funny and beloved characters and stories that the book occasionally veers into referential overdrive—clearly, Colfer was nervous about failing, and therefore thought it best to tap the highlights of the original books. Zaphod, Trillian, Random, Arthur, Ford, Wowbagger, and the Heart of Gold all make appearances, though Ford is surprisingly absent for much of the book. Even the cows which desire nothing more than to be eaten make a prolonged appearance. Arthur, Ford, and Trillian, whom we last suspected of an untimely and explosive death, discover that they have spent several virtual decades held in suspended animation by the Hitchhiker’s Guide Mark II, which finally runs out of power and dumps the character back into reality, mere seconds before the Grebulons vaporize Earth. In a fantastically improbable series of events, they are picked up by Zaphod Beeblebrox, piloting the Heart of Gold. And so on and so forth, across several planets, dimensions, and ships.
The end result is somewhat slapstick, and full of “Guide Notes,” tangents, sidelong glances, and wholesale inventions on the part of Colfer. Had the book been written without using the Hitchhiker’s universe, it would be been funny in a ridiculous sort of way, but little more than a curio in a host of other strange scifi novels. In fact, one might say the same thing about the original series as well, excepting that Adams’ desert-dry wit turned the book into a sensation. Arguably it is only because of Adams’ work that And Another Thing… exists in any form, Hitchhiker-branded or no, but I don’t think Colfer would likely dispute that, either.
To Colfer’s credit, he gives the story much more narrative coherency that Adams’ ever bothered to. With the latter, I always had the impression that I was reading transcripts of space-based Monty Python sketches—especially when the Magratheans pine for the fjords—which were loosely tied together by the fact that the characters’ names stayed the same throughout, even if the characters themselves didn’t. Colfer tries much harder—perhaps to his detriment—to create a narrative not unduly fractured by purposely-absurd devices like the Infinite Improbability Drive, and make the characters act in some way consistent to their assumed natures. Colfer, too, appears to give them agency; the characters think and act toward goals, rather than being buffeted about by the machinations of a universe inimical to their existence.
In other words, Colfer has actually written a commendable addition to the series; certainly, he could not harm it any more than Adams himself did with Mostly Harmless2. But neither is the effort so impressive that anyone but Hitchhiker enthusiasts would necessarily care. That is the danger inherent in finishing someone else’s work, no matter how important or rewarding it may feel.