When last we left Arthur Dent, he had arrived on planet Earth once again, now fully aware not only of Magrathea’s planet-building capacities but of multiple dimensions with multiple Earths. Surely he could settle back onto one most closely resembling his dearly exploded home version. In the last remaining section of Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, the Vogon Constructor Fleet had enough of all this hyperspace bypass obstruction and blew up every Earth in every dimension everywhere, making positively certain no one would every fear those pesky ape-like creatures that lived there, or ever have one of them ruin their drink in the process. With Biblical certainty the words were given — it is finished.
Then in later years, Douglas Adams died, but that’s never stopped a five (now six)-part trilogy before. Enter Eoin Colfer, author of the popular Artemis Fowl series, charged with the task of reuniting the far-flung characters of Adams’ stories, rejuvenating a series that, on the face of the circumstantial evidence, is one Adams himself had no desire to expand upon, and — just as important — be true to the sort of storytelling Adams had previously put forth. In other words, this was liable to be a massive piece of fan-fiction if it wasn’t handled with great care, certainly more care than Adams himself committed to the piece.
Let’s not mince words here: Adams was a great humorist who used his comedy very often to turn human foibles on their collective ear, but he was never quite comfortable with the three-act storyline, a plot with a discernible through-line or of having a satisfying finale to his books. That’s what made them such a pleasure to read. They were slightly fleshed-out series of comedic sketches often using the device of The Hitchhiker’s Guide as little more than a segue from one to the next. All the while, Adams slipped in subversive turns of phrase and thought that endeared the reader to this bizarre cast of his. Classic lines like, “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” chased by the zinger, “Try asking a glass of water” ask you take a second or two to figure out what it would mean to be forced into something other than the first-person role. Then, without any fanfare, it was on to the next, just like a well-written sketch.
Colfer doesn’t write sketches, but books, and has a difficult time altering his personal disciplines to adhere to Adams’. In an effort to draw you into this tale, he’s introduced you to a very old man that we may or may not know; Ford Prefect who has wound up in a fantastic resort where the more he drinks and parties, the better and healthier he grows; reporter Trillian Astra, who is now more machine than woman, nipped, tucked, stretched and augmented beyond the limits of D.N.A. (coincidentally, Adams’ initials); and her daughter Random, the Galactic President, who has married someone of whom she does not approve. I won’t describe more than that, even though very little of those details have any bearing on the rest of the story. Red herring jolts were always part of Adams’ modus operandi, and these vignettes are, at least tonally, in the ballpark.
At the same time, Adams would have infused these bits and pieces with a twist or two, like that drink of water he once wrote about, where the juicy concepts of growing old, or having your wildest, most narcissistic desires granted without breaking a sweat, or self-manipulation for the unblinking camera, or even inter-species marriage would have provided some grist for humor. To Colfer’s credit, he uses all this to build characterization but, to his detriment, he’s picking up from someone who never really concerned himself with that. The demeanor of the book is jarring in that way.
That’s just the beginning. We still have to get reacquainted with Zaphod Beeblebrox, search for Arthur’s beloved Fenchurch, run across Wowbagger and be assaulted by page after page of bizarre, ridiculous and not particularly funny “funny” names. We have to reconcile Trillian’s maternal instincts, which have never been grappled with before. Give Colfer points here as well since Adams’ introduction of Random Dent was, pointedly, random indeed. However, we’ve never had the chance to see that side of Trillian before so this all comes as a shock to the reader, and a severe departure from her previous characterization. Add to that the joke of the Vogons, once described as being cold-hearted in an apathetic, “office worker on the job 20 years and never departs from routine” sort of way. Now, they’re slightly bloodthirsty and rather pissed off that no matter how often they blow up Earth, they have to keep blowing up Earth (all the while chasing down escaping viral elements of it, meaning humans.) If you had to keep re-doing the same job over and over, you’d be pissed off too, unless you were a Vogon who thrives on mindless tedium and repetition.
I approached the book with wide-open optimism and no major expectations. Colfer accepted a really difficult task, to take a wildly popular series with a very distinct “voice” and make it his own. I launched into the book without holding his handicaps against him, but it pains me to say how difficult a read it was. Where fan-fiction might have drowned me in the slapstick elements of the precursors, Colfer strives to imbue all the surrealism with a hint of the real, but takes many pages to do it. As the reader, all I wanted to get from the book was enjoyment, not the resurrected Douglas Adams, or a mind-blowing game-changer or even the question to which the answer is “42.” Colfer’s inability to just go with the flow, alongside his desire to really let you know he ‘gets’ Adams’ world, stops the book from being fun, and that’s a fatal flaw.
As much as it grieves me to side with those retentive fan-folks who complained about Eoin Colfer taking over the series, for reasons ranging from hero-worship to fear of change and all roads in-between, they’re kind of right. The poor fit created a poor read. Where it all goes from here, and the faint cliff-hanging ending indicates it will, is anyone’s guess but I don’t think I’ll be interested in finding out.
And Another Thing… is available through Amazon.com.
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