And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer [A Review]

With the death of Douglas Adams the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels seemed to have ended with Mostly Harmless. However, when Eoin Colfer was approached by the family to write a sixth novel, the series came back to life.

Those who have read Mostly Harmless know that it ends with the Earth about to be destroyed… again, this time by the Grebulons; with no apparent chance for escape for Arthur, Ford, Trillian and Random and with unresolved issues around the new edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the H2G2.

The H2G2, though, has managed to temporarily suspend the imminent demise of Arthur and co. while allowing them to live out decades of alternate lives. But when the H2G2’s battery runs low, they are all immediately transported back to the ‘here’ and ‘now’, facing death with their previous lives vanished.

Fortunately, and not unexpectedly, Zaphod shows up with the Heart of Gold and rescues them. However, in an episode reminiscent of the time in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe when Arthur stalled the onboard computer with the task of making him the perfect cup of tea while they were under attack, Ford manages to do the same to Left Brain; previously one of Zaphod’s two heads, who is now in control of the ship.

This time they will not be saved so easily. Instead they have a chance encounter with Bowerick Wowbagger – the immortal being who, in order to deal with the infinite tedium of immortality, has set himself the mission to insult every other being in the universe. Wowbagger’s ship, the Tanngrisnir, made of dark matter and powered by dark energy, is able to escape the destruction of Earth but Wowbagger has no interest in rescuing them until Zaphod makes a tantalising offer – Zaphod may be able to arrange for Wowbagger to be put out of his immortal misery by having him killed.

It is an arrangement that unsurprisingly suits Zaphod very well. As well as allowing them to escape death again, Zaphod may also be able to solve another couple of outstanding items. Hillman Hunter, the leader of a colony of humans on the planet Nano, has been busy interviewing gods to find the right one to become Nano’s new deity without satisfaction.

Hillman Hunter is not a particularly religious man, but he does have faith in the traditional order of things, when the traditional order is stacked in favour of the entrepreneur. Hillman Hunter believes in money, and it is very difficult to make money in times of anarchy. How is a fellow to put a few bob together when the little men do not respect their betters and there’s no Big Man to tell everyone how to behave? Men need some god or other to show them their place in the world and ideally that place would be far below Hillman Hunter’s.

Zaphod believes that if anyone can kill Wowbagger it would be a god. If he can deliver a god to Nano, and if that god proceeds to secure his own legend with an epic slaying of Wowbagger, everything will be resolved. Thor, the god Zaphod has in mind, would be ideal, except that Thor and Zaphod have a history…

Hillman flapped his lips. ‘What? So even gods cost money now?’

‘Wake up, Hillman. Gods have always cost money. But I can do you a deal.’

‘Would we have exclusive rights?’

‘I couldn’t promise that. Thor is in the big league. A class-one deity. There are a lot of cultures who want to adore him.’

‘And is he omnipresent?’

‘No, but he’s pretty fast.’

Meanwhile, the discovery that, once again, not all humans have been eliminated, has irritated Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz. He soon plots a course for Nano to destroy those pesky humans once and for all.

Douglas Adams died in 2001 and the Hitchhiker’s series is probably his greatest legacy. Despite the fact that, in my opinion, the last two Hitchhiker’s novels he wrote (So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless) were the weakest of the five and felt more laboured, Adams expressed a wish to write a sixth book according to writings posthumously published in The Salmon of Doubt.

The possibility of a sixth book seemed to have died with him until Eoin Colfer, who had established himself with the Artemis Fowl series of books, was approached by the Adams family to write a sixth book. It is an assignment that I imagine would be very flattering to receive, very enviable to others, but also potentially impossible to satisfy to everyone’s liking. It was also Colfer’s first book for adults. Overall, I think he did a fair job, but I would not say it does better than the first three of Adams’ series.

There are a number of consistencies between the earlier series and this addition. Colfer shows and understanding of the characters and the style of the earlier stories. The intermissions to allow for Guide Entries were initially a pleasing familiarity but soon became excessive and unwelcome. The critique of bureaucracy, a key aspect of the series under Adams, is clearly present in this follow up.  The backstory of the new character Hillman Hunter was, I thought, a very Adamsy story, though the character itself is one of the main signs the arrival Colfer’s influence. I also liked that that Wowbagger, previously a very minor character, was entirely fleshed out and has a large part to play in the story.

Otherwise, while there was a fair bit of humour, it was of a different style and not one I enjoyed as much as Adams’. Apart from the religious aspect, this novel had less to say about existentialist dilemmas. The religious satire was far more open and obvious than in the earlier novels but I doubt Adams would have disapproved.

Gods had a great time of it for millions of years, swanning across the sky in their chariots, showing up in different places at the same time, being all-wise and stuff, but then science developed to the point where it could duplicate many of their tricks. Blighting a crop was no longer as big a deal as it used to be. There were virgin births all the time; in fact, many societies preferred virgin births, as they cut out the need for in-laws, and parents didn’t have to imagine their children doing the nasty with strangers.

Overall, I think it was the opening of the book that I enjoyed the most. The ending of Mostly Harmless left a lot for the next book to deal with. How Colfer achieved that was mostly well-done, funny, inventive though with obvious pointers to the earlier series. I felt glad once that baggage was dealt with and felt a significant moment was arrived at where the story could have gone anywhere and done anything. And I think what I wanted from that moment was a quest.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that sort of story. And Another Thing… is more complex than the earlier novels; it has more characters and more subplots and it is more a case of these smaller plots coming together than one of a large overarching quest. It is also mostly a Zaphod story and I wished for a lot more Arthur.

Having now finished reading the six Hitchhiker’s novels, I am – and I cannot stress this enough – done! I realise there is an awful lot of Hitchhiker’s and Adams apocrypha – Adam’s writings on his writings, posthumous publications, radio serials, plays, transcripts, games, spin offs, behind-the-scenes info, fan fiction, etc, etc. Another new radio series has just begun. While I did enjoy the series, especially the first three books, and have long enjoyed the 2005 film, I don’t think I can bring myself to invest any more. It was a struggle even to watch the 1981 TV series. I guess, like Ford Prefect, I don’t get easily obsessed by things. But it is time to share some thoughts on the series as a whole.

The first thing that came to mind was how very English the series is. It is in that style of humour, the no-nonsense character of Arthur Dent, the ridiculing of bureaucracy, the importance of tea, not to mention the frequent references to cricket, that I can’t properly describe or put into words but you know it when you come across it. Despite this apparent limitation, the series has attracted broad and enduring appeal. Like another very English writer, Agatha Christie, Adams’ stories have transcended cultural and language barriers and been heavily translated.

Ah, yes, thought the old man. Tea. At the centre of an uncertain and possibly illusory Universe there would always be tea.

The critique and satire of bureaucracy is one of the consistent themes throughout the series. It is found in the Vogons who blindly follow procedure, the superfluous Golgafrinchin, the equally misguided Grebulons and the new management at the Guide who produce the Guide Mk II.

Another consistent theme is that of nihilism, hedonism and alcohol. It is most obviously personified in Ford Prefect, but also in Zaphod and in others aspect of the series as well. There is a Gen X sensibility here of feeling impotent in the face of those who wield power and to instead try and embrace powerlessness and enjoy life despite it.

Whilst he slept it off, Trillian did a little research in the ship’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It had some advice to offer on drunkenness.

‘Go to it,’ it said, ‘and good luck.’

It was cross-referenced to the entry concerning the size of the universe and ways of coping with that.

–          Life, the Universe and Everything

If I had to make some criticisms of the series I would first say that I thought Trillian was underutilised. As the main female character spanning the series, and an astrophysicist as well, there was a lot of unexplored potential for her.

I’m not a big follower of science fiction. So, for me, the fact that many aliens are coincidentally very sapien is a little unsatisfying. There are many imaginable difficulties with interstellar travel and encountering alien worlds and beings. Everything from being able to live in the same conditions to being able to read alien writing and I don’t think there were enough solutions to these problems.

This was disappointing because when Adams recognises a problem and solves it, it is usually brilliant. The Babel fish idea is genius and hilarious! I just wish there was a lot more of that in the series.

The first thing he saw on leaving the lift was a long concrete wall with over fifty doors in it offering lavatory facilities for all of the fifty major life forms. Nevertheless, like every car park in the Galaxy throughout the entire history of car parks, this car park smelt predominantly of impatience.

–          The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

By chance, the 1981 TV series was on TV while I was reading the books, so I did end up recording and watching it after reading. It was a struggle at first. Like a lot of old sci-fi, it has not aged well. The acting is very ordinary as well. Yet, once I had finished it, I kind of missed it. Despite its many flaws, the strength of the material behind it comes through and it also has a nostalgic charm which I suspect is why many people still love it.

As well as being funny and clever, with its observations of awkward social interaction, bureaucracy, the absurdities of modern physics, and existential dilemmas; the series has also proven to be very prophetic. In Hitchhiker’s Adams imagined parallels to the internet, tablet computers, informative illusions and virtual reality.

The influence of the series is its greatest legacy. It can be seen in Red Dwarf, SpaceX, Neil Gaiman, Men in Black, Radiohead, The Matrix and others. Adams’ untimely death gives it an unfinished quality that will mean people will continue to take the inspiration to new places.

There is no such thing as a happy ending. Every culture has a maxim that makes this point, while nowhere in the Universe is there a single gravestone that reads ‘He loved Everything About His Life, Especially the Dying Bit at the End’.

For my reviews of the other Hitchhiker’s novels, see here.

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