Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Review: And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

I am assuredly the kind of reader that Eoin Colfer was most anxious about when he took on the monumental task of picking up where Douglas Adams left off to write the sixth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. That is, I am a huge Adams fan, and I’ve never read any of Colfer’s other books. It is with good reason that Colfer expressed his anxiety about stepping into Adams’ shoes. Did he pull it off with And Another Thing…?

Unfortunately, no.

I applaud the effort and the risk he took. I would say that if Adams had ended the “Hitchhiker’s” series after So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, there would have been no need for another installment. But the fact that Mostly Harmless ended the series on such a bleak note—and the fact that Adams said that he wanted to write a sixth book to remedy the sour taste left by Mostly Harmless—is enough reason to justify Colfer’s heartfelt attempt. While And Another Thing… has its inspired moments, ultimately it does not measure up, even to the lowered expectations I had for another author attempting to live up to Adams’ legacy.

So where does Colfer go right, and where does he go wrong?

Adams’ unique style is a hallmark of his work. Both the Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently books are filled with his ingenious use of language, his abrupt insights, and his intelligent humor. Colfer does a creditable job of trying to create a compatible style without directly attempting to imitate Adams, and pulls off some very good turns of phrase.

However, most of the time it seems like he’s trying too hard. He frequently throws in “Guide Notes” in honor of Adams’ signature tangential asides, but they typically feel forced and overused. Adams’ Guide entries often reflected what was going on in the story or made some salient point in relation to the characters, but Colfer’s Guide Notes mostly distract, and provide very few humorous moments.

Colfer also repeats too many of Adams’ old jokes. We endure entirely too many references to Eccentrica Gallumbits, for instance, to the point that any humor value was long gone the fourth or fifth time she’s mentioned. The worst example of this Colfer’s use of the word “froody,” which he seems to think is an inexhaustible mine of comedy gold. There is one particular instance of this that just about made me stop reading: Colfer sets up a joke, telegraphing from a light year away that he’s going to haul out the poor battered corpse of the word “froody” and attempt to use it as the punch line one more damned time, and then forces us to endure the humiliating march through an entire paragraph towards this inevitable, predictable, and painfully unfunny payoff.

Again, he has his moments. I thought his handling of the Vogons was pretty good. But as a whole, Colfer’s attempts miss the mark.

I’ll review how Colfer handled the primary returning characters from the series. It should be noted that Marvin doesn’t appear in the book, nor is he referenced by name. Take that for what you will.

Colfer’s strongest character is Arthur Dent. Colfer does a very solid job of capturing the essence of Arthur in both dialogue and internal monologue. He manages to iron out the most blatant lapse in Arthur’s characterization that Adams himself committed in Mostly Harmless, which was the fact that Arthur quickly forgot about Fenchurch once she disappeared. High marks for Colfer in this area.

Ford Prefect, on the other hand, is by far his worst characterization. Throughout the book, Ford exhibits himself to be stupid, unobservant, lazy, and interested in nothing but getting wasted in one way or another. While it’s established that Ford does love to party and have a good time, Colfer turns that facet into the totality of who Ford is, and it’s extremely frustrating. Ford should be a resourceful survivor, well-traveled and capable of ingenious solutions. In the original series, Ford is usually the one who has a clue what’s going on, in contrast to Arthur’s general floundering. None of this makes it into Colfer’s Ford, who is an unlikeable moron with not a single virtue to his name. There were several Ford moments that came a hair’s breadth from making me give up on the book entirely (in fact, the only thing that kept me going at these points was that I was determined to write this review).

Trillian is somewhere in between, and on this I’m willing to cut Colfer some slack. Adams expressed his own insecurity about how he wrote women—he felt he made them too idealized and not human enough. Trillian doesn’t have as strong a personality in the original stories as the other main characters, and is mostly stuck with being sensible and practical while everyone else is being over-the-top. That being said, I never warmed up to Colfer’s Trillian, who manages not to be very sensible or practical, but also not very distinctive.

Lastly we have Zaphod. I felt that Adams’ Zaphod was a more nuanced character than it might seem at first blush, who hides a mixture of brilliance and deep insecurity under a deliberately flamboyant, narcissistic persona. Colfer takes a certain liberty with Zaphod that allows him to plausibly write the character in a very different way—that is, the persona becomes the reality. This Zaphod lacks any depth at all, and is often so stupid that he’s not remotely believable, but he has his charming moments. It’s not great, but not offensively bad.

As for the remaining characters, I would say the core problem is that Colfer gives us very few characters to like. Adams had a gift for making even his bit players sympathetic, but Colfer’s characters are for the most part appalling. Much of the action takes place on a planet called Nano, and there is not a single inhabitant of that world for whom I developed even the slightest affection. It is one thing to make characters who are flawed, but Colfer’s original characters so lacking in redeeming qualities that there’s really no warming up to them.

Oddly enough, the one exception to this is a Vogon named Constant Moan, whom I quite grew to like. You would think that if you could make a Vogon sympathetic, other characters would be a piece of cake, but it turns out not to be the case here.

A meandering plot is hardly a sin in a Hitchhiker’s book, so that can be forgiven. Blatantly recycling Adams’ plot elements is not so forgivable. This is especially problematic in the first half of the book, and it doesn’t help that Colfer tries to squeeze humor out of the characters saying, “Hey, we’ve done all this before.”

In the second half of the book, the plot enters more original territory, but this doesn’t really improve matters. The bulk of the story revolves around the fate of the planet Nano, and the key problem is that I hated this planet and everyone on it. There were some set-ups that might’ve been funny, like when the administrator of the planet is conducting job interviews with various gods, but it always seemed to me like Colfer was trying too hard. The humor felt strident and forced.

The thing about gods factors into one last problem I’d like to bring up, which is that Colfer doesn’t have a feel for when it’s best not to explain things. Douglas Adams used the gods—the Asgardians pop up at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe or Thor appear with Trillian at a party. But he did not go into any great detail about how mythical deities fit into a science fiction universe. In an infinite universe, anything is possible, right? So a few Aesir show up, and you go with it.

Colfer makes the mistake of trying to explain how the gods fit into the big picture, and doesn’t realize that this is a writer’s tar baby. The more he attempts to make sense of it, the less sense it actually makes. He repeats this mistake throughout the book in various ways. To quote Adams, “The impossible has an integrity that the merely improbable lacks.” Adams allows his universe to be nonsensical and impossible, whereas Colfer can’t seem to resist trying to explain in some semi-rational and therefore merely improbable fashion.

And Another Thing… is a laudable effort, and it has its good moments. However, these good moments are floating in a vast sea of not-so-good moments, which rank from simply weak to “Where’s my lighter fluid and matches?” bad. I don’t consider this some kind of referendum on Colfer as a writer. Given the pockets of inspiration present here—and the sheer guts it took to take on this project at all—I am perfectly willing to believe his other books could be excellent. This time, he just bit off more than he could chew.

1 comment:

The Reporter said...

Good to know, and unfortunately what I was expecting (I read one of the "Artemis Fowl" series some years ago).