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And Yet Another Thing
on 13 October 2009
I've been reading Eoin Colfer's book 'And Another Thing' and I'm pleasantly surprised to discover that I happen to like it. That's a biggie, really unexpected, as I'm one of those people who can't accept the possibility that anyone could measure up to Douglas Adams in his own (reflection of this) universe.
Let's state the obvious, shall we? Eoin Colfer isn't Douglas Adams. If he'd tried to clone Douglas's work, this book wouldn't have floated. Eoin (I think I can call him that, having shaken his hand) hasn't tried to be Douglas Adams, but he has tried to satisfy Douglas's supporters by writing in a very similar style. It reads well without sounding like a cheesy attempt to mimick the original.
I don't want to be hyper-critical (oh, gwaaan, gwaaan), but these are notes on Douglas's style and what's remained the same or changed:
1. Douglas might have been writing about aliens, but he was really talking about us. The Vogons are human bureaucrats, planning officers, for example. Douglas criticised, but never attacked his targets too hard, never losing hearts and minds. Eoin has understood this and does it very well. From an Irish writer, just following the EU's capture of Ireland, this line is Douglas at his cutting best: 'If we win, then you will join our happy group; if you win, then we keep coming back until we win.'
2. Douglas was a script writer and he specialised in dialogue. In the first two books, the proportion of quotes is very high, compared to description. In a novel, the use of witty script makes it read like a fast television show. Eoin does use speech, clearly, but the proportion has moved, i.e. more toward description.
3. The first HHG book used footnotes from 'The Book' at regular intervals and readers loved them. As with Shakespeare, the prologue became a character in its own right. The second book used fewer notes from The Guide and then the rest of the series dropped them. If you ask the fans which books they prefer, you will generally find that they like the books in direct proportion to the number of Guide footnotes they include. Eoin has probably spotted this (or at least enjoys the footnotes) as he's dropped in lots of them. The difference is...
Douglas would write a footnote which was imaginative, surreal and then made a huge arching observation about the nature of the Universe, our perception of life itself or a cutting critique of human nature. He'd ask us to look at the thing from a new perspective, to open our eyes and shine a light in our minds, then he'd follow that with a silly twist at the end (the comedy pay-off). Eoin's footnotes are surreal, imaginative, they even use planet names, species and locations from the original books, but... the guru-like thinking, the great idea, the divine revelation isn't there. the footnote is funny, it's true, but Douglas had more insight into the human condition.
4. Imagination and escapism: Douglas wrote 'alternative world fiction', also called 'alternative reality' or 'what if?' fiction. He based his universe in science, never magic, and tried to find an engineering solution for each piece of alien strangeness. The only exception to the rule, as far as I can remember, was when his characters started flying (mind over physical laws). Eoin Colfer came to HHG as a magic writer (leprechauns etc). He has successfully made the transition to Douglas's way of thinking.
5. Douglas was a cynic and sometimes even depressive. His worst book was Mostly Harmless, in which he blows up the Earth, observes Marvin's death, kills all his characters, turns his back, shakes the blood off his hands and walks away feeling relieved. HHG followers generally didn't like Douglas's final HHG book. Eoin's advantage was that he's an upbeat writer and, as an ex-fan, his book couldn't possibly be as sickening to the loyal readers as Mostly Harmless. We didn't expect him to write something as good as the Hitch-Hiker's Guide, that's too much to ask, but there was hope he couldn't cock it all up (as they did in the film version by dropping all of the best lines). I'm delighted to report that Eoin has produced a book that is much closer to Douglas's best titles than Douglas's worst ones.
I expected 'And Another Thing' to be soul-less, mid range and uninspired, just another commercial fan-fiction vehicle for the characters. I expected it to stray from Douglas's rules of writing. I anticipated that Eoin might not know Adams' universe in any great detail or 'hear the music' in his lilting prose.
Those expectations have been confounded. The book rocks.