Life, the Universe and Everything

Published

Tom Bonnick

Eoin Colfer NEW 07This October marked the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most enduring and hilarious works of fiction ever written. Normally, this should be a cause for unbridled joy and celebration, but in the case of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is impossible to feel wholehearted happiness, because the series’ author, Douglas Adams, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2001.

Since Adams’ tragic passing, there has been a whole host of tributes paid; a testament not only to the broad scope of his appeal, but also the unusually diverse range of his interests. Adams was a committed technophile (between him and Stephen Fry, they purchased the first three Apple Mac computers sold in the UK), a passionate environmentalist (his landmark radio series, Last Chance to See, has recently been turned into a television broadcast, co-presented by Fry), and a zealous atheist (Richard Dawkins dedicated his bestselling book The God Fiction to Adams, quoting the author’s own take on God: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

As well as the memorial services and eulogies paid by friends and admirers, however, there has also been a number of literary endeavours released to celebrate Adams’ memory. As well as reissues of his novels, first a collection of his writings — some completed, some not — entitled The Salmon of Doubt (after the provisional name he had chosen for his next Dirk Gently detective novel) was published in 2002, followed by an entirely new novel, And Another Thing…, released last month, which was commissioned by Penguin and written by Eoin Colfer, to complete the “increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy” (And Another Thing… is part six).

Colfer, of course, is famed in his own right for the immensely popular series of children’s novels about the teenage antihero Artemis Fowl. Those books have a lot of Hitchhiker about them: as well as the obvious parallels — they are both science fiction books with strong elements of humour and parody — there is also something less tangible about Colfer’s work which occasionally brings to mind Adams. Certainly, it was a natural progression for my cripplingly bookish thirteen-year-old self to move straight on to Hitchhiker after finishing Artemis.

Nonethless, when I heard of the imminent publication of And Another Thing…, I felt nothing but righteous, indignant outrage. Hitchhiker fans are unusually devoted — the word “cult” does not even begin to do the franchise justice — and the news that someone would be stepping into Adams’ shoes — even a man as patently competent as Colfer — invited a sense of heightened proprietorial resentment.

So potent was my displeasure that, listening back on my conversation with Colfer — who came to Glasgow to give a reading of And Another Thing… on the day of the book’s release — I was horrified to learn that my opening line to him had, in fact, amounted to, “What do you think you’re playing at?” — except phrased in the past tense, because even though I can be hawkish and belligerent, I still hate confrontation: “So, when I learnt of this project, I felt outraged…”

Colfer, though — who is cheerful and charismatic; imbued with what feels like a zen state of calm for a man who has only just flown into the city, been ambushed with vitriol by an impertinent student, and is about to start a worldwide publicity tour — remains unflappable; his consummate professionalism putting my obvious lack thereof to shame.

“The natural reaction is to be outraged,” he begins, smiling encouragingly at me. “I was kind of outraged to be asked. I had a meeting with Douglas’ agent, and his wife, and his daughter, and I think what happened is, people had put themselves forward before — I don’t know who — but then Ed [Adams’ longtime agent] had always said no. I don’t know why I came into the mix, but I did, and Jane [Adams’ widow] had been reading my books to her daughter, and it was kind of an emotional thing that went beyond me, because they bonded over these books. They said to me, ‘we’re not interested in someone taking over from Douglas, or trying to beat him. What we want to do for the thirtieth anniversary is bring everyone together, and Douglas’ profile back up.’”

Somewhat irritatingly, reading And Another Thing… forced me into discarding all my earlier prejudices, because it really is rather good. For the first half, the experience felt akin to what it must be like to cheat on a beloved spouse, only with someone really, smokin’ hot — full of guilt, but also dirty, illicit pleasure. Eventually, though, its charm became overwhelming. The frequency with which I was adding to my mentally compiled catalogue of the novel’s shortcomings lessened, then stopped altogether, and by the final page — which, I will begrudgingly admit, provides a far more satisfactory conclusion for Arthur Dent than Adams’ fifth novel, Mostly Harmless — I was wholly won over.

Colfer manages an incredible balancing act, succeeding to both incorporate plenty of Hitchhike lore and the kind of obscure references that will appease the hardcore of followers, whilst also feeling comfortable enough to make this new story his own. There are new characters, and old ones who are given greatly increased presence; recurring plot motifs, and lots of lovingly imagined jokes which took me by surprise for their ability to tap into a very Douglas-esque sensibility, yet without ever seeming like pastiche.

In this regard, And Another Thing… is not only a triumph but also, perhaps, one of the first successes of its kind. Previous attempts to revisit classic series have fallen rather flat — notably in the case of 2008’s Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks’ addition to the James Bond canon. Opinion was far more divided over Devil May Care: for some people it satisfied a craving for more Bond, but I saw it as something of a failure.

Reading it, one had the feeling that Faulks felt far too indebted to his predecessor: the novel has little independent merit, and is crammed with so many Bond-like tropes of narrative that it almost felt like a spoof — more Fleming-esque than Fleming ever was himself.

So, was it difficult for Colfer to achieve this equilibrium, of homage and original material? Was that even the intention? He is emphatic and unashamed in his response.

“Oh, absolutely. And it’s very unusual to write a book and be thinking like that. Usually I’ll just write a story, but in this instance, you’re thinking, ‘there’s definintely two strands of people here’. There are people who are incredibly fond of Hitchhiker, and they want to be reminded of that; they want to feel that nostalgia, but then there are new guys who have never read Hitchhiker, and you don’t want to make them plod through twenty pages of references, because then not only will they not finish this book, but they won’t read the first ones — which is the whole point!

“So I tried to make it in such a way that there’s lots of little Hitchhiker references that don’t impede the story — in character names, little guide notes maybe. But it was a fine line.”
It’s clear from the way Colfer talks that he has a great deal of respect — bordering on reverence — for Adams. Yet, left unchallenged, that is exactly the sort of approach that will produce a mirthless piece of prose like Devil May Care, and And Another Thing… is not that sort of book. Was there ever a point, I wonder, at which Colfer felt his responsibilities to Adams ended?

“I kind of isolated myself a lot. This is something I’m quite good at doing — I can decide not to think about something. Once I got the commission, I agonised, and once I finished agonising I thought, ‘right; now it’s time to work. I’m not going to read any reaction or Internet things, I’m just going to work for six months.’

“And how I did it was — and again this sounds strange, but if you’re in a room on your own you can do these mental things — I wrote for my self now, and my self at seventeen. I always said, remember when you were this sarcastic bastard 25 years ago — would he have let that pass? I find that really helped. I was incredibly cynical at that age, like most teenagers.

“So I thought along those lines; I never really thought, ‘is Douglas looking down on me’, or ‘would he like this’, because if I thought like that I never would have written the book at all.”

This style — a combination of straightforward pragmatism and a healthy portion of sentimentality — is clearly part of the reason for the book’s success. But it’s still slightly surprising to see people acknowledging this success — usually, when someone “interferes” with such a beloved work, they are received — by the press and the public — with open hostility, no matter how good their intentions or the outcome. Incredibly, And Another Thing… seems to have been judged by critics and fans alike solely for its own worth, and the response has been positive. Did this surprise Colfer?

“Well, I’m one of life’s pessimists, which is why I can’t understand why I did this in the first place. And I don’t read reviews” — here Colfer pauses for comic timing; a small, sheepish grin on his face — “because I believe them. Well, only the bad ones. But you still get a feeling for what’s happening. And also” — now the grin has turned into a short burst of laughter — “your publishers tend to run up to you and read the reviews.

“Yesterday [the day before the book’s release, at London’s South Bank] we had the first Hitch-Con, and it was really very emotional. And I’m not that kind of guy; I don’t get upset, but you could feel the love in the room — for Douglas, not for me. And people were so happy to be back, and happy that I hadn’t messed it up too much.”

And has this swelling of goodwill lead to any thoughts about a seventh book?

“Well, not from me. I think the reason I did this one was a celebration of Douglas, and if I tried to do a seventh one, it’s moving into the area where I’m taking over, and the message I’d be sending would be, ‘I’m the man now’. This was a labour of love for me, but I don’t think it would be appropriate to do another one.”

Given the latent similarites between Hitchhiker and Artemis Fowl, I am curious as to how Colfer thinks his earlier work affected the writing of And Another Thing… Was it a kind of preparation?

“It’s funny, because I think reading Hitchhiker prepared me for writing Artemis Fowl, which prepared me for writing Hitchhiker. Without Douglas, I wouldn’t really have seen the potential of bringing mad comedy to a genre book — sci-fi and fantasy are not known for comedy, except for Terry Pratchett. It’s a quite serious, worthy genre — which is great — but Douglas showed us there is room for absurd humour, and it works really well as satire. So I took a little bit of humour into Artemis Fowl, and I think that’s what brought me to the attention of Jane. It’s some kind of weird cycle of life.”

Evidently, some part of my subconscious is still harbouring weirdly passive-aggressive tendencies, because I find myself trying to catch Colfer out: if he died, would he be happy for someone else to take over Artemis Fowl? Of course, being English and middle class, I cannot be so vulgar as to come out and ask this, so I couch the question in Hitchhiker jargon and spinelessly preface it with an apology. If Katya, the publicist from Penguin who accompanied Eoin to Glasgow, or I were behaving foolishly with an Infinite Improbability Drive, and he was turned into a sperm whale, would he have faith in anyone in particular to carry on his legacy?

Once again, I am foiled. Colfer treats the question as a completely reasonable one, and answers with good grace, gamely playing along and entering into the charade that I am not asking him to contemplate his own immediate demise.

“Oh, absolutely. And first of all, I think the sperm whale has just about the finest single speech in the radio show; it’s one of my favourites. But yes, I would have. I work with a guy, Andrew Duncan, on the comic books, and I think he knows enough about it to write one without being slavish to me. And of course, if I can have anyone in the world, I’d love to have Terry Pratchett, or Neil Gaiman, or Stephen Fry.”

And he would trust them with his work? The grin returns. “Oh, I think they’d vastly improve on my own work…”

As if to emphasise quite how unperturbed he is by my ridiculous antagonism, Colfer even offers to sign my copy of And Another Thing… before he leaves. He does, we shake hands, and then go our separate ways. When I am outside, I open the book, expecting to see, if not “you’re a real dick, you know that?” then, at best, some all-purpose platitude. No — he has written: “To Tom, thanks for the sperm whale!”

And Another Thing… is out now in hardback, R.R.P. £18.99