By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 3, 2012
I am not, for various reasons, the kind of person to make a big deal of my birthdays. I did precisely nothing in observance of my last two birthdays, one of which marked a significant milestone. Looking back, I can only remember what I did on two relatively recent birthdays; those were memorable because my then-girlfriend made some arrangements.
One of the few other birthday memories that I have comes from my childhood. I don’t recall how old I was turning, but I would guess that my age might have been somewhere from 10 to 14.
What happened? Simply this: My mother handed me a gift consisting of a small stack of new paperback books. One must have been a Star Trek novel of some sort. The only other one I can name was a copy of a 1979 book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the work of Douglas Adams, the comic genius behind the Hitchhiker’s series. What I did not realize until a few weeks ago was that in 2009, Eoin Colfer penned a sixth entry in what has sometimes been described as the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s trilogy.
Before plunging into And Another Thing, Colfer’s book, I will attempt to recap the convoluted Hitchhiker’s saga. It begins as the suburban London home of an extremely hungover Arthur Dent is about to be bulldozed in order to make way for a highway bypass. His attempt to stave off demolition by lying in front of the bulldozer is interrupted by his offbeat friend, Ford Prefect. Prefect pays back Dent for previously saving him from being run over by a car by bringing Dent along to hitchhike aboard one of the Vogon space cruisers that have abruptly arrived to demolish Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
Prefect, you see, is a correspondent for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a very offbeat guide to traveling safely, thriftily and enjoyably through the dangerous cosmos. He has spent years trapped on Earth, not having realized beforehand how much of a backwater it was. As he and a distraught Dent materialize on board the Vogon cruiser, Prefect slips a fish into the Earthling’s ear — but not just any fish, you see. It’s a Babel fish, a miraculous telepathic creature that renders any alien language comprehensible to its host.
Dent and Prefect are soon discovered by the cruiser’s congenitally unpleasant Vogon crew — the hitchhikers were brought on board by the hired help — and flushed out an airlock. There, they are quite improbably rescued from certain death by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed fugitive president of the galaxy, who happens to be a cousin of Prefect’s. He’s traveling with Trillian, the only other surviving human, who not too long ago had ditched Dent at a costume party in order to zoom into space with Beeblebrox.
That, mind you, just represents the early chapters of the first Hitchhiker’s novel, setting up tons of zany adventures. Along the way, the mismatched gang — plus Marvin the paranoid android, a maladjusted robot about Beeblebrox’s stolen starship — probe the origins of the planet Earth and the meaning of life, the universe and everything. The series continues in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; and finally Mostly Harmless.
Adams provided endings variously happy and not along the way. But one hallmark of the Hitchhiker’s series was his propensity for getting his characters into seemingly insoluble jams and then writing his way out of them.
So Hitchhiker’s fans may be (cautiously) pleased to know that the series did not end in 2000 with Mostly Harmless, which was published about a year before Adams died. Having read And Another Thing, I found it to be a worthy addition to the Hitchhiker’s canon.
This latest entry, by the author of the Artemis Fowl series (about which I know exactly nothing), begins by assembling its protagonists aboard Heart of Gold, Beeblebrox’s fantastically advanced and rather finicky starship. They are joined by Dent’s and Trillian’s daughter, Random Frequent Flyer Dent, who debuted in Mostly Harmless, but the group soon finds itself in need of rescue once more. Providence arrives in the form of a sharp-dressed and sharp-tongued immortal whom series enthusiasts will recall.
The rest of the novel consists of three stories: Beeblebrox’s, as he attempts to reunite with a certain hammer-wielding Norse god to fulfill a pledge to the immortal rescuer; the other protagonists’, as they attempt to locate a newly discovered secret colony of Earthlings and figure out what to do with their lives; and colony director Hillman Hunter’s, as he tries to protect his planet and his power against a number of internal and external threats. (One of Hunter’s goals is to hire a god for whom he will be a right-hand man; he has some rather amusing interviews with candidates for the position.)
Summing up: Wackiness ensues.
Colfer doesn’t write with the same breeziness that characterized much of Adams’ best work, but he comes close.
[Prefect] fled the bridge, deciding that there were times in a man’s life that it was better to be alone rather than discuss the view, which he had a sneaking suspicion originated in the recesses of his own mind, particularly the recess that had been conceived one winter afternoon during the meat festival of Carni-val when he’d been dressed as a pollo-bear and had become entangled in a tower of stacked chairs, only to be rescue by a gaggle of three-legged student liposuckers who demanded a very curious reward.
“What’s his problem?” wondered Random. “All I see is nothing and more nothing. An eternity of nothing to see.”
“You are lucky,” said [the immortal]. “There are worse things to see than nothing. Nothingness, for example.”
“Wow, that’s cheery. You should write greeting card messages.”
“Listen, odd child. You may learn something.”
“From you? No thanks. I think I’d rather stay stupid.”
“Your wish has already been granted.”
Random bristled a tad more than she was already bristling, which was a shade more than the average berry-snouted spikehog that had just smelled a hunting dog.
As is traditional for Hitchhiker’s books, And Another Thing is peppered with explanatory passages from the eponymous Guide to the Galaxy. For instance:
Zaphod Beeblebrox’s two heads and three arms have become as much a part of Galaxy lore as the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast’s cranial spigot, or Eccentrica Gallumbits’s third breast. And though Zaphod claims to have had his third arm fitted to improve his chances at ski-boxing, many media pundits believe that the arm was actually fitted so that the President could simultaneously fondle all of Eccentrica’s mammaries. This attention to erotic detail resulted in Miss Gallumbits referring to Zaphod in Street Walkie-Talkie Weekly as the “best bang since the Big One.” A quote which was worth at least half a billion votes in the presidential election and twice as many daily hits on the private members section of the Zaphod Confidential Sub-Etha site.
Obviously, the original Hitchhiker’s series and this addition to it are not for everybody. Certainly, this book is not a good choice for someone who wants to dive into the Hitchhiker’s series. (Begin, as they say, at the beginning.)
But anyone who enjoyed Adams’s fantastic adventures and is tempted by the prospect of more zaniness should go ahead and give And Another Thing a try. Eoin Colfer is no Arthur Dent, but he turns out to be a pretty froody writer in his own right.