Another thing

I bought a book from the bargain bin at Walmart the other day; I wasn’t sure if I would care for it, but I really had little choice but to take a look.

The book is “And Another Thing ….” by Eoin Colfer. I’ll review it further below, but first I have to explain why I was skeptical of it, and yet why I absolutely had to buy it.

I was in college when I first read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams, which had been published the previous year. It immediately became, and remains, one of my favorites.

The book started life as a BBC radio serial and was then adapted for a British TV series. Later, it was made into a big-budget 2005 movie, well-cast but clunky. (Still, it has Zooey Deschanel at her most adorable.) But for me, it will always be a series of books. Adams wrote five of them: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” “Life, The Universe and Everything,” “So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish,” and “Mostly Harmless.” He also wrote a short story, “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe,” which was included in a massive volume combining the first four books (and a later, updated version combining all five).

If you’re not aware of “Hitchhiker’s,” it’s a skewering of science fiction tropes with a very Monty Python-like sense of humor. That’s no accident: Douglas Adams was one of only two outside writers to receive a screen credit during the run of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Adams also served as story editor for “Doctor Who” for a few years. I had always assumed that “Doctor Who” helped inspire “Hitchhikers,” but it turns out that Adams had already written the original radio serial before his tenure at “Doctor Who.”

Anyway, the first book, like the radio serial, begins with Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered BBC employee, receiving a bit of bad news. He first discovers that his house is supposed to be torn down to make room for a new highway; but then his friend Ford Prefect shows up to give him bigger, but eerily parallel, news: Ford is an alien, who’s been living undercover on Earth researching articles for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” a sort of tablet-based encyclopedia and travel book. As if the fact that his best friend is an alien weren’t enough of a shock, Ford tells Arthur that the two of them have to leave the planet as soon as possible, because it’s about to be destroyed by a race called the Vogons in order to make room for a new hyperspace bypass.

They eventually link up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, narcissistic, outlaw President of the Galaxy; the lovely Trillian; and Marvin, a depressed android. Trillian, nee Tricia McMillan,  turns out to be the only other surviving resident of Earth, having skipped the planet a few months before Arthur – not out of necessity but for adventure.

The first few books are a hysterical romp, and beloved by geeks far and wide. If you’ve ever heard people laugh at the number “42,” as if it were an inside joke of some sort, you’ve run across a “Hitchhiker’s Guide” fan. In the first book, a super-advanced race builds a supercomputer to tell them the ultimate answer to “life, the universe and everything.” The computer answers “42,” and then tells them that if they knew the exact wording of the question, the answer would make more sense.

The fifth book in the series, “Mostly Harmless,” ended [SPOILER ALERT!] on a down note, with the surviving major characters seemingly destroyed in a planetary cataclysm. But Adams regretted the ending, and remarked publicly that he was thinking about bringing the characters back for another book – not unusual in the world of science fiction and fantasy. (Remember Spock dying at the end of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”? And then appearing in a number of “Star Trek” movies after that?)

Sadly, Adams did not get the chance to write a sixth book. He died in May 2001, from a heart attack, at age 49 – my current age, come to think of it.

Then, a few years ago, it was announced that another writer – Eoin Colfer, better-known for young adult fiction like the Artemis Fowl series – had been commissioned, with the blessing of Adams’ widow, to produce a new “Hitchhiker’s Guide” sequel.

I recall hearing that the book had been commissioned, but I don’t think I heard anything about it after that. So I was surprised to find “And Another Thing …” in the bargain bin at Walmart. That wasn’t a good sign. But I knew that, for $3.97, I had to buy the book and at least check it out.

It’s neither as good as I’d hoped nor as bad as I’d feared. There are parts I really liked – and, frankly, I enjoyed the book as a whole more than “Mostly Harmless.” But there are other parts where Colfer seemed to be trying too hard either to imitate or avoid imitating Adams.

Then, the book comes to a screeching, and almost-unforgivable, halt when it shifts away from the main  characters to a side plot involving wealthy Earth refugees trying to start a new life on a made-to-order planet. The nominal leader of the planet is striving to set up a religion – any religion – as a way of controlling his subjects. He ends up contracting  with Thor, the Norse god of thunder, who’s been looking to redeem himself after an embarassing video went viral.

I have no problem with satire of religion, including some projects which friends and family members would think sacreligious, because in the end it’s making fun of human attitudes and preconceptions. John Cleese, last I heard, is a Buddhist, but he once remarked in an interview that it would be impossible to actually satirize Jesus because Jesus would have no flaws on which to base the comedy. “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” reviled during its original release as sacreligious, is quietly enjoyed by a lot of Christians I know because they  recognize it as making fun of us, not Jesus.

But “Life of Brian” is funny. The satire of religion in “And Another Thing ….” is so ham-handed and obvious that it feels the need to keep explaining itself. Douglas Adams was a vocal atheist, but he was also a very funny writer. Even though the humor of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series is gloriously over-the-top, I don’t think Adams would have handled  that same material in such an obvious way.

Still, the book recovers from its detour, and ends well.

I’m still not sure how I feel about it as a whole. Remember above, when I called the 2005 movie “clunky”? Well, I actually walked out of the theater liking it. (Zooey put a spell on me.) It didn’t hold up, however. My attitude towards the book may shift after I’ve let it percolate a bit.