Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Ambivalent Guide to the Galaxy

I've had a question buzzing around inside my head for a few days like an errant bee. I deliberately didn't write about it before now as I wanted to consider my answer carefully before committing it to the Blogsphere. The question I was mulling so hard over was ... 'How do I feel about the news that there will be a new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book next year not written by Douglas Adams?'

In case you missed the news, Douglas's widow Jane has given her blessing (in fact, she requested him) to Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer to write a new Hitchhiker novel. It will be published in October 2009 by Penguin and will be called And Another Thing … The Guardian newspaper covered the story thoroughly and you can read about the project more fully here.

It is true that the fifth Hitchhiker book was, as Adams himself admitted, 'bleak' and ended rather abruptly with the apparent deaths of the main characters. Adams also stated that he felt there was another book needed to round off the series. His unfinished novel The Salmon of Doubt may have been that book ... but it could equally have been a new Dirk Gently novel or even something entirely new. No one really knows. And we will never know because of Douglas's outrageously untimely death in 2001 at the age of 49. So, all the arguments are there for a sixth book, aren't they?

So how do I feel?

The truth is that I feel ... ambivalent. On the one hand, I can see that the characters are popular, there is demand for a new book and that Colfer will probably sell the whole Hitchhiker mythos to a new post-Harry Potter generation of younger readers. He's a very talented writer. But, on the other hand, it won't be a new book by Douglas Adams. And that's the bit I'm struggling with.

The reason Hitchhiker became the cult that it did was Douglas's writing. His books stood out from the rabble of badly-written sci-fi and gut-churningly bad comedy novels because of his extraordinary imagination and the sheer elegance of his words on paper. Yes, there are other writers out there who combine literacy with wit and intelligence but none of them do it in quite the same way that Douglas did. Terry Pratchett - although not my cup of tea - is nonetheless a staggering master of punnery. Philip Pullman writes with a clarity and imagination that defies easy categorisation. But neither of them could ever have written a line like 'The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't' or a paragraph like, 'Half-read books and magazines nestled amongst piles of half-used towels. Half pairs of socks reclined in half-drunk cups of coffee. What was once a half-eaten sandwich had now half-turned into something that Arthur entirely didn't want to know about. Bung a fork of lightning through this lot, he thought to himself, and you'd start the evolution of life all over again'. And nor, I suspect will Mr Colfer. Douglas Adams was unique. The joy for me in reading any new Douglas Adams book, magazine article or review was finding choice little soundbites and sentences that popped up every so often like your favourite flavour in an otherwise anonymous bag of Revels. It's the very same pleasure that Douglas himself got from reading his own great hero, P G Wodehouse.

I suspect that Eoin Colfer will do an excellent job of extending the franchise but I can't get excited about it, I'm afraid. You see, there is a precedent for this. When Douglas came up with the idea for Starship Titanic (from a small aside in one of his previous books), he became so 'Douglasy' - as Stephen Fry calls it - about developing the computer game that he didn't have the time nor the inclination to write the accompanying novel. Therefore, the writing duties were passed to his great friend, Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Terry turned out a very funny novel ... but anyone who knows Douglas Adams will tell you that it falls tragically short of being a Hitchhiker book. Terry Jones is a very funny man but he doesn't write like Douglas Adams wrote. If he could, Douglas would not have had the impact he did upon people like me.
So, as I say, I don't take issue with the idea of further Hitchhiker books. And I certainly have no beef with the otherwise excellent Eoin Colfer. I'm delighted that he's going to be writing it as himself and not 'as Douglas Adams' in the way that Sebastian Faulks did recently with his 'written as Ian Fleming' novel Devil may care. I wish him well and hope the new book is a success. But I just can't imagine getting the same raw, naked sense of joy and expectation from his book that I used to get when opening a new Douglas Adams - whatever the subject matter - at Page One.

Time may prove me wrong. But I doubt it. It's the writer I miss, not the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur Dent, Marvin, Zaphod and the marvellously bitter and twisted Agrajag became the characters they did because of Douglas's words ... and, tragically, no one can replace Douglas Adams.


Stuart Peel said...

You're quite right, but I imagine that money is a strong motivation here if we're honest. The Faulks Bond book was rubbish and a perfect example of how hard it is to emulate something that was unique. I can't say I'll be buying it unless the reviews are spectacular. As you say, it's just not Douglas Adams is it ?

Persephone said...

Hmmn. Eoin Colfer is okay, I guess, but is he a procrastinator.? Does he have what it takes to really make editors and publicists sweat? I mean, he's stepping into the shoes of the man who said:
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
A man after my own heart...

Stevyn Colgan said...

Stu - You may be right. I can't say what the motivation is behind this or why Jane Belson has agreed. I can't help feel that it's misjudged but, in the spirit of fairness, I won't judge the book until it's been written.

Persephone - That's one of my favourite quotes ever!

Lolita said...

Pratchett's humour would be a closer fit to Adams', but I still reckon Eoin Colfer will do a good job. You're right, it won't be the same, but I think we should be happy that a necessary task has been taken up by a competent writer who has been especially chosen by the Jane.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Loita - Hmmm. Do you realy think that Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams would be a close fit? I've read both and, apart from the fact that they both wrote humorous sci-fi, I never saw them as similar. In fact, Pratchett's humour does nothing for me at all whereas Adams has had me laughing out loud. But maybe that's just me? Yes, I'm sure Mr Colfer will do a competent and excellent job. I shan't judge until I've read it. Thanks for popping by!