There are easier ways of making money in publishing. You could, for example, write Jordan's latest book for her, put a humorous Almanack together for the benefit of remainders shops up and down the country, or even ghost-write the autobiography of a 21-year-old Premiership footballer. None of these will win you any awards, of course, but they'll certainly keep your family in holidays to Tuscany for a few years to come.
Alternatively, you could write a sequel to a much-loved cult series that spanned TV, radio and film as well; a series with a deceased author revered by his fans to an almost demigod-like status; one that has been a profound influence not just on a generation of writers but also on a rapidly growing technological world.
Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing, widely billed as the sixth part of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, is undoubtedly a brave book. Critically, Colfer is in a no-win situation. However good And Another Thing may be, it's going to suffer from comparison to Douglas Adams's work, and it's difficult to imagine anyone thinking it's better than the novels that preceded it. Adams was the master of his genre, and nobody is likely to claim his crown for a least a generation or two, if ever. And who exactly is this book supposed to appeal to, anyway? People who didn't get the joke still won't get it. Despite the plot synopsis that introduces the book, it doesn't quite stand alone, so Colfer's existing fans are probably going to have to go back and read Adams's earlier work anyway. And Hitchhikers fans seem divided – many welcoming the new book, but an equal number up in arms that someone should dare dance on dear Douglas's grave. Or words to that effect.
Fortunately, Colfer is perfectly aware of AAT's place in the HHGG pantheon. The foreword is remarkable; written in Hitchhiker's style, it is self-effacing, modest, humble and witty, and labels the book firmly as a footnote to the rest of the series. This is frank and surprising and, while it is probably aimed at the naysayers in the 'fans' camp, it does have the effect of disarming any prejudices the reader may have.
A short but well-written synopsis of the story so far follows the foreword, and the new book proper begins.
One of the great joys of Adams's books was that every one ended with a huge sense of finality, so the next part of the series started with a joyous scuffle as the writer attempted to unpick the knotted ends in order to start a new narrative. Mostly Harmless had the most terminal ending of all, with the Earth and all the main characters being apparently irrevocably and finally destroyed, and Colfer pulls off a wonderful trick in managing to set up a narrative at all. The resulting chaos, in which two of Adams's more minor characters play lead roles, sets up the book beautifully, and Colfer's clever wordplay and ready wit mark him out as an able heir indeed. It is worth noting that, at times and particularly during the first third of the book, it is very easy to forget that Douglas Adams didn't write the Hitchhikers book in your hand.
That said, the book does have its flaws. Many of the notes from the Guide are not integrated into the text but are presented as italicised 'Guide Note's, and this often detracts from the flow. Colfer seems to be aware of this, as sometimes he notes that they are too close together or should be kept brief – if he was aware of the lumpiness of the device, why not revise it? The sub-plots are also just a little too predictable, with at least one of the key threads being telegraphed so far in advance Colfer feels it necessary to announce it almost before it's begun.
However, the joys of the Hitchhikers series do not spring from hidden subtexts and narrative devices. Like the rest of the books, the great pleasure of reading And Another Thing lies in the journey; the interactions between the larger-than-life characters (Colfer's book is particularly notable for the strong dialogue and development of the previously 'fringe' characters), witty asides and anecdotes from the Guide, and the work often presents a wry and often satirical view of our world. Colfer captures the spirit of the previous books impeccably and, it seems, naturally. His attention to detail is akin to that of the most ardent and obsessive fan – he even remembers that Zaphod calls Ford 'Ix' – and his blending of established jokes with new ideas is balanced just about right.
I bought And Another Thing with an open if slightly cynical mind. Curiosity and excitement convinced me to part with my money in the end; I bought it on the day it was published, and enjoyed it so much I barely put it down until I'd finished it on the same day.
If you've been looking forward to the publication of And Another Thing at all, I think you'll enjoy it tremendously. If you have any doubts, nip into a bookshop and read the two-page Foreword and decide from there. I think you may well be pleasantly surprised.