One of the best running gags in fiction (in this writer’s humble opinion) comes, unsurprisingly, from Douglas Adams’ beloved Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy series (1979-2008). On the cover of some editions of the series’ fourth book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), readers are helpfully informed that they’ve picked up “the fourth in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy.” The original cover of the fifth book contained, mutatis mutandis, the same joke—Douglas Adams’ wry comment on the fact that, in terms of plotting out the series, he was just making it all up as he went along. Sadly, after Adams’ death in 2001, the joke itself had become inaccurate. The “trilogy” was inaccurately named, but no longer, with the literal death of the author, increasingly so. Or at least that’s the way it seemed until Eoin Colfer came along.
Colfer is best known as the author the wildly popular Artemis Fowl (2001-2012) series of children’s fantasy books. The series follows the titular Artemis, a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who stumbles upon the existence of fairies and other supernatural creatures, and subsequently seeks to profit by that knowledge. The book was hailed upon its release as the next Harry Potter (1997-2007), and true to the Potter form, Artemis would spend another seven books learning of the ways of—and then saving—the world. It hardly seems fair to compare anyone to J. K. Rowling in terms of literary success, but Artemis Fowl touched a deep chord for a lot kids and adolescents, and remains just as beloved by its most dedicated fans. Disney has plans to release a film adaptation (helmed by the venerable Kenneth Branagh) later this year—so we’ll see what happens to Colfer’s legacy when it drops.
In some ways, Colfer was playing to exactly the same demographic that Adams did. More than that, he was doing so during a cultural moment when snarky, Anglophilic adolescents seemed to be rediscovering Adams’ works. (Or maybe it just seems that way to every 13 year-old who encounters Adams’ works for the first time.) At the same time, that didn’t exactly make him a natural successor to Douglas Adams’ deadpan, absurdist science fiction crown. And yet, somehow, in 2009 with the backing of Adams’ widow and his publisher, Colfer would release the sixth book in the (once again) increasingly inaccurately named trilogy.
Admittedly, Adams himself had long expressed a desire to write a sixth entry in the series. He felt, as did many of his readers, that Mostly Harmless (1992) had been a little bit too bleak to serve as an appropriate end to such an otherwise irreverent series of books. I mean, sure, the world ends, which is always a good time—but thematically the book was more than a little bit darker than its predecessors. As Adams himself would tell it, "People have said, quite rightly, that Mostly Harmless is a very bleak book. And it was a bleak book. I would love to finish Hitchhiker on a slightly more upbeat note, so five seems to be a wrong kind of number; six is a better kind of number." Eight years after the last one had been published, it seemed like a new entry was about due, even for an author who loved deadlines because of “the whooshing noise they made as they (went) by.”
Not only did Adams hope for another entry in the series, he had started some of the laborious early work that would go into creating one. In his posthumously published collection of essays and drafts, The Salmon of Doubt (2002), there’s a large chunk of what purports to be a third Dirk Gently (1987-1988) novel, but Adams explains elsewhere that most of the material he had developed for that draft would be better suited to a Hitchhiker’s novel, and that he was trying to salvage as much of it as possible for exactly that purpose. These pages, and some other initial notes, helped to start Colfer on the right track when he was given the go-ahead to attempt to complete the series. From these notes (and presumably, the Irish Colfer’s own attempts to embody the stereotype of an Englishman wearily searching for a proper cup of tea), And Another Thing... was born. The book was published in 2009 with “Part Six of Three” emblazoned on the cover—Colfer’s little nod to the increasing inaccuracy.
Now, unsurprisingly, a lot of people cried fowl (see what I did there?) at the mere fact that anyone else was being handed the reins to the series, but Colfer certainly wasn’t the first person to take on this kind of task. As we can attest to on this site, plenty of James Bond novels were written after Ian Fleming’s demise. P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster have both been brought back from the dead on numerous occasions. None other than Kareem Abdul Jabbar has written a book starring Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. And, by all accounts, Colfer pulled it off pretty well. No one can really match up with Douglas Adams, but there were plenty of reviewers who thought that he did an admirable job and created a funny, readable book in the process (though of course there were plenty of dissenters).
In his Norton Lectures at Harvard University towards the end of his life, Jorge Luis Borges made some remarks to the effect that, while he didn’t necessarily believe in every detail of their adventures, he really believed in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as characters. He felt the same way about Holmes and Watson: even a badly written story about them shed light on them as characters, even made them more real, in a way that was pleasurable as a reader. Well, plenty of people believe in Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, Trillian, Thor (a holdover from the Dirk Gently material who seemingly snuck his way into Colfer’s book) and the rest of Adams’ creations the same way that Borges believes in Sherlock Holmes. And Colfer, for better or worse, shed new light on those characters, letting the readers sit and enjoy their company one last time. There was plenty of apoplexy from Douglas Adams purists, but nearly a decade out, the whole project seems mostly harmless.