Monday, November 07, 2016

Book 76: This is why even I don't come back for fourths.

I was in a rut between audiobooks. I'd started listening to Dune but the borrowing period expired, so while I waited for it to come around again I couldn't pick a new book to listen to. Finally I settled on So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, figuring it'd been years since I read it so I might enjoy it all over again the way I have a bunch of books this year.

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy it all that much, and that's pretty much consistent with how I remembered the book in the first place, as it turns out.  When I first downloaded it I could recall only what I thought were the basics of the storyline, about Arthur Dent returning to Earth, which has been mysteriously undemolished, and falling in love with Fenchurch, who was the girl from the first book who had an idea that would make everyone get along. But I thought there must be more to it than that, so I gave it another whirl.

Only there really isn't more to it than that. Arthur comes home, falls in love and he and Fenchurch go visit Wonko The Sane, only to find out that he can't really help them figure out what it was Fenchurch thought of before the demolition, so they go see God's last message to his creations, where they run into Marvin who [SPOILER ALERT] dies.

There's also a subplot with Ford Prefect that honestly didn't seem to matter in the book at all, other than to include Ford, which if you're not going to put in Zaphod and others, why insist on having Ford.

So Long isn't a bad book, per se, but it's not anywhere near the same league as the first three books in the Hitchhiker trilogy; it's not just the utter lack of any sort of plot really, but the fact that this book, tonally, just doesn't fit with the rest of the books. It's not the kind of outrageous, madcap, anything-can-happen book that people who read the first three will be expecting. It's more thoughtful and more pensive, and seems to be trying harder for the weirdness and funny asides of the first three books.

I went and read about the book and Adams' thoughts on it, and learned on Wikipedia that Adams himself wasn't very happy with the book, which was produced under some pressure to comply with a timeline.  I also, in reading that entry, remembered that there was an installlment after So Long, the fifth installment, Mostly Harmless, which I sort of vaguely recall reading, I think?  I'm pretty sure I read it.

Anyway, it's hard to understand why So Long is so markedly different and disappointing. Later books he wrote -- the Dirk Gently novels -- managed to recapture some of the spirit (The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul being the better and less bewildering of the two), so my guess is that it was just that the Hitchhiker characters had run their course: there wasn't much left for them to do, I think.

But beyond that, too, the book doesn't actually answer the questions it sets out to answer. Fenchurch, for example, was trying to figure out what it was she'd thought of before the Earth was demolished, and when she sees God's last message she seems to think that answers her question (or at least she feels better) but it's hard to see how the message helps her. Marvin's ending is disappointing, as well; Marvin The Paranoid Android is one of the greatest characters ever created in literature, and to have him show up in the final chapter of the book and essentially just peter out is a letdown; the Marvin who was furiously stomping in circles in the mattress swamps, or the Marvin who had to pilot the ship into the sun, is the Marvin readers should have been allowed to see. It just felt wrong for Marvin to be so pathetic; in the past, Marvin was miserable and depressed and had the pain all down the diodes, etc., but he owned it, instead of being victimized by it.

Ford Prefect, also, moves beyond being Ford Prefect: the old Ford only helped people out by accident, and otherwise just wanted a good time. The new Ford tries to bankruptcy the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation, among other things he does that seem to be out of character for Ford.

The problem isn't so much that those characters change; characters growing or changing is okay. It's just that the new versions of them aren't funny, so the fact that they're different is just jarring, rather than showing some sort of literary merit.

Arthur and Fenchurch, though, to be fair, manage to work as a couple, and possibly the tone of the book is (as some critics have said) affected by the fact that it's more of a romance than a book about wacky space adventures, but the problem with that thinking is that Arthur and Fenchurch still have wacky space adventures, or at least wacky space-adjacent adventures, like going to visit Wonko or hitching a ride on a UFO or meeting the Rain God, and yet there is a distinct lack of wackiness to these adventures.

Mostly the book feels a lot like the final season of Arrested Development: inessential, tone-deaf, and harmful, in a way, to the rest of the series.  I'm not one of those guys who thinks that you can destroy an earlier book by writing a later book; the existence of So Long... doesn't make the three previous books any less great; what it does is make people who read them say stuff like "Read the first three and skip the last two," and take a great series from great to 60% great.  I wish I'd gone back and listened to Hitchhiker instead.

Good song, though:


Andrew Leon said...

It's been a long time since I've read this one, but I remember liking it very much. But, yeah,he didn't WANT to write this one. And he didn't WANT to write Mostly Harmless. Of course, it's hard to say that he wanted to WRITE at all. He just wanted to have written.

Briane Pagel said...

One thing that's come clear in the 100 Books is that books written primarily for marketing purposes -- books meant just to sell -- are almost always not as good as books written because the author wanted people to read them. "Aftermath" was a pretty generic story, "Armada" was junk written just to get a movie deal, "The Grown-Up" was a cash-in, that Grisham thing I can't even think of the title for was paint-by-numbers thriller, and "So Long..." took Adams' fun universe and tamed it down. I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone did some marketing and said "Radio plays need more romance," and that's how this came about. It's hard to imagine that Adams had Fenchurch in mind when he wrote the beginning of "Hitchhiker's Guide."