Pat Murphy, There and Back Again (Tor, 1999)

There are some stories that can accommodate just about any setting. The plays of Shakespeare come to mind: how many different times and places has Hamlet been set in? Then there are stories that are so inimically based in their specific time and place that they cease to be the same story when moved.  J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit could well be one such story.

For example, Pat Murphy has tried to move The Hobbit to galactic space in There and Back Again. In the hands of any less-accomplished author (Murphy justly won a Nebula for her second novel, The Falling Woman), this would be a total catastrophe. Murphy's skill keeps the book from being a complete travesty, but alas it is not enough to capture the charm and transcendence of Tolkien's original.

There and Back Again (which, for those who may not already know, was the subtitle for The Hobbit) follows Tolkien's story fairly closely: a halfling who is quite content in living an idle existence at the edge of the known world is suddenly one day visited by a legendary and powerful being who drags the halfling off on a quest to recover lost treasure.

This time around, though, the halflings are norbits instead of hobbits, and the Shire of Tolkien is the Solar System's asteroid belt. Bilbo Baggins is now Bailey (is this a tip of the hat to Asimov's robot stories?), a norbit who likes to just putter around his asteroid. But even in the novel's first chapter, where we are introduced to Bailey, we can see that something has gone awry with the Tolkien mythos. The Shire of Middle-earth is a warm, pleasant place, a place most anyone would find comfortable, a place we all long for in some way. The asteroid belt, though, is a harsh environment. The images we get of Bailey's existence are of cold, sterile space all around. The Restless Rest (Bailey's 'Bag End') is not an idyll house in an idyllic land, but a haven from the deadly vacuum of surrounding space.

From the very beginning, then, we see real quickly that this novel is not going to succeed, for the very reason that it is not Middle-earth.  But when other characters start showing up, things go from bad to worse.  Gandalf is adventurer extraordinaire Gitana, a tall imposing female with short, golden hair, one eye blue, and the other replaced by a sensor that allows her to communicate directly with her spaceship. Covering half her face is a complex blue tattoo that she got when it was the trendy thing to do years earlier. Excuse me? Gandalf following trends?

Following on Gitana's heels are a set of clones of the Farr clan who are working with Gitana to find a map of the known wormholes of the galaxy, a treasure that would be immensely valuable. As in The Hobbit, the group take the halfling with them on a set of adventures that eventually climax in a battle that is much larger than the simple adventure that they started out on. In the course of this adventure, Bailey grows so that when he returns home he is strangely out of place.

As a retelling of The Hobbit, this book is an abject failure. The story of The Hobbit is, when all is said and done, not that incredible of a story:  it's really just a fun adventure story. What makes The Hobbit the classic it is is that the story fits so perfectly with its time and place.  It can't really be located anyplace else than the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth. Thus, There and Back Again has to stand on its own merits, but I found that there weren't many of those. The story is enjoyable, but nothing really great. Because it follows the plot of Tolkien's story, there's not much room for Murphy to break out and move the characters into adventures more appropriate for a space opera. Rather, the book reads like an extended fun idea: "Hey! Let's rewrite The Hobbit as a space opera!" This sort of idea is great for writing workshops, but fails as a novel. In the end, all that There and Back Again does is make you realize that you want to go back again to the original story. As a tribute to Tolkien it works only because it makes you want to get back to the original.

[Matthew Winslow]