In the News: New York Times - The Hobbit... Space Opera?
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by Gerald Jonas
New York Times - November 28, 1999
I cannot imagine a less likely premise for a science fiction novel than turning J. R. R. Tolkien's classic fantasy ''The Hobbit'' into a space opera. Yet that is what Pat Murphy has set out to do in THERE AND BACK AGAIN: By Max Merriwell (Tor/Tom Doherty, $24.95), and the result, to my great surprise, is a delight. Bilbo, the hobbit whose story Tolkien told, here becomes Bailey, a ''norbit'' who makes his home in a hollowed-out asteroid in a ''quiet little backwater'' of the solar system, where he scavenges metals and other minerals for a living. When he stumbles on a disabled ''message pod,'' he finds himself up to his ears in adventure. Instead of the rambunctious dwarfs that accompanied Bilbo, Bailey hooks up with a group of Farrs, representatives of ''the galaxy's largest, richest and most famous clone.'' Bilbo's tutelary wizard, Gandalf, becomes Bailey's Gitana, a one-eyed pirate with equally elusive habits.
I have no idea what anyone unacquainted with ''The Hobbit'' would make of this; I suspect it might work as an entertaining romp on its own. But the fun for the rest of us is to see what Murphy has taken from Tolkien's original (which bears the subtitle ''There and Back Again''), what she has ignored, and how she has transformed her borrowings. I wouldn't dream of revealing the secret treasure that Bailey discovers in place of Bilbo's ring or the galactic equivalent of Tolkien's dragon. Suffice it to say that Murphy knows when to pay homage to her inspiration and when to leave it alone. She also leavens the mix with sly references to Lewis Carroll and to Alfred Jarry, a precursor of the Theater of the Absurd.
As a longtime writer for the Exploratorium, San Francisco's interactive science museum, Murphy can make even far-out scientific concepts -- like the cosmic ''wormholes'' that provide faster-than-light shortcuts through interstellar space -- sound comprehensible. Best of all, her deceptively casual Tolkienesque prose is a pleasure to read: ''But Bailey wasn't listening anymore. It seemed to him that he had just passed an important turning point. He had decided, for better or worse, not to go home just yet.''
A point of information: Pat Murphy recently decided to create an authorial alter ego named Max Merriwell, and this fictional personage is also listed on the title page as the putative author of ''There and Back Again.'' If this stratagem helped her get into the mood to write this book, we can only be grateful while we anticipate what she will do with ''The Lord of the Rings,'' Tolkien's three-volume heroic romance for which ''The Hobbit'' turned out to be prologue.