Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I first read Douglas Adams's classic sci-fi comedy years ago when I found it at the library. The book left me sore from laughing, and I subsequently loaned it around all my brothers, who equally enjoyed it. Recently, as I've been enjoying reading aloud with my sisters, I decided it was high time to share The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with them.
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
Arthur Dent is having a truly terrible morning, lying in the mud in front of a bulldozer to protest its imminent demolition of his house - but not half as terrible as it's about to become in twelve minutes' time, when Earth itself is demolished to make room for a hyperspatial express route. Luckily, Arthur's best friend Ford Prefect is not actually human, nor a vehicle, but a seasoned galactic hitch-hiker from "somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse", and a travelling researcher for the most remarkable book in the galaxy: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Ford and Arthur survive the destruction of Planet Earth, but how will they cope with the third worst poetry in the universe, or being flushed out an airlock into space? The odds are a million to one against their survival--but fortunately for them, the President of the Galaxy has just pulled off the heist of a lifetime...

And no matter how bad things get, at least they'll always have the comforting and informative Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with them, complete with large, friendly letters on the cover: Don't Panic.
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.
In the great tradition of PG Wodehouse, the Goon Show, and Monty Python, this book is dry, chatty, and completely bonkers. It actually started life as a radio show before turning up in book form. And then there was a trilogy. And then it went on and became five books ('the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Trilogy') and a TV series, and a film, and a computer game, and who knows what else, none of the versions bearing much relation to the others.
The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.
As usual with science-fiction published several decades ago (the book was originally published in 1979) it's interesting to see what parts of the sci-fi speculation look like coming true, or not. There's nothing in this book that would prefigure the internet, for instance. But it's hard not to see the parallels between the (in-universe) Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book so immense it has to be carried on a portable hand-held electronic device and kept updated by roving researchers, and threatens to render the Encyclopedia Galactica obsolete, with Wikipedia.

As for the Infinite Improbability Drive, I'm sure that's not meant to be much more than a hilarious joke.
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
The last book I read aloud with my sisters was (of course) the joyously medieval sci-fi tale The High Crusade. It's hard not to compare these two classics of sci-fi comedy with each other. It would be hard to find two more dissimilar books, even given the genre similarities. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is cynical, dry, and British. The High Crusade is idealistic, brash, and American, and this helps it to emulate the medieval character in ways that bring tears to this history-lover's eye.

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, is thoroughly up-to-date and agnostic. Its absurdist view of the world, which provides such a barrel of laughs, only masks a profoundly empty and depressing philosophy. This is made clear in the first two pages of the book:
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a chance, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realised what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
And it's made clearer yet later, when the whole story becomes about the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything--which, when finally revealed, turns out to be the completely meaningless "Forty-Two", and all the work must be done again in order to discover what the Ultimate Question is, in the hopes that this will reveal the meaning of the answer. But of course, even that quest turns out to be hopeless.

What's left is a rather unsatisfying and anticlimactic plot. Adams, while hilarious, was a heathen consistent enough to encode his absurdist worldview deep into his plot structure. The result is a denatured, anticlimactic plot that resolves nothing and answers nothing. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is brilliantly funny and well worth reading. But it's also a consistent expression of its deeply unsatisfying philosophy.

Find The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the novel) on Amazon or the Book Depository. If you are looking for the most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor so that you can make and experience a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, try this.


Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed several of those versions, none "bearing much relation to the others", including BBC radio plays and television series, and the feature film (with musical version of "So long and thanks for all the fish"!).

The Brisbane-born Oxbridge scholar, George G. Watson, first student, then colleague, of C.S. Lewis, tutored Adams, and his Wikipedia article has a link to a fascinating memorial reminiscence, "The Cosmic Comic", which includes an astonishing reference to coping "with the third worst poetry in the universe".

Since one, as writer, can only start with the real "Life, the Universe, and Everything" of which one is a part oneself, imagination and all, I like to try to read Adams aright against his own "deeply unsatisfying philosophy".

David Llewellyn Dodds

Joseph J said...

I agree entirely with your assessment of Adams. His philosophy is not only unsatisfying, but frankly depressing if you take it seriously. Yet I still find his books hilarious, and I think its because even though I believe the world has order and purpose and an imminent, benevolent God, the details of life in the moment often feel nonsensical and baffling.

If you like the hitchhiker series then you will like Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I love how he is able to build up a sense of momentous importance and mystery in his books, even while skewering everything for laughs.

Suzannah said...

David, I saw the feature film (which was not particularly good, though the opening musical number was hilarious), and I have been hearing such good things about the radio series that I think I am going to have to try it sometime! Thanks for telling me about the obituary - what a fascinating read.

Joseph, yes, his books are only funny because you don't take them seriously. I read THE LONG DARK TEATIME OF THE SOUL once but my copy of the book has mysteriously vanished and I don't remember who I loaned it to. Alas!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I find this book absolutely hilarious, but I do come away feeling vaguely depressed after reading it. Adams' ideas of meaninglessness come through pretty strong.

Jamie W said...

I'm so glad I wasn't the only one who really liked this book but nevertheless found it strangely arid (for obvious worldview reasons). It seems like most people either love it or find it totally unbearable. I think I am in both of those camps.


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