Have you ever pondered the DEEP questions, the ultimate questions of life, considered the vastness of the universe, or wondered if there was a purpose to…everything? These concerns are universal, and there is one book that I can think of that tackles them, head on. For my 42nd review, I just had to do The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book that put “42” on the map…
Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (1979)
Hitchhiker’s is rather well known. There was a BBC television series (1981); a feature film (2005) starring Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, and Sam Rockwell; a radio show; comic books; countless memes; and even a text based computer game produced by Infocom back in 1984… There is no doubt that the book has had a lasting cultural impact. But have you read it? The actual book itself? (Many of you, I suspect, HAVE in fact read the book—but not all…)
For those who haven’t read this rather short novel, here’s a quick plot summary: Arthur Dent wakes up one morning with a terrific hangover, only to discover that his house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a new, high-speed bypass. As he is negotiating with the construction crew, attempting to save his home from destruction, a friend of his arrives, says that he is actually an alien, and that the Earth is about to be destroyed—to make way for a new, hyper-speed, galactic bypass. Luckily for Arthur, his friend, Ford Prefect, is a “hitchhiker” who can signal passing space ships for a ride, and the pair are lifted off of the planet just as it’s being disintegrated by a Vogon Constructor Fleet. Once the pair are “rescued,” Arthur and Ford share enough galactic adventures to fill, I believe, five books (or is it six? Or sixteen? It’s hard to tell.) But let’s just stick to this book for now…
What makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy brilliantly entertaining is Adam’s command of language. He is a master of sly and subtle humor, of interesting linguistic constructions, and of PLAYING with a reader’s brain. Here’s an example taken from early in the book as the Vogon ships approach Earth and prepare to destroy it:
“The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t” (p. 30).
Adams uses a clever, Monty Python-esque, illogic as logic technique in his writing to taunt and confuse the reader, and these frequent, unexpected verbal sneak attacks are extremely effective at making me laugh. This novel is full of absurd situations, silly names (Arthur Dent, Slartibartfast, Fook, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android, etc.), and brilliant observations. For example, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is a two headed, three armed, swindler, crook, and con-man, and also the President of the Galaxy, is one of the main characters in the story, arguably responsible for most of the plot that takes place after Arthur leaves Earth. In a footnote, shortly after introducing Beeblebrox, Adams writes this:
“The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it” (p. 35).
This passage was published in 1979, on the doorstep of Ronald Reagan being elected President of the United States, but just try to tell me that it doesn’t fit the current political situation in the U.S. as well! Adams is a keen observer, spotting the flaw in American politics and pointing it out in an efficient and humorous way, and similar examples of social critique can be found throughout this text.
To be fair, I do have a few criticisms of this book, and the one major complaint I have is that the book is not complete. It doesn’t present a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are a number of questions raised by the text, not the least of which is why “42” is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, but the book is obviously the introduction to a series of stories (not unlike Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring), and I don’t think it’s a completely satisfying read on its own. In other words, if you’re going to read Hitchhiker’s, be prepared to grab at least the next three or four books as well, if you desire any kind of resolution in your reading materials. These novels are all quite short and easy to read—I would imagine that someone who reads at an average speed could finish the entire series in a week or two. (In fact, even with my incredibly slow reading speed, I was able to read Hitchhiker’s, cover to cover, in one sitting the first time I read it. It might be the only novel that I’ve ever done that with!) But still, if you read a book, you kind of expect it to END at the end… Not so with this one.
The other complaint that I have with the book is that none of the characters in it, with the possible exception of Slartibartfast—and Ford Prefect, at times—are even remotely likable. Arthur is whiney; the Earth woman, Trillian, is given very little to do; Beeblebrox is an over-the-top egomaniac (which is funny at times) but spends most of his time fighting with everyone, and Marvin the Paranoid Android is so monumentally depressing that a computer system on a police spaceship commits suicide rather than listen to him talk. It’s been years since I read the next few novels, so the characters might just be a bit green in this book, but they are still pretty tough to relate to here. In fact, the narrator (voiced by Stephen Fry in the 2005 film) is probably the most likable voice in the entire book.
Overall, I still love this story, and obviously the lasting impact that the series has had on popular culture shows that I’m not the only one. Adams was a deft hand with a pen, and he created some of the funniest and wittiest sentences ever written in the English language. (I’m talking, up there with Mark Twain…) If you don’t care for Monty Python or clever British-style humor, or if you have no tolerance for science fiction, then I wouldn’t recommend this book. But all the hoopy froods with a twinkle in their eye and a Babel fish in their ear will definitely love this series. As for me, I’ve read it five or six times now, and it still makes me laugh…
—Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)