Classic book review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

(image via The Nile)

For a species wholly enamoured with its ability to stick around for the duration, humanity displays a surprising obsession with apocalyptic endings to its existence.

Try zombies, alien invasions, viral epidemics, global warming, asteroid impacts, supernatural calamities … the list goes on and on and on.

To this list of Terrible Ways to Be Wiped From the Face of the Galaxy, renowned British sci-fi Douglas Adams added “Earth being demolished for a hyperspace bypass” when his iconic book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was released to chart-topping success in 1979.

The published equivalent of a radio series which aired on Britain’s Radio 4 in March 1978 to great acclaim, the book went on to great success, appearing on bestseller lists for 46 weeks and debuting at no. 1, introducing a generation of people to the idea that that you can ridiculously silly and yet still tell a damn good, gripping story.

With a relatively simple premise, that Earth is minutes away from being destroyed by the bureaucratically cranky Vogons for a soon-to-be-redundant hyperspace offshoot when Ford Prefect, an alien on the planet to research our next very short entry in the updated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rescues his best friend Arthur Dent from certain obliteration, the book took readers on a merrily off-the-wall journey across a galaxy that turns out to be way weirder and yet no so weird at all as you might have imagined.

“‘Are you serious, sir?’ he said in a small whisper which had the effect of silencing the pub. ‘You think the world’s going to end?’
‘Yes,’ said Ford.
‘But, this afternoon?’
Ford had recovered himself. He was at his flippest.
‘Yes,’ he said gaily, ‘in less than two minutes, I would estimate.'” (P. 25)

Every reader except for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery and enigma, and possibly a Churchillian riddle or two, yours truly.

Seeking to rectify that glaring pop cultural omission, my partner gifted me for the first four books in the trilogy (yes, you read that right; there are in fact five books in the series) and determining that waiting just over 40 years was quite enough of a delay, I dived right in to a book which surprised and delighted even more than I thought it would.

An iconic novel like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comes inevitably with a lot of baggage. (Not Arthur’s clearly since he barely had time to drink three beers at Ford’s urging, let alone pack up his home.)

It leaves to this day a sizeable footprint on the cultural landscape with the radio series and books now joined by TV and movie iterations, meaning that unless you have been living under a Magarathean rock you can’t fail to be familiar with Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the depressed robot, the boorishly unimaginative and ugly Vogons and the unsettling idea that as intelligent lifeforms go on planet Earth, we rank third behind mice and dolphins.

And yet for all that ambient familiarity, diving into the book that started it all – well, mostly; the radio series was pretty damn phenomenal too – is a delight of suitably galactic proportions.

That is often the way with literary adaptations – no matter how well a TV show or movie brings the source material to life, and they often do it brilliantly, no matter what some book-reading snobs may say, they can’t help but leave things out.

It’s the nature of the beast; books are dense and rich with detail and it’s a foregone conclusion that details have to be omitted to ensure the TV or movie actually makes some sort of narrative sense in its medium and doesn’t come across like some sort of stodgy visual companion.

Douglas Adams (image courtesy Wikipedia)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, as you might expect, packed full of all kinds of treats and goodies.

It is, above all, one of the shining examples of the idea that you can make merry with all kinds of science fiction elements while still telling the kind of story that will have you enraptured, and laughing uproariously more often than not, throughout it’s all too short length. (The book clocks in around the 180 page length which actually works quite well as part of an ongoing series; the story ends, for that instalment at least, just when it should.)

While joke books are fun up to a point, they can quickly wear out their welcome since there is no substantial story bolstering their idiocy and joking about.

No matter how witty or inspired the humour, if there’s no actual story to go along with the lunacy, the whole endeavour collapses like a house of cards, or a manufactured planet, leaving the reader chortling away but not entirely sure why and whether it’s worth keeping on laughing or not.

There’s no such worry with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which for its glorious silliness is incredibly clever and profoundly intelligent in its storytelling.

In short order, it parodies mindless, unthinking bureaucracy, and indeed the capacity of people and species of multiple billions of planets to simply accept something as gospel without once thinking it through themselves, greed and obscene wealth, power and ambition and the disengagement of the average person such that major, life-affecting events can be happening to them, or about to happen to them more pertinently, and they are completely unaware it’s taking place.

“‘Are we taking this robot with us?’ said Ford, looking with distaste at Marvin, who was standing in an awkward hunched posture in the corner under a small palm tree.
Zaphod glanced away from the mirror screens which presented a panoramic view of the blighted landscape on which the Heart of Gold had now landed.
‘Oh, the Paranoid Android,’ he said. ‘Yeah, we’ll take him.’
‘But what are you supposed to do with a manically depressed robot?'” (P. 115)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, as you might expect, packed full of all kinds of treats and goodies.

It is, above all, one of the shining examples of the idea that you can make merry with all kinds of science fiction elements while still telling the kind of story that will have you enraptured, and laughing uproariously more often than not, throughout it’s all too short length. (The book clocks in around the 180-page length which actually works quite well as part of an ongoing series; the story ends, for that instalment at least, just when it should.)

While joke books are fun up to a point, they can quickly wear out their welcome since there is no substantial story bolstering their idiocy and joking about.

No matter how witty or inspired the humour, if there’s no actual story to go along with the lunacy, the whole endeavour collapses like a house of cards, or a manufactured planet, leaving the reader chortling away but not entirely sure why and whether it’s worth keeping on laughing or not.

There’s no such worry with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which for its glorious silliness is incredibly clever and profoundly intelligent in its storytelling.

In short order, it parodies mindless, unthinking bureaucracy, and indeed the capacity of people and species of multiple billions of planets to simply accept something as gospel without once thinking it through themselves, greed and obscene wealth, power and ambition and the disengagement of the average person such that major, life-affecting events can be happening to them, or about to happen to them more pertinently, and they are completely unaware it’s taking place.

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