Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams (1992)

Book review: Mostly Harmless ([1992]) by Douglas Adams (The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide, Wings Books, 1996)

ultimatehitchhikersOnce again, Arthur Dent tries to return to Earth, but instead settles for an honorary position as masker sandwich maker. Meanwhile, the Guide seems to be changing in much-too-mysterious ways, which keeps Ford Prefect on the run – running into Arthur Dent, whose daughter has just hi-jacked Ford’s spaceship.

Arthur Dent is still travelling through space. To begin with, he was having a marvellous time together with Fenchurch, but after an accident involving a jump into hyperspace, he finds himself more lost than ever before. He sets off trying to find Home, or at least something not far off, donating his DNA to various places in order to pay for travel tickets, knowing (thanks to Agrajag) that he can’t possibly die before he’s been to Stavromula Beta. Eventually, the ship he’s on crashes onto the planet Lamuella. It’s Earth-like, with some differences, but he finds his niche – being a sandwich maker. And he’s happy there. Finally.

Meanwhile, Ford Prefect is trying to cause some mischief at the Guide headquarters, but things aren’t quite as he remembers them. It’s a lot less hoopy, to begin with. In fact, it has been taken over by the bureaucratic InfiniDim Enterprises, and they’re a lot less relaxed about things like, oh, paying expenses. With the aid of Colin, a security robot he modifies to be overjoyed about everything (such as breaking and entering) to keep the security systems calm, he breaks into the Guide‘s computer systems to fiddle with the accounts, as well as stumbling across the next version of the Guide itself. The Guide 2.0 is sleek, black and sexy – and incredibly dangerous … After all, why else would the place suddenly employ Vogons as security guards?

On Earth, or at least a version thereof, Tricia McMillan tries in vain to get a job on American TV, all the while lamenting the fact that ages ago at a party, the man with two heads who said he was from outer space had gone before she got back from getting her handbag. She’s got a degree in astrophysics and she’s stuck interviewing astrologers. And then, outer space makes contact with her. The Grebulons (who, because of an incident with the spaceship losing the vital part of the computer, have no idea who they are or what they’re meant to be doing) saw her interview with the astrologer and want her to come and configure a computer program for them, so they can find out their horoscopes, hoping it will give them clues as to what they’re meant to be doing.

In a completely different part of space, the Tricia McMillan who has long since adopted the name Trillian, and who didn’t bother with her handbag at the party, is travelling all over time and space, and trying to get some kind of stability – or at least company – she uses the only available donated Homo Sapiens sperm available in the galaxy to spawn a daughter: Random … and then drops the volatile teenager (possibly, no one knows what age Random actually is) off with her biological dad, a Sandwich Maker on Lamuella …

What do you get when you mix a confused girl with anger issues, a pandimensional time/space gadget with its own agenda, a bunch of armed Vogons, a disgruntled restaurant columnist, a sandwich maker, a couple of identical news reporters, a herd of Perfectly Normal Beasts, an alien race with amnesia, and not just a king, but the King? You get Mostly Harmless, which in itself, is nowhere near what the title says.

Anything that happens, happens.

Anthing that, in happening, causes something else to happen,
causes something else to happen.

Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again,
happens again.

It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.

Douglas Adams

After some years of complete silence about Arthur Dent, Douglas Adams returned with the fifth and (at least for him) final installment of the Hitchhiker’s trilogy. In the meantime, he had written and released the two books about holistic super-sleuth Dirk Gently and had travelled around the world looking for animals on the brink of extinction. Coming back to jaded space-traveller Dent, the writing has matured. The dialogue is still brilliant, the way he turns a phrase still masterful, but the writing itself feels … deeper, and the novel feels more complete. That’s why, even though there’s no Marvin (for obvious reasons), no Zaphod (for less obvious reasons) and not one but two Trillian, this is a very good book.

It’s fairly well-paced, and jumping between Ford and Arthur isn’t confusing and disjoined as in the previous book, but something that flows nicely and adds to the tension. I can’t say which parts I liked the best, because they work together very well. I just know that I can’t really stand Random as a character. Way too obnoxious. On the other hand, Colin (the modified InfiniDim security bot) is a hoot. He gurgles with pleasure at helping Ford around the H-shaped Guide building, and is a great comic relief.

Arthur trying to find a purpose, ending up on a planet full of soothsayers, is clever, but the most clever part is probably the leader of the tribe on Lamuella, who is used to getting his own way, and having a direct line to Bob (a deity) – who can question him? A great satire on religion.

It’s not as zany, partly down to there being no Zaphod Beeblebrox, and I do miss him. There’s a Zaphod-filled hole in the novel, but at the same time – where would he fit in? The whole point is that Arthur is the main protagonist, and that’s the man we follow. While also perhaps less whimsical than its predecessors, Mostly Harmless is Adams the novelist finding his stride more than he did with the first novels. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish feels rushed and isn’t very engaging. This feels more thought through, and it works well. Out of the five, Mostly Harmless is the one that tends to get the least amount of spotlight on it, and for no real reason. I like it, even though as novels go, it really is mostly harmless.

3½-4 pikka birds out of 5.


2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of British comedian, author, genius, procrastinator and technology geek Douglas Adams, which I think is something worth commemorating and will therefore be posting several posts related to him and his works spread over the year. Today, in 2005, the long-awaited Hollywood adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy hit silver the screens in the UK. I went to Cineworld suitably armed with a towel and bag of peanuts!

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