The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

Book review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ([1979]) by Douglas Adams (The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide, Wings Books, 1996)

ultimatehitchhikersArthur Dent, mild-mannered, out-to-lunch kind of guy, is plucked from Earth just before it is demolished yo make way for a hyperspace bypass. Towel in hand, he begins his journey through space and time with his rescuer Ford Prefect, a travelling researcher for the Guide.

Once when I was on the phone to a friend, he said a sort of off-handed comment beginning with “the Bible says” and I immediately interrupted him with, “you mean the Hitchhiker’s Guide“. He paused, then said, “Yes. Actually.” Then we both had a moment of smiling knowingly at the phone.

My first encounter with Hitchhiker’s was years and years ago, when one of my sisters had heard something on the radio about the meaning of life and a computer and forty-two and thought it all sounded pretty nifty. Didn’t think much of it, but I was maybe eight or so at the time. When I was maybe 13 or 14, a friend of mine said that there was a book I just HAD to read, because it was utterly brilliant. I got it from the library and read. And the world seemed to change around me.

Maybe that’s why, a couple of years ago, when someone said that there was a book she just didn’t get and thought was utterly over-rated because it simply wasn’t funny at all, I really didn’t understand where she was coming from and silently questioned her sanity, amongst other things. How can you NOT love this book?

The story in itself is perhaps not that extraordinary. It’s about a man, Arthur Dent, who wakes up one morning and finds that the council wants to knock his house down to build a bypass. Arthur’s day doesn’t get much better when his friend Ford Prefect turns up amongst the bulldozers and decides now would be a good time to mention that he’s from a different planet. And then some bureaucratic aliens come along … who want to demolish the Earth … in order to build a hyperspace bypass …

They end up on a most improbable ship, which was recently nicked at its unveiling ceremony by Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the galaxy. The ship is also inhabited by a woman called Trillian (Tricia McMillan back on earth), a cheery shipboard computer (Eddie) and a depressed personality prototype robot, Marvin. Together, they try to escape Vogons and their terrifying poetry and are on the hunt for a planet known for having built luxury custom-made planets back in the day when people were rich enough to afford their services.

They also get involved in the search for the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything – and, when the people who originally built the computer tasked with finding the answer discover this Ultimate Answer to be the seemingly insignificant number “42″, they start working on a new computer that will come up with the Ultimate Question. If only it didn’t look exactly like a planet and if only that planet hadn’t been scheduled for demolition ten minutes before the answer question was due …

Then there’s the very useful device that the book has got its name from, a sort of hand-held computer with the words “DON’T PANIC” written in large, friendly letters on the cover.

If you take science-fiction and mix it with humour today, you could not escape comparison with this “trilogy in five parts”. It’s not just that it’s funny and contains some very apt satire on society in general, to me, it’s more than that. It challenges me to think, to philosophise, to write absolute nonsense for fun and pass it off as poetry and then laugh when people try to discern some sort of deep, hidden meaning from it. Maybe there is more to life than money, and maybe we want to see what’s out there, but at the same time, if the rest of the galaxy turns out to be as bureaucratic as the Earth, what’s the point? Especially if you can’t even get a decent cup of tea in space?

I could take the Total Perspective Vortex as an example of how small we are in the universe, but seeing as how that’s in the next book, I’ll wait. Instead:

Never again will we wake up in the morning and think Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?

Before reading this wholly remarkable book, I would never have thought of things in that way. Yes, does it really matter to the rest of the galaxy if I don’t get up and go to work? Doesn’t really, does it? Because the world does not revolve around me, nor does it revolve around anyone of us. It revolves around a little yellow sun, which in turn is just one of many stars of many in a vast galaxy, which is just one of many countless galaxies in an infinite universe. It puts all the petty squabbles we have on this planet into perspective.

And that’s the thing. I don’t see it as just a funny book, it’s more of a philosophy. A way of seeing how absurd the world really is, and perhaps that in order to not despair, we need to realise that sometimes, we need to take things a little less serious than we generally do. Because after all, unless there are big, yellow spaceships (that look congealed rather than constructed) hanging in the sky in the very same way that bricks don’t, it’s not the end of the world.

Writing-wise, it’s perhaps not the most skillfully crafted novel ever, but to be fair, Douglas Adams was never actually an author (as such), but a script writer. There aren’t pages after pages of scenery descriptions, or descriptions of what people look like, but the dialogue, on the other hand, is crafted by someone who clearly knows what he’s doing. The book itself is only around 50 000 words long (yup, like a NaNoWriMo novel) and while it has a plot, it’s not the most linear and straightforward one. It’s a journey into absurdity, where no earthmen has gone before. And it’s bloody brilliant. I love this book. 5 out of 5 towels!

The guide Looks remarkably like an
Amazon Kindle. Pretty neat, huh?

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, 11 February, is the 42nd day of the year, and as we all know, 42 is a very important number, even though Douglas Adams himself just chose it at random because it seemed nicely inconspicuous.

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