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

Review by Edward Tanguay
November 17, 1996

Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? --The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Mr. Adam's purpose in this book is to jolt your everyday understanding and your familiar views of the world fully out of their sockets, and to have fun.  I bet Mr. Adams had more fun writing this book than anyone had writing a book before him. 

The humor in this book is definately a dry British type.  The repartee and the one-liners made it read at times more like a script for a play (hasn't this story been turned into a play and a film--these would be nice vehicles for the slapstick humor).

Much of the humor came from a certain constant logical teasing, for instance, that an island on another planet was called "Easter Island," but that was just a coincidence.  And that the little sand bar next to it is called "France," but that too, was just a coincidence.  Soon, you realize that you are in an Alice-in-Wonderland type world where anything can happen, so you just sit back and let yourself be entertained:

He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the rib cage of a stegosaurus.
"It was made out of the rib cage of a stegosaurus," explained the old man . . .

The extreme informality of the official speeches, the encyclopedia articles, and the computer speech was striking and funny the whole way through.  My second favorite was when the president of the galaxy arrived in front of the multitude waiting for him to speak.  He arrives, turns to the crowd, and says, "hi."  He is offered a written speech, declines it, then turns back to the crowd and says again "hi".  He looks out into the audience to a woman he knows and says, "Hi honey."  The press surrounds him and he says, "hi."  You have to grin at the absurdity, the same way you do at Monty Python.   My favorite was the computer named Eddie who was in a constant, peppery good mood through the whole episode of two missiles about to destroy the ship, and then he sings a sprite little tune while counting down seconds till impact, all the while Zaphod is screamed at it to shut up.

Of course, the extremely bizarre and unexpected also figures into the humor of this book:

"You just come along with me and have a good time.  The Galaxy's a fun place.  You'll need to have this fish in your ear."

And dry humor:

"Six pints of bitter," said Ford Prefect to the barman of the Horse and Groom.  "And quickly please, the world's about to end."

And slap stick:

"How do you feel?" he asked him.
"Like a military academy," said Arthur, "bits of me keep on passing out."

You can almost here the canned laughed roar after each exchange.  The closest the author comes to heavy philosophy in this book is an occasional piece of satire:

This planet has--or rather had--a problem, which was this:  most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time.  Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And four or five of Adam's descriptions were right on the mark.  I loved pondering this one, describing the untranslated, garbled noise that came over the intercom:

He gasped in terror at what sounded like a man trying to gargle whilst fighting off a pack of wolves.

And Adam's has creative ideas which would never had occured to me.  I loved the concept of "Infinite Improbability Drive" which as a byproduct of powering the ship creates highly improbable occurances, for instance, as they reach top speed, a thousand monkeys pound on the windows wanting to discuss the copy of Macbeth that they just wrote (!).  Also, the fact that Zaphod found out that someone had reprogrammed his brain (or brains, as he had two heads) when he was small and left their initials, which turned out to be his initials!  This means that he had programmed himself but included in his programming that he would not find out why he had programmed himself nor to what end.  It reminded me of Nietzsche's "Eternal Return" concept in which you have to want your life exactly the way it is in every detail, as if you had written it as a novel before your birth. And the following concept I liked just because it reminded me of the trouble we had to go through on a visit to the Soviet Union, in which they had a law that tourists had to collect a receipt for everything they bought in the country--this could be a nice satire of that:

The fabulously beautful planet Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion by ten billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your bodyweight when you leave:  so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt.

The manically depressed robot was funny, but my favorite secondary characters were the liberally enlightened cops:

  "Now see here, guy," said the voice on the loud hailer, "You're not dealing with any dumb two-bit trigger-pumping morons with low hairlines, little piggy eyes and no conversation, we're a couple of intelligent caring guys that you'd probably quite like if you met us socially!  I don't go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it afterwards in seedy space-rangers bars, like some cops I could mention!  I go around shooting people gratuitously and then I agonize about it afterwards for hours to my girlfriend!"
  "And I write novels!" chimed in the other cop.  "though I haven't had any of them published yet, so I better warn you, I'm in a meeeeean mood!"

Much of Adam's humor also comes from simply turning the world on its head, for instance, describing how mice, and not humans, really ran life on earth and that mice were conducting experiments on humans in that they would allow humans to think that scientists were conducting experiments on mice!  And that humans never realized what the dolphins were saying, basically, that the world is going to end and that everyone should get off of it.  The dolphins finally took off before the Vogon destruction of the earth:

The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop wilst whistling the "Star Spangled Banner," but in fact the message was this:  So long and thanks for all the fish.

Was this a Gulliver's Travels book of satire on current society?  No, this book isn't that complicated or serious for that.  One can notice, however, a slight reference to parliament in the example of the Magratheans noticing that they were in an economic slump so they just decided to go to sleep (!) and have their computers wake them up when economic indicators were at a certain higher level.

The one piece of this story I had known before I read it was that "42" was the answer to life but that the question was not known.  What I didn't know was that earth itself was created to generate the question.  Interesting.

Since this is a book about the future, I enjoyed comparing the technology that they had to the technology of the Internet today, for instance, the hand-held encyclopedia, one can imagine a laptop connected to an encyclopedia home page:

He pressed the entry for the relevant page.  The screen flashed and swirled and resolved into a page of print.

And a search engine:  

A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphon searched the sub-etha radio wavebands for news of himself.

And a physical hyperlink:

He continued: "I should warn you that the chamber we are about to pass into does not literally exist within our planet.  It is a little too . .  large.  We are about to pass though a gateway into a vast tract of hyperspace.  It may disturb you."

And advertising on a VRML web-page, while they were inside the 3D catalogue for planets:

In the sky a huge sign appeared, replacing the catalogue number.  It said, Whatever you tastes, Magrathea can cater for you.  We are not proud.

Looking back on this book, it was bizarre and wacky and the characters all seemed to be generated from the same mindset.  I don't think I consider it literature in the sense of addressing time-worn concerns of philosophy, religion, or the human condition, but the book is fun and above all, fresh and creative.  It's non-stop action and playful dialogue is simply entertaining.  You don't have to swallow any philosophy; it's pure reading entertainment for a lazy Sunday.  I feel Mr. Adams also ended the book politely, as if he noticed that his story wasn't really coming full circle and that some of his readers were getting a little tired of the fun although monotone type of entertainment. He stopped at a nice point, and came out with a nice little creation.

Edward Tanguay

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