Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The by Adams, Douglas, 1979


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"DON'T PANIC," should be words to live by. So should "I'll have another Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, and put it on the tab of the guy with the two heads." Some things just don't work out for the best though, do they? During his all too short lifetime Douglas Adams wrote, in multiple formats, the multi-media mega-story of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Inspired by cheap guidebooks to Europe and a surplus of wine one evening while abroad, Adams in the mid 1970's first penned a radio drama for the BBC which eventually turned into this book in 1979. Since then it and the five sequels in the "trilogy" have remained in print, and honestly, I doubt that they will ever go out. Hitchhiker's is a major, landmark tale in our genre, and although Adams did not really change anything by publishing it, it is easy to see that public mainstream perception of what our genre is capable of would be radically different without it. That Hitchhiker's alternately came from and/or spawned radio programs, records and tapes, television shows, feature length movies, computer games, toys, and much more is a testament to the real love the people have in their hearts for this story. Five stars out of five for this book.

Although at its heart Hitchhiker's does tell a real SF story, I think that one should read it for the humor alone. Adams is the acknowledged master of the comedic aside. Most other people who have reviewed this thing think that it is a send-up of the SF genre. I suppose its easy to reach that conclusion. I think that Adams even acknowledged it a few times during his life. But what it really is, in addition to a send-up of the genre, is a lampooning of bureaucracy and an absolute skewering of pop culture. Adams revels in the idiocy of our culture which, for example, insists on presenting news about a war on an equal footing with news about a pop-star's illegitimate pregnancy, and especially at public servants who care not a whit for the lives of the people that they are there to serve. The tale starts as Arthur Dent wakes with a hangover to find a construction crew at his doorstep with orders to make a new highway bypass. His problems get suddenly worse when his good friend Ford Prefect pops by and informs him that a race called the Vogons plan to destroy the entire planet to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. And destroy it they do, but fortunately Prefect has an out. He is actually an extraterrestrial researcher for the eponymous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who has been stranded on Earth for fifteen years, but he has a device that saves them both by allowing them to hitch a ride on the Vogon ship. But they are in trouble again shortly because the Vogon captain, a miserable lout of a civil servant, hates hitchhiker's and airlocks them, whereupon they are picked up in the very last second before death by Ford's distant cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the Galaxy, in a stolen ship called the Heart of Gold which is crewed by Trillian, a hot and brainy Earthling whom Zaphod stole from Arthur once, and Marvin, a depressed, paranoid robot with unfortunate programming. Once joined they set off on a mission that Zaphod only vaguely remembers because at some point he operated on his own brain to keep the personality profilers in the galaxy's executive branch from realizing that the only reason he wanted the job in the first place was so that he could steal the Heart of Gold. The ship is equipped with the innovative Infinite Probability Drive, which allows instantaneous transportation, but causes all kinds of screwy side-effects as well such as turning nuclear missiles into whales and dropping 283 million eggs on random planets.

The Heart of Gold shoots off to the planet Magrathea, home to a race of beings that at one point custom designed planets for the rich. Knowledge of the planet has faded into myth as the beings that call it home have been in suspended animation for five million years while the galaxy recovers from an economic collapse. Once planet side they meet Slartibartfast, a Magrathean who captures Arthur and eventually the rest of the party and take him to the ones in charge, a bunch of mice. It turns out that mice were the most intelligent species on Earth before it was destroyed; only slightly topping out the dolphins. The mice were trying to learn the secrets of the universe and had seventeen million years before built a machine called Deep Thought, which took seven million years to reach the answer to the Ultimate Question: The meaning of Life the Universe and Everything, which was, oddly enough, "42." Perturbed that they might not have understood the question, Deep Thought designed the ultimate AI and had the Magratheans build it into Earth to complete its ten million year program of understanding the question. Five minutes before it was going to give the question, the Vogons came along and blew it up. Now they wanted Arthur's brain since he was the only surviving Earthling that they knew, because they had to have something before going on the talk shows or everyone would be really disappointed.

OK, so the story is wacky and fun and in some parts totally random, but it tells a good SF genre tale and really misses nothing. But really, telling you the plot alone would be an absolute cheat, because the only purpose it serves is to get you through the humor without throwing the book away. Like I said above, the real genius in this book is the humor. Prior to Hitchhiker's coming along humor was not well received in SF. Authors like Sheckely and Tenn and Farmer (as Kilgore Trout - how could that one not be a farce) did OK with humor, but nobody really had hit it before with a comedy SF, at least in the literature. We all know that film is full of them, whether they were trying to be farcical or not.

After a while the style settles down a bit and it begins to tell you things you really need to know, like the fact that the fabulously beautiful planet Bethsalamin 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 while on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave; So every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt.

Adams is full of maxims and sage words of advice. I find his humor ripe with astute observations. Coming from a European, this one is particularly meaningful.

The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question, Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?

In addition to the jokes, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny, Adams gave us a fantastic comedic background. His answer to the creationists is that, yes, you were right - The Earth was created and someone placed a bunch of dinosaur skeletons in the ground and build up earth around them, but it sure as Hell was not God. And a small fish called a Babel fish that sits in one's ear, eats the mind waves of other creatures, and craps out language that is understandable to the owner. Or the "Teasers," who were rich, young aliens who delighted in travelling to planets that had not made interstellar contact yet and strafing rednecks in the middle of nowhere. And a ship crewed by artificial beings with "RPP" or Real People Personalities, one of which is a terminally depressed robot that wants to commit suicide, and another is a manic computer that just needs to be wanted. I don't think I ever saw either of those in Asimov, and man, he could have used them. But consider also that Adams actually managed to change the culture, if not the genre. Where do you think Towel Day came from? Have you ever translated anything at Babelfish? And how many times have you heard the words that I opened this piece with? Innumerable, I would hazard to guess.

I have read this thing several times now. It is the best book by far in the "trilogy," which is actually made up of five books and one short story and, if the estate lawyers have their way, one more book that is coming out next year by some new guy. Every time I read it I am reminded of how powerful SF literature can be. No matter how I feel going in this book pushes me out the other end with a giant smile on my face and an enthusiasm for sharing. I really cannot imagine anyone who would hate this one. Get it now and read it to your kids, fer Christ's sake.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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