The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (1979)
An over the top, ridiculous, million mile an hour adventure with surprising glimpses of deep philosophical musings on the profound and the everyday. The first installation in Douglas Adams Trilogy of Five, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy sets the scene and tantalises the taste buds whilst holding its own as a stand alone novel.
Douglas Adams keeps it simple with a handful of well-crafted characters. The adventure begins with Arthur Dent, the Earthman, who struggles to overcome the loss of his house and planet within the first few chapters. Dent is the quintessential Brit, an everyman. Someone who doesn’t want to deal with the absurd and superfluous. Someone who just wants a cup of tea. A proper cup of tea.
Dent’s life is turned upside down when his friend, Ford Prefect reveals that he is from another galaxy. Ford Prefect is an alien from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and journalist for the Guide. Prefect and Dent hitchhike off Earth at the last minute, stumbling into the clutches of the hyper-bureaucratic Vogons, before narrowly escaping a fate worse than death – Vogon poetry. Improbably so, they are picked up by the Heart of Gold with President Zaphod Beeblebrox – Prefect’s semi cousin and ego extraordinaire, paranoid android Marvin and fellow Earther Trillian – a woman Arthur once met at a party. This motley crew adventure through space behind the confused and unwitting guidance of Zaphod Beeblebrox in search of Magrathea, a mythical planet full of riches. On Magrathea they meet Slartibartfast, a planet designer responsible for the beautiful fjords of Norway. They are informed of a computer named Deep Thought which calculated the answer to the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything. When the answer is revealed as 42, the quest must recalibrate and refocus in order to find out what exactly the Question is…
Throughout the story, Dent grapples with the loss of his home(s). Holding on to its memory and relishing in the sadness of loss, while those around him dismiss its destruction and his sadness as a minor inconvenience. An idea which could lead one to think of the place of impermanence in our vast universe and our human desires to own and possess things, an idea which the human race has struggled to deal with.
Adams has a deceptive way with words which allows for simple statements to hold great power, to hold humour and wisdom which force you to pause and gather your thoughts. Case in point... “It’s unpleasantly like being drunk,” “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” “You ask a glass of water,”
Within this easily accessible and enjoyable romp through ridiculous space, are nuggets of profound wisdom, deep philosophical thought and beautifully crafted descriptions. Of course, the profound wisdom and deep philosophical thought can be completely ignored for the sake of a good time, which this book definitely is but...you know, they’re there if you want them. It’s humorous, absurd and a bloody good laugh.
Jon Parrott (Kingston Chapter)
Whilst on backpacking holiday in Europe in the early 1970’s, a young Douglas Adams gazed up at the stars one evening in Innsbruck, Austria and pondered how convenient it would be to have a guide to hitch-hiking around the galaxy. You know, a sort of a ‘Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy’, as it were. This rather abstract -but nonetheless poignant- revelation of Adams’ is in many ways a personification for what his book goes on to become; a bold, hilarious, darkly meaningful and yet startlingly accurate treatise of human aspiration – and also its subsequent failure.
A close friend of mine pointed out to me that good science fiction (if The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy were to be relegated to but only one genre) is about holding up a warped mirror to humanity. After he had told me this, I began re-reading the story and started to realise how important this is. And much in the way that far more serious pieces of literature like George Orwell’s 1984 make us look at ourselves and reflect on how dysfunctional we as a species have become, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy also highlights and how absurd, fantastical and sometimes horrendously purposeless our many quirks, rituals and traditions are.
The story begins with our protagonist, Arthur Dent, facing the demolition of his nice little cottage in the English countryside. The purpose of this demolition is to make way for a new freeway – and yet despite this tumultuous upheaval in his life, Dent remains startlingly ambivalent toward this inauspicious milestone, choosing instead to retreat into denial until suddenly he comes to terms with the gravity of the situation, and commences a non-violent protest with the council members who appear to be waiting with a very British sense of beleaguered apathy. Dent commences trying to reason with the polite but slow-witted council foreman, when suddenly he is whisked off to the pub by his friend Ford Prefect who in turn unveils some rather distressing and tumultuous news of his own that significantly overshadows that of Dent’s domicile destruction. And it is here that we catch our first glimpse of the narrative that Adams’ is trying to tell us, because it seems that not only is Dent’s house in danger, but the entire planet as well, which it appears has been scheduled for demolition to make way for an intergalactic hyperspace bypass.
Here, Adam’s creates a delicious sense of symmetrical irony, we are introduced to the Vogons, an interplanetary race of bureaucrats sent to destroy the earth and everyone on it, who are remarkably similar to, and perhaps even a personification of, the humble English council workers there to destroy Dents house – slow, lazy and the very embodiment of bureaucracy. It is in these parts of the story that we are first introduced to one of Adam’s most unique signature literary devices, his unique blend of the simile and the metaphor (what I like to call the “Adam’s smetaphor”) when he inexplicably describes the way the Vogon’s ships hung in the sky prior to the Earth’s destruction - “In much the same way that bricks don’t.”
Fortunately for Arthur Dent, his old friend Ford Prefect wasn’t actually human, but in fact an interstellar being himself, a correspondent in fact for the most popular book in all the galaxy ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. Using Ford Prefect’s intergalactic street-smarts, they are whisked off the planet before earth’s ultimate destruction. This is the catalyst that commences a crazy, fast paced and side-splittingly hilarious journey around the galaxy with a somewhat bemused Arthur Dent in tow.
Having been tossed by the Vogons into the endless vacuum of space, Dent and Ford Prefect are picked up (somewhat improbably) by the most eagerly anticipated and technically lauded ship ever devised, the Heart of Gold, which is powered by the newly invented improbability drive. This amazing ship is in fact being captained by none other than the President of the galaxy himself – the enigmatic, effervescent and super charismatic Zaphod Beeblebrox. Oddly though he had stolen the ship, and was being pursued with rigour throughout the galaxy by various agencies to ensure the ship’s safe return. There is an interesting and disturbing parallel that may resonate with many in present day, in that Beeblebrox is only a front, a cover, an avatar of power in the galaxy. His purpose isn’t actually to rule, but to give others the impression of leadership, whilst others rule in the background. He is in fact a social butterfly, floating from engagement to engagement to act merely as a figurehead to the government. And interestingly enough, the true powerbrokers of the galaxy don’t care whether his rule is competent or not because he is only a distraction to allow true power to rule in the shadows, is it a stretch to say that never before has this been more relevant than today?
Having been picked up by the Heart of Gold on their Hitchhiking adventures, but now being ruthlessly pursued by the authorities who have been tasked with apprehending Beeblebrox, on board they also meet Trillion (a fellow earthling who, improbably, is in fact an acquaintance of Dent) and Marvin, the morose and depressing robot servant who happens to have one of the most morbid outlooks on life, the universe and everything.
They set course for the mystical planet of Magrathea, but along the way become entangled in a series of adventures, which lead them to become privy to the most surprising revelation – the Earth was in fact a part of an elaborate experiment which began tens of millions of years prior by two pan-dimensional beings hell bent on trying to determine the answer to ‘the ultimate question’ - the ‘Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.’ These beings commission the development of a supercomputer aptly named ‘Deep Thought’ to resolve this question. The computer - after ten million years of calculation and deliberation- comes up with the innocuous response of… 42, which in reality has now emerged in popular culture and modern society as being answer to the with the meaning of life. Not being satisfied with such a startling bland and parochial response, a new computer is built to solve this equation more elaborately, which takes the form of the greatest social experiment ever devised, the planet Earth itself. However just before the Earth finishes its program and it about to unveil its secret to the universe, it is destroyed by the Vogons.
A temporary hope for Dent and Trillion and the restoration of the Earth presents itself the form of planetary engineer Slartibartfast who is commissioned to build all-new ‘Earth II’, just the same as before. Sadly this is thwarted by an influential psychiatrist who becomes concerned that Earth II would serve out its purpose to answer the ultimate question - and to be able to answer such an omnipresent a ubiquitous question would spell the doom of his profession, and Slartibartfast is offered an opportunity to go skiing to the Scandinavian Fjords, right before being asked to dismantle them.
Whilst the story arc itself is relatively simple, the richness of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy manifests itself subliminally in your mind. The richness of the humour, the dryness of the dialogue and the ever present story microcosms provide the reader with a feast for the mind. When I first read the book 20 years ago, I was much younger, and remember passages like a falling bunch of petunias (who somehow have their own bafflingly poignant thoughts immediately before their demise) and also the brilliantly famous double-negative when Dent experiences a beverage in space that is something in a plastic cup ‘filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea’. Having re-read it again, with a broader worldly outlook I see now the symbolism between the Vogons and the Council workers, the political power plays in the galaxy that are not dissimilar to our own, but perhaps most alarming, is the sense of overwhelming hopelessness that pervades it all. We see that, perhaps, there isn’t actually a meaningful Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, but in fact there might be nothing more than just an abstract calculation. We see that throughout the universe, people from dissimilar worlds face nonetheless identical challenges, we see how when blessed with emotions and feelings like Marvin the robot, we have the tendency to drift toward despair rather than using this tremendous gift for the purpose of expressing and feeling beauty and joy. And always, despite where we are in the galaxy, we yearn for someone to answer that questions that –quite possibly- cannot be answered so that we can make sense and meaning out of all of it.
But I think therein lies the core of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy. The ultimate question as to why we exist, and straining in the vain hope that it might be revealed to us is in fact a fool’s errand, or that the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is in fact nothing more than 42. This in itself presents many of us with an overall sense of worthlessness – but in fact, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Adam’s darkly comical treatise is full of loops, pointless red herrings and immense orchestrations driven by simplistic ideals that are brought down by immense stupidity, which makes us realise that perhaps there doesn’t need to be more in it than that, and that we are in fact a product of chaos and not of intelligent design or meaningful destiny. And I think that is personified in the words written boldly in non-threatening letters on the back of any copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy - “Don’t Panic.” After all, on face value, the meaninglessness of it all could be quite overwhelming. So why bother fretting about it?
Nick Mason (Ballarat Chapter)