Laughing in the Face of Doom: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Adventure is often presented as serious business, but also benefits from being treated with a light touch. Humor can go a long way toward adding spice to any narrative. And when humor becomes the main dish, it can be a joy to behold. A perfect example is Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the best-loved books in the pantheon of great science fiction. It has plenty of adventure, doom, destruction, narrow escapes, megastructures, innovative technology, a bit of romance, and lots and lots of jokes, puns, and absurd situations. Everything a science fiction reader would want, especially if they are willing to be heard laughing out loud while they read.

Sometime in the 1980s, I was on a long drive on a Saturday evening, and stumbled onto an NPR radio dramatization of The Empire Strikes Back. Up until then, I had thought radio plays were a lost art form. And by the end of the episode, I was smitten. I bought cassette tapes of the Star Wars dramatizations, and then went looking for other full cast audio dramas. One of the first I found was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I listened to it so often I wore those tapes out, and over the years, collected the entire series on compact discs, which I still listen to today. While the series is available in a variety of media, the radio dramatization is still my favorite.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, in all its forms, has become nearly ubiquitous in current society. Quotes from the books pop up where you least expect them. Especially among science fiction fans, phrases like “don’t forget your towel,” “42,” or “so long, and thanks for all the fish,” get a knowing smile whenever they are dropped into conversations.

 

About the Author

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) was an English author, primarily known for his humor and satire. He is most widely known as writer of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which was inspired by a real world “Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Europe.” The story started as a BBC radio drama that first appeared in 1978, and grew into a whole series of radio dramas, a “trilogy” of five books, a six-part BBC television mini-series, comic books, a computer game, and a major motion picture.

Before making his name with Hitchhikers, Adams was noticed as a gifted author even during his school days. He contributed material to the Monty Python troupe, and did odd jobs to make ends meet while facing many rejections. He worked on Doctor Who as a script editor and writer, and wrote three series for the program.

Adams is also known for the adventures of Dirk Gently, a “holistic detective,” whose adventures (some of which were based on unused material he wrote for Doctor Who) were chronicled in books, radio dramas, and a television series. Unfortunately for his many fans, he was not prolific, and often suffered from writer’s block.

 

Appearances of the Guide in Various Media

In its original form, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a radio series in 12 parts appearing from 1978 to 1980. It was later collected on long-playing records, audio cassettes, and then compact discs. Other sequel series were released, first on radio, and then as recordings. In the end, there were five collections, released on discs as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Primary Phase, Secondary Phase, The Tertiary Phase, Quandary Phase, and Quintessential Phase. A sixth collection, Hexagonal Phase, was later released based on the sequel written after Adams’ death by Eoin Colfer. The dry wit, stream-of-consciousness pacing, and the excellent casts made these radio plays a big success.

The five books, of what was called a “trilogy” even after it grew past three titles, include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979); The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980); Life, the Universe and Everything (1982); So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1985); and Mostly Harmless (1992). The books have sold more than 14 million copies world-wide, both separately and in omnibus editions. A sixth Hitchhiker book, And Another Thing…, was later written by Eoin Colfer. The books did a great job of translating the radio scripts into prose, with many of the descriptions and marginal materials being just as entertaining as the dialogue.

The original story was also presented in stage performances shortly after the radio episodes appeared. BBC released a six-episode television series in 1981 that featured some of the actors from the radio version (I must confess that I have never seen this iteration of the story).

A movie version was released by Disney in 2005, with a script Douglas Adams wrote before his death (and co-written by Karey Kirkpatrick), directed by Garth Jennings, and starring Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent, Mos Def as Ford Prefect, Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian, Alan Rickman as Marvin the Android, and Stephen Fry as the voice of the Book. This excellent core cast was supplemented by an equally talented array of actors in supporting roles. The film received a mixed but mostly positive reception from critics, and was relatively successful financially, but did not earn enough to warrant a sequel.

The existence of a Hitchhiker’s Disney movie meant that, thanks to the Disney marketing machine, there were toys being sold, and like many geeks, I love my toys. I ended up with two. One is a rather bemused-looking Arthur Dent action figure, the only action figure I own that wears a bathrobe and carries a towel. The other is an Arthur Dent yarn doll, based on a scene where the Improbability Drive turned everyone onboard into yarn (and where Arthur found yarn stuck between his teeth even after he returned to his normal form). This is truly the most improbable movie souvenir I’ve ever seen.

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The book opens with Arthur Dent trying to prevent a construction crew from destroying his house to make way for a new automobile bypass, having missed the bureaucracy’s feeble attempts to give him proper notice this was occurring. His friend and drinking buddy, Ford Prefect, shows up and takes him to the pub for a few drinks, telling him not to worry about his house. Arthur does not realize it yet, but Ford is actually an alien from the vicinity of Betelgeuse, a traveling contributor to a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who has been stranded on Earth without a ride for fifteen years. And a Vogon Constructor Fleet arrives, about to destroy the Earth as part of construction of a hyperspace bypass.

Those who are not familiar with the book will probably find this bald recap horrifying. How could the destruction of the entire human race be a subject of comedy? Yet those who have read the book will tell you the unfolding of these events is filled with wry humor. Adams has a knack for taking the most intimidating events, even the end of the whole universe, and making them laugh out loud funny.

Meanwhile Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed President of the Imperial Galactic Government, along with his girlfriend Trillian, is stealing the most innovative spaceship in the galaxy, the Heart of Gold, a ship powered by the mysterious Improbability Drive.

Ford and Arthur find themselves in the bowels of the Vogon flagship; their Dentrassis cooks received an electronic hitchhiking signal from Ford, took pity on him, and beamed him up. Ford introduces Arthur to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the book’s entry on Earth, recently expanded from “harmless” to “mostly harmless.” The two are detected by the Vogons, captured, and forced to listen to the Vogon Captain’s poetry, which is far more awful than you might think. When they try to compliment the Captain, he sees through their lies, throws them out of the airlock, and their survival is improbable.

Remember that Improbability Drive, though? The Heart of Gold just happens along to rescue them in a nick of time. Ford and Arthur are led to the bridge by Marvin the Android, a robot equipped with an experimental personality program, and who complains (not for the only time), “I’ve got this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left hand side…” Another of the deeply depressed Marvin’s frequent refrains is, “Life, don’t talk to me about life.” Ford and Arthur find that not only were they improbably rescued, but Ford and Zaphod are childhood friends, and Arthur knows Trillian (aka Tricia MacMillan) from a party before the destruction of Earth, and recognizes Zaphod (aka Phil) as the man who plucked her away just as Arthur was feeling an attraction. Before long, the Heart of Gold heads out because Zaphod is looking for the lost planet of Magrathea, home of a race of people who built custom planets, but who disappeared into suspended animation to wait out a galactic economic downturn (a story eventually related to Arthur by a fjord-making specialist named Slartibartfast). They hear the story of the massive computer Deep Thought that took millions of years to develop the answer “42” to the “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.” And about the planet-sized computer built by mice to figure out what that darned question was, and why the answer was “42.” And how that planet-sized computer relates to our main characters.

Throughout, the book is punctuated by entries from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is actually an interactive computer tablet; for the time the book was written, a rather insightful prediction of future electronic devices. There are lots of authors who use imaginary documents to introduce exposition into the narrative, but Adams is the only author I know who makes those expository lumps as entertaining, if not more entertaining, than the rest of the book. And a careful reader will realize there are all sorts of little clues dropped into the exposition, things that do not appear important at first, but become a big part of the story.

In preparing this review, I both read the book, and listened to the first collection of radio episodes. And even though I was visiting them for perhaps the tenth or eleventh time, I found things I had missed, jokes that struck me differently, and a new appreciation for the genius of Douglas Adams, and just how special this unique work really is. Somehow, amid all the destruction, and the jokes, and the zany meaningless of everything that happens, as the characters muddle through as best they can, Douglas always ends up making me feel good about life, and about being human.

 

Final Thoughts

Good comedy is hard to create, and science fiction comedy is even harder. Science fiction fans like their wit well supported by scientific knowledge and speculation, even if that information is then twisted into fantasy for comedic effect. Douglas Adams was a master of mixing whimsy and pathos to create something both compelling and laugh-out-loud funny. If you haven’t encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in any of its myriad forms, I recommend you do so as soon as possible. And those who have read the books should listen to the radio plays and vice versa. Every iteration of the story has its own charms that makes it worth a visit.

I’d love to hear what all of you think of the tale. What are your favorite quotes, your favorite bits and scenes, and favorite forms of the story? And what other science fiction humor would you recommend to others?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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