I’ve just re-read all four books in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ trilogy by Douglas Adams. As I’m sure practically everyone in the Western World has either read the books, heard the radio plays or seen the movie, it would be pretty inappropriate for me to try to do a book review, but I’d like to record a few impressions and get other’s feeling for the books.
Reading all four books in one hit (as they are compiled into a single book in the copy I have) actually threw up some surprises for me. Amazingly for a book which has gone through so many editions, there were still proofreading errors, and the publishers need to have a long hard look at themselves for that.
But back to the books themselves. Getting stuck into the first one, which carries the name of the series, was like coming home to an old friend. It felt comfortable and snuggly like an old overcoat which one loves, even if it does smell slightly of the cat. I suspect that if prompted, I could probably recite long sections of it verbatim.
The second one, ‘The Restaurant at the End of the Universe’, was not quite as I had remembered, which made me realise that I must be more familiar with the radio play or TV series than the books themselves. I suspect that Douglas Adams might have approved of that, in that the radio plays were the original form.
The third book ‘Life, the Universe and Everything,’ largely came as a surprise to me. I know I have read it before. But perhaps it was back in about 1985, and so only hazy memories of the story surfaced as I went, rather like elephants looming out of a fog.
Thankfully, the fourth book, ‘So long and Thanks for all the Fish,’ was back in territory I remembered, although not well enough that I couldn’t still enjoy the ending. I have always remembered the scenes of Arthur teaching Fenchurch to fly – it seems so incredibly plausible.
A few things came out of this re-reading for me. Firstly, I was struck by how unique they are in the sci-fi genre. They seem to treat the subject so lightly, almost frivolously. The contrast to the serious works of people like Alastair Reynolds could not be stronger. Adams delight in the absurd is quite evident, and I suspected a link with the Monty Python Crew which I have since discovered did exist. Adams worked with Graham Chapman before he wrote Hitchhiker’s, and was also a personal friend of John Cleese. The arrival of Arthur and Ford in the ‘Heart of Gold’ is a classic piece of silliness, which is too long to quote in its entirety, but just to remind you:
‘Haaauuurrgghhh . . .’ said Arthur as he felt his body softening and bending in unusual directions. ‘Southend seems to be melting away . . . the stars are swirling . . . a dustbowl . . . my legs are drifting off into the sunset . . . my left arm’s come off too.’ A frightening thought struck him: ‘Hell,’ he said, ‘how am I going to operate my digital watch now?’ He wound his eyes desperately around in Ford’s direction.
‘Ford,’ he said, ‘you’re turning into a penguin. Stop it.’
Behind the silliness though, there is a good deal of Deep Thought (sorry, couldn’t resist the in-joke). There are short reflections, like the ‘Dish of the Day’ – an animal which wants to be eaten, and is able to tell you so articulately. As Adams points out, while it is uncomfortable for some of us to have to think too closely about where our next steak is coming from, it is infinitely preferable to consuming an animal which doesn’t wish to be eaten. Perhaps there is a little warning bell in there about genetic modification too.
There is also a good understanding of human nature, which is not generally as pure and bright as we might like to believe. I suspect that his prediction that what most space travellers are going to be most interested in are the locations of the best bars and the best nightlife in the galaxy is absolutely spot on.
But underlying the whole series is a serious philosophical question, although we never find out what it is, and it is certainly very difficult to pin down. It’s really about the search to find meaning in life, and I wonder if this wasn’t quite a personal quest for Adams, as a fervent atheist. I’ve asked some of the same questions myself, also being in that boat. In a way, I envy people who believe in an organised religion, as all the answers are already laid out there for them. Being an atheist, for me, means that I have to have a shot at figuring it out for myself. And while this may seem frivolous to some people, I haven’t as yet come up with a better solution than that suggested by Slartibartfast. I recently asked a friend of mine who has survived cancer if they had any insights from being closer to death, and they agreed that it is a decent approach.
”You know,’ said Arthur thoughtfully, ‘all this explains a lot of things. All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no-one would tell me what it was.’
‘No, said the old man, ‘that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.’
‘Everyone?’ said Arthur. ‘Well, if everyone has that perhaps it means something! Perhaps somewhere outside the Universe we know…’
‘Maybe. Who cares?’ said Slartibartfast before Arthur got too excited. ‘Perhaps I’m old and tired,’ he continued, ‘but I always think that the chances of finding out what is really going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is say hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.’