Seven Books in Seven Weeks – The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
… Part three of a seven part series…
Welcome once again, to Seven Books in Seven Weeks. This time, we’re all about Hoopy Froods, Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, Vogon poetry and a man with the same name as a car. So, hold on tight, grab yourself a pint of beer — because you’re going to need it — and whatever you do, don’t forget your towel!
I was too young to remember the original radio plays, which made up Douglas Adams’, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and probably wouldn’t have liked them anyway, because I would have been four years old at the time. I do however, recall watching repeats of the subsequent television series, during the mid-1980s and being amazed, not so much by the storyline, but by the eponymous book of the title, which contained everything that a young boy could ever want to know about the world beyond our own and did so in a very amusing way. I think, at the time, I would have been quite happy if the programme had simply been a reading of ‘The Guide’, from A to Z, but then I was a strange child and always have been.
Incidentally, I later found out that the text and graphics used to animate the book’s entries on the television programme, were produced by hand painting the content, then covering it with a piece of black cardboard, which was drawn back, one character at a time, by the poor special effects’ technician and photographed with a rostrum camera. When all of the images were put together, the result was a series of smoothly appearing visuals and text, which looked exactly the same as if someone had typed them on a keyboard!
Anyway, enough about radio and television, this is supposed to be a blog about books! Sometime after first seeing the television series (sorry, that’s the last time I will mention it), I got my hands on a copy of the book from the local library and then, in the mid-1990s, bought a copy of the five-part trilogy, which contained the story in its entirety*. However, it is the first two books in the series that I want to focus on today: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, because that is what pretty much made up the television series (Aargh! Not again!).
The story focuses around Arthur Dent, who, in a very short space of time, one Thursday lunchtime, to be precise, loses his house and then the entire planet — when the Earth is demolished to make room for a hyperspace bypass — before finding out that his best friend is an alien researcher for amazing, electronic publication called, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His subsequent adventures take him through space (and time), in a madcap journey involving, among other things: a spaceship with an Improbability Drive, super-intelligent mice, a whale and a bowl of petunias, aliens who make a living by building planets, a robot that suffers from chronic depression, and the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, which in case you didn’t already know, is forty-two.
One of the things that has always amazed me about the book, is the sheer amount of stuff in it. I’d be lying if I said that every page is packed with witty asides and observations, but it often feels like it and almost all of them would be worthy of further exploration. Take, for example, Mr Prosser, the council official tasked with overseeing the demolition of Arthur’s house. A direct descendant of Genghis Kahn, he wonders why an army of unidentified horsemen laugh at him within his head, whenever he feels miserable or hard done by. Prosser is only in the book for a matter of a few pages and is then discarded, having done his job in both the literary and physical sense, with all of his unique and fascinating foibles left unexplored.
Another thing I love about The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is how it works on so many different levels. I have no idea if Douglas Adams intended this when he was writing the radio plays or novelisations, but for me, it is one of the things that keeps me coming back time and time again. Taken at face value, the book is a relatively straightforward comedy story, involving the misadventures of the last human being** in the galaxy. But look a little deeper and there is a tale of a man who has lost everything and is struggling to come to terms with his place in a bewildering new environment, where he is closer to the bottom of the food chain than the top. Then, peel back another layer and you have a metaphor for the chaos and futility of life in general.
Poor old Arthur Dent. Not only is he a veritable Babel fish out of water, but he also comes to realise that it doesn’t matter what he does, the universe is more messed up than he ever imagined, so the best thing he can do is just go along with it. In, fact, it would probably have been a lot simpler for him, if he had stayed in bed on that fateful morning, all those years ago!
I was going to have a bit of a dig at some of the names in the book, which I don’t feel have stood up to the test of time, but on closer inspection, it is pretty much only the Arcturan Mega Donkey, the Kill-O-Zap guns and occasional mention of Maximegalon, that make me cringe, which isn’t bad when you consider how many other unique names Douglas Adams came up with, including the wonderful Slartibartfast and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz.
On a more positive note, the impact of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on me has been enormous. It has influenced the way that I think about the world and also the way that I write about it. It has even made an impact on my sense of humour, by introducing me to a wonderful sense of the absurd and ridiculous that I never knew existed. Just think about the idea that the Earth was constructed as a massive, organic computer, which was destroyed in a bureaucratic cock-up a mere five minutes before its ten-million-year programme was due to end. That and the fact that the fjords of Norway were designed by the aforementioned Slartibartfast, who carved his likeness and name into them, not to mention that the ultimate question to life, the universe and everything, does not marry up with the answer… or does it? All of it, sheer brilliance and utter madness.
So, thank you, Douglas Adams. You may have destroyed the Earth, but you gave us a wonderful galaxy in return!
* There has since, been a sixth book in the series, written by Eoin Colfer, but I don’t have a copy of that… yet.
** If you’ve read the book, then you’ll know that Arthur Dent is not actually the last human in the galaxy, but for the purposes of dramatic licence, please bear with me.