On a small patch of land on a small, blue-green planet of little significance, somewhere in the unfashionable part of the galaxy, lived a man; the male variant of the ape-descended life form known to most as the human being. This particular man was of no particular importance in the grand scheme of things, a man for whom the wider aspect of the galaxy and the universe beyond, was so utterly incomprehensible that he chose, for the most part, to ignore it.
Sometime in the latter years of what the locals referred to as the Twentieth-Century, this man spent time at an institution that claimed to be of educational purpose but appeared, on closer inspection to be a denizen of alcohol, sin and other fun stuff. It was a time of promise and opportunity and the man liked it a great deal. One evening, alone in his bed, reading from a book that he’d put off opening for some time on the mis-guided view that it wasn’t for him, he had an epiphany. For the briefest of seconds the secrets of the world were laid bare in his mind, the answer to the great imponderable question revealed itself in all its bright shining glory. The answer was, of course, forty-two.
This, however, is NOT his story…
It is, though, the story of the book he happened to be reading. A self-proclaimed remarkable book that purports, in its introduction, to be:
“more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-Three More Things to do in Zero Gravity and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?”
With its wild theories of the Universe, its hapless English hero and his oddly named and even more oddly behaved other worldly counterparts; not forgetting the words DON’T PANIC, written in large friendly letters on the cover, the book in question can only be, the wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HHGG).
More than thirty years have passed since Hitchhiker’s came into publication, a novel spawned from the hugely popular BBC radio series. With its Oxbridge tinged fusion of clever satire, intellectual humour and gut-burstingly funny stupidity the series of books (a further four books were produced in the following years – a five part trilogy, as it were) are the literary equivalent of a Monty Python film. Indeed, the author and creator of the Hitchhiker universe, Douglas Adams, was a contemporary of the Python team and appeared and contributed to the Flying Circus television series.
I first read HHGG as a student at the University of Rhode Island back in the mid-90’s, reading all five novels in the space of a fortnight. They remain today, the funniest books I have read and hold the proud record of being the only books that I’ve had to put down for a rest as a result of over-laughing.
The stories follow the plight of Arthur Dent, the put upon Englishman who spends much of his time in a state of miserable confusion, after he is rescued from earth by his friend and closet alien Ford Prefect, minutes before it’s destroyed by Vogons (an extremely unpleasant slug like alien species with a penchant for paperwork and bad poetry). From here we are taken on a crazy journey through time and space where earth is destroyed, restored and destroyed again in a variety of ways. Along the way we meet a plethora of the galaxy’s most eccentric characters: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed outlaw President of the Galaxy, Marvin the manic-depressive humanoid robot, Slartibartfast the planetary architect with a speciality in Fjords, a pair of mice tasked with finding out the answer to the ultimate question (42), and Agrajag, a frequently re-incarnated chap whom Arthur Dent always seems to unknowingly kill. And, as the saying goes, many more.
Despite the over-riding sense of absurdity these are extraordinarily well written works of fiction. The plot (each novel is essentially a variation on the same basic plot) weaves, turns and veers off on a great many tangents but ultimately takes you along for the ride and delivers you every time to a thoroughly satisfying destination while the characters, as wacky as they are, are brought to life by their actions and words so convincingly that you find yourself empathising with the plight of the man who has to travel the universe ticking off everybody’s name on a giant register.
Indeed, it is the very fact that the story is nonsensical that makes HHGG work. The galaxy is the exaggeration of all of life’s absurdities, from political scandal to over-bureaucracy to the angst one feels when you can’t get a good cup of tea. An outrageous, brilliant satirical look on, well, Life, The Universe and Everything, really. It is also, in the creation of the Guide itself, a wonderfully prescient look (written as it was in the 70’s) at the evolution of human technology and dependence on the internet and the smart phones of today’s world.
This year is the 10th anniversary of Douglas Adam’s death. He died, tragically young at 49, of a heart attack in California. With his premature passing, the world lost a great writer and the chance for further material from a true comic master. His galaxy lives on however, the film of the book he always craved was finally made in 2005 staring Martin Freeman (he of the Office) and a sixth novel, penned by Eoin Colfer was published in 2009. I’ve yet to read it and while I’m told it’s very good, there’s a certain reluctance on my part to continue the story in the absence of its creator.
For now, I’ll reconcile myself by the bar at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, supping quietly on another Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster.
Quote from: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, Pan Macmillan, new edition, 1979
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Life, The Universe & Everything
So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish