The original HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY trilogy was a massive hit, so it was inevitable that fans would clamor for more. The first three books ranged across the galaxy, a wild ride carried along by an eclectic cast of comic characters, held together by Douglas Adams’ droll British humor, intergalactic hitchhiker Ford Prefect, former President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Robot, and grounded by befuddled English everyman Arthur Dent. This time Adams has taken a very different tack, returning to that little backwater planet in an unfashionable corner of the Milky Way known as… Earth.
But hang on, you say, Earth was destroyed by the Vogons at the opening of the first book to make way for an intergalactic bypass, right? Well, when Arthur Dent finds himself mysteriously back on a seemingly intact earth, eight years have passed in his travels across the galaxy but only a short time has elapsed on Earth. He sets out to restore his previous life, and in the process meets a woman named Fenchurch, who seems to be the only person who has been deeply affected by the “mass hysteria” that involved giant yellow spaceships in the sky. The more Arthur gets to know her, the more he discovers they are linked in mysterious ways.
After the frenetic pace of the first three books, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish slows things down, insists that readers have a seat on the couch, puts the kettle on for some tea, and plays some pleasant music on the stereo. It’s not a surprise that this book is not part of the original BBC radio or stage productions — those required a non-stop series of humorous skits to keep things going, much like Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This time it’s clear that Adams wanted to explore the character of Arthur Dent in greater depth, and to actually let him fall in love, no less.
There are, of course, plenty of wacky plot elements as Arthur and Fenchurch attempt to put together the pieces of the puzzle to discover what happened to the Earth and why all the dolphins have disappeared, leaving only the cryptic message that is the book’s title. The romance between the two leads is surprisingly sweet and charming. They fly off to California to interview a deranged dolphin researcher named John Watson who might be able to shed some light on things, if they can believe him.
The story ends with a series of humorous revelations about what really happened, and we learn God’s Final Message to His Creation. We even get a final cameo from Marvin the Paranoid Robot. It’s all very pleasant, harmless, and has many classic lines of sardonic humor. What the story is missing, finally, is any real purpose or urgency. Why was the book written in the first place? It all feels like an encore that Adams felt obligated to produce to let fans have one last hurrah with his beloved characters (and to get his literary agent out of his house). But the story is so toned down from the manic intensity of the previous volumes that it just feels underwhelming in comparison. Half the book hardly counts as science fiction at all, more of a domestic comedy of manners.
Martin Freeman does an excellent job with Arthur Dent — Freeman was brilliant as Tim Canterbury in the UK version of The Office, so he’s perfectly suited to capture the essence of Arthur Dent, a downtrodden but essentially decent chap who just wants to muddle through life and enjoy a cup of tea on occasion. Sadly, there weren’t very many other standout characters like the previous books, as this book is firmly centered on Dent. The book did have some nice lines, though Marvin’s final curtain call didn’t produce any truly memorable quotes. So I’ll leave you with this instead:
From another direction he felt the sensation of being a sheep startled by a flying saucer, but it was virtually indistinguishable from the feeling of being a sheep startled by anything else it ever encountered, for they were creatures who learned very little on their journey through life, and would be startled to see the sun rising in the morning, and astonished by all the green stuff in the fields.
Incidentally, there are two more Hitchhiker’s books after this: Mostly Harmless, which was reluctantly written by Adams to keep his agent, publisher and fans at bay, and the widely disparaged And Another Thing…, which was written by Eoin Colfer, and which Adams had trouble preventing since he had already passed away and his spirit was comfortably retired on Betelguese with Fenchurch, Ford, Zaphod, Trillian, and of course, Marvin. He could not be reached for comment.