The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I can’t think of any other SF book which is this incredibly funny, in that droll British way that Americans can never emulate. In 5th grade I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) and three of its sequels, but it’s this book that stays most in memory. I’ve always wanted to revisit Douglas Adams’ story, even though I was a bit worried it might not be quite as brilliant as I remembered, but I can report that the audiobook narrated by English comedian and actor Stephen Fry is the perfect comic voice to capture the spirit of the book. Since the audiobook clocks in at just under six hours, I decided it would be a good companion for a day hike in the mountains an hour from Tokyo. Hopefully none of the other hikers were disturbed by the strange tall gaijin chuckling to himself on the trail.
The story (as most of us know, though perhaps some younger readers won’t) begins with everyman Arthur Dent waking up one morning to discover a huge yellow bulldozer parked on his lawn, preparing to demolish his house to make way for a bypass. The local bureaucrat, Mr. Prosser, explains that the plans were on display at the local government office, but down in the basement, with the lights and stairs missing, in a locked filing cabinet in a bathroom with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”
Arthur Dent’s best friend is Ford Prefect, who turns out to be a galaxy-hopping humanoid alien who has been stranded on Earth for the last 15 years. Ford takes Arthur to the local pub and informs him that the Earth is about to be destroyed in a few minutes because it is scheduled for demolition to make way for a galactic bypass through local space. And of course this information has been posted for years in the local planning office in Alpha Centauri. Ford is a researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an electronic book that compiles the wisdom of the galaxy and is actually more popular than the Encyclopedia Galactica. Think of it as an early conceptual version of Wikipedia.
Ford manages to get Arthur and himself picked up on a passing spaceship, but it turns out the ship is piloted by Vogons, perhaps the most vile, obnoxious, and charmless race in the galaxy. Worse yet, they have a perverse love of poetry, which is so dreadful that listeners need to be strapped down to prevent self-injury.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also involves Zaphod Beeblebrox (the Galactic President), his female companion Trillian, Marvin the Paranoid Robot (perhaps the greatest creation in all SF), the Deep Thought supercomputer, and finally the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything (not what you might expect). There isn’t much point in describing further details of the book, which actually started as a BBC radio play in 1978. Suffice to say that the story is filled with more iconic humorous creations than any other book I can think of, including the Pangalactic Gargle Blaster, Vogon poetry, the Babel Fish, the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, the Heart of Gold starship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive, etc.
The book is so fun and creative that I think it would appeal to readers of any age or taste. I have yet to encounter anyone who didn’t like it, and it spawned a number of sequels and a Hollywood film version starring Martin Freeman. It ranks in the same category as Monty Python as one of the great achievements of British humor.
I’ll leave you with some quotes from Marvin, and an exhortation to immediately go out and read this book and the next three in the series if you haven’t, and to revisit them (perhaps by audiobook) pronto if you have.
“Come on,” he droned, “I’ve been ordered to take you down to the bridge. Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.”
“Sorry, did I say something wrong?” said Marvin, dragging himself on regardless. “Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it, oh God I’m so depressed. Here’s another one of those self-satisfied doors. Life! Don’t talk to me about life.”
“I got very bored and depressed, so I went and plugged myself in to its external computer feed. I talked to the computer at great length and explained my view of the Universe to it,” said Marvin.
“And what happened?” pressed Ford.
“It committed suicide,” said Marvin.”
For several of us at work, “Vogon poetry” was a benchmark. “How was the meeting? As bad as Vogon poetry?” We worked for the government, so we had lots of opportunities to compare.
This book has so many good memories for me. I remember pulling it off my dad’s shelf when I was a kid and reading the entire series. Then, many years later, when I took my kids to visit my parents, I pulled it off the shelf for my older boys when they were bored.
My oldest son and I listened to the audio of one of the radio dramas together a couple years ago. Last Friday night I learned that it’s his favorite book, which made me happy because I’m the one who introduced him to it years ago.
And just this morning I was at Starbucks waiting for my daughter to finish with physical therapy on her knee and I was reading an ARC of Jim Butcher’s new book from Sub Press. It’s three stories about Bigfoot. The first one is full of Hitchhiker allusions, including the Vogon poetry and, of course, the answer to the universe.
Time for a re-read!!
I’ve been a HGTTG fan since the early 80’s. I thought it was sad that Adams ended up hating the books before he died. I really liked the BBC mini-series but was disappointed with the Movie. It had a lot of things that were not in the books. I tell people that haven’t seen or read HGTTG that they will probably like it. I’m still a fan and every so often I reread the series. I love the humor.
I think the Hitchhikers series occupies a special place in all it’s fans’ hearts. I haven’t heard the original BBC radio series but I see it’s available on Audible too. The next three books are narrated by Martin Freeman, who plays Arthur Dent in the movie version (not to mention Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit), and many of the reviews on Audible complained that Freeman’s voice for Zaphod Beeblebrox was basically a Joe Pesci Long Island wiseguy and really annoying. Anyone have an opinion on that?
I also had HHGTTG on a laser movie disk. I was the size of an LP (331/3 RPM).
Wow, that must be worth quite a lot now. Too bad nobody has a player for it anymore…