fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams science fiction book reviewsThe 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.”

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsArthur 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.”