On to lighter topics today than yesterday! Very light, in fact, considering I’m making good on something I said last week, and actually talking about one of the best comedy books around – The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (A trilogy in six parts).
I’m staunchly on record as loving the comedic fantasy stylings of Sir Terry Pratchett above all other writers, but in a very close second place has to be Douglas Adams, with his romp around space-time with a very average man named Arthur Dent. And it still horrifies me to know that some people have never read the book(s), and have only seen the movie.
Hitch Hiker’s is, to me, one of the must-reads of the world… I mean, otherwise, how would you know about Pan Galactic Gargle-blasters, how to get a lift from Vogons, or how important it is to be a hoopy frood who always knows where your towel is?!
Still, in keeping with the Guide, I shall attempt not to panic, and show you exactly where my towel is.
It’s on my copy of the first five books, naturally. It even say’s ‘Don’t Panic’.
Before I can tackle my usual first section of a review – the title – I instead need to take a step back here and talk about the Hitch Hiker’s canon, ethos and creation.
First, there was a radio show. Well, actually, first there was a writer who possibly drank a little too much and had a good idea he then spent ages pitching, but in terms of public reception… the first thing we got was a radio show.
It came out before I was even born.
It’s still hilarious today, fyi.
The radio show aired on the BBC’s radio network, on account of the BBC having a monopsony on radio dramas. It still does, and ‘monopsony’ is your word of the day to go and learn about.
Radio 4 got the first episode out in 1978, and the world steadily paid attention. Then there was a publisher. Eventually, there was thus… a book.
So, the book is just the radio show, but longer, right? Wrong.
This is where the canon and ethos of Hitch Hiker’s comes in. Every version of the story is different. The same key events tend to happen, but how the characters get to them, and why they do some of the things they do changes drastically from radio, to book, to TV series, to movie.
And according to Adam’s, prior to his death, every single version is correct, even when they contradict.
This made Hitch Hiker’s the very first setting I encountered growing up where the idea of having multiple different takes on things and a clean slate each time you changed mediums was in play. I would go on, a couple of years later, to also find the same trick being employed by the excellent comic company, Top Cow, for their Witchblade and Darkness series, which I love. It is also the premise allowing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be a thing and thus bombarding us with a new movie every year, but I digress.
Every version of Hitch Hiker’s is true, but if you want my money, the radio show is best overall, the book after that, and the TV show next. The movie, frankly, sucks compared to these, in my opinion, despite the most excellent styling of the late Alan Rickman as Marvin the Paranoid Android, but that isn’t to say it’s bad – just it’s nowhere near as good as the other versions.
My copy of the first five books in one starts with a most excellent foreword by the author, including stuff about everything I said above. It is irreverent, light, informative and a wonderful example of Adams sense of humor. Allow me to include here his tips for getting off the planet, for your edification:
How to Leave the Planet:
1. Phone NASA. Their phone number is (731) 483-3111. Explain that it’s very important that you get away as soon as possible.
2. If they do not co-operate, phone any friend you may have in the White House – (202) 456-1414 – to have a word on your behalf with the guys at NASA.
3. If you don’t have any friends at the White House, phone the Kremlin (ask the overseas operator for 0107-095-295-9051). They don’t have any friends there either (at least, none to speak of), but they do seem to have a little influence, so you may as well try.
4. If that also fails, phone the Pope for guidance. His telephone number is 011-39-6-6982, and I gather his switchboard is infallible.
5. If all these attempts fail, flag down a passing flying saucer and explain it’s vitally important you get away before your phone bill arrives.
Mr. Adams was writing in 1985, though, so I accept no responsibility for what happens if you call any of those numbers today, and I am not looking up email addresses for you folks.
This should give you some insight however into the mind of the author. He then opens the actual novel with:
‘Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.’
First point to Adams for opening a book with a run on sentence in defiance of everything authors might be told today. Second point for establishing that while we may think of ourselves as special, what with our sentience and ability to actually go to space, in this book at least… we aren’t. People rarely are special, after all. We’re just different from each other is all. Third, you can see immediately the cultural references are going to be dated. That though is easily rectified with a little reading between the lines, if you want to take the work to a more modern tone. Just replace ‘digital watches’ with ‘smart phones’, et voila.
Also, Ford Prefect? American audiences never got the joke with him, seeing as that model of car was UK only. So when you read his name, insert a very common car of your choice for his name instead.
In the radio show, the opening was read by Peter Jones, and I DO recommend looking the opening at least up on Youtube or something, as hearing the words in his dulcet tones is part of the charm for me.
The plot of Hitch Hiker’s is pure insanity. I’ll stick only to the first book here, and even that is going to get weird.
The plot follows the normal man and ape-descendant Arthur Dent as he wakes up one morning to find a bulldozer on his lawn. With his day starting by formal protest against a bypass being put through his home (achieved by laying in the dirt in front of the machinery), even he could not foresee it ending a few hours later after a trip to the pub with an old friend, his house being flattened, and then hitch-hiking a quick lift from a spaceship just before the entire Earth was blown up to make way for a hyper-lane bypass.
This leaves him with a bit of a headache, but at least there are peanuts. And a copy of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, with reassuring letters on the cover informing him ‘Don’t Panic!’.
The next few days of his life revolve around learning the perils of Vogon poetry, all about infinite improbability, how to cope with a friend who has turned into a penguin (briefly), and then running into someone he once met at a party, and an Earth woman he once had a crush on.
Together, the lot of them journey to the legendary planet Magrathea, home to a race of planet builders, who are working on building a new planet Earth, now the old one has blown up before it could finish its calculations. Calculations started aeons ago by a race of sentient mice.
And then the police show up, and it ends with everyone hungry and a planned trip to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Did I mention it’s insane? Technically I just told you the entire plot of the book, which in most reviews I try not to do so you can enjoy it for yourself, but in this case, I know that anyone who hasn’t read this book and now does still won’t have had it ruined for them. There is so much that happens inside the pages, and the events linking the seemingly unrelated nonsense together is probably more compelling than any synopsis can manage. I mean… I haven’t even mentioned the whale or the petunias!
Hitch Hiker’s revolves around its characters. Originally a radio drama, the characters had to be strong, unique, well voiced and defined to carry a show with only minimal exposition, lots of dialogue and some sound effects. This combination of factors makes the characters uniquely interesting and fun and very well written.
Arthur Dent starts us off and is our most frequent window into events and point of ‘normalcy’ to deal with whats going on. He is as surprised, shocked, confused and out of place as any of us would be, and makes a wonderful case for both everything that is awesome about our species while also being so unbelievably lame, boring, uncool… and normal. I adore him. This isn’t to say, however, he never gets a few good lines in, and by later books in the series, he becomes an absolute joy to watch as he rolls his eyes at the entire universe.
Ford Prefect is Arthur’s old friend, an alien, and thus both the man who got him off the planet before it exploded and his guide into the wider reaches of the galaxy. Thus, he is the same for us too. Ford is what I think of as an ‘executive hippy’ – more than enough capability to get things done and sorted, but very little drive to do so if he can possibly skate through without doing so, instead pursuing free drinks.
Ford works for The Guide, and hands Arthur his copy of the last edition. It’s effectively an e-book, and it speaks and responds to voice commands (so, Alexa years before Alexa was conceived). This makes The Book a character in it’s own right.
And if Alexa spoke with the voice of Peter Jones, I might actually bother to purchase her.
Zaphod Beeblebrox is our next major character, a flamboyant alien with two heads. Personally, I much prefer how they portrayed that in the TV series, even with its incredibly dated effects, then the movie version.
Zaphod is the Galactic President, and worse behaved than certain real-life presidents I could name. Thankfully, Zaphod has charisma in spades and in later books is almost redeemable for his behavior considering what he is actually endeavoring to do, though I always liked mad-cap Zaphod best. He gets some of the best one-liners, zings, and cool stuff happening to him, and awesome outfits to go with.
Trillian makes up the only female lead in the party, but she does with aplomb and style. After hooking up with Zaphod at a party on Earth some years ago, she is already invested in the nature of space and being around Zaphod, and forms a balancing middle ground between Arthur’s too sensible and dour and Zaphod’s too off the wall and reckless. She is Party Sensible for most of the book.
Marvin is the final character on the major roster. Originally written into the radio drama to be a one-shot character, he was so well liked by the public, Adams developed him further until he became an essential backbone to future plot points. Marvin is perhaps best known in his rotund form as voiced by Alan Rickman, who frankly did an amazing job. However, for me, Marvin will always have the voice of Stephen Moore.
Marvins absolute despondency even in the face of crazy adventure is both a welcome relief, and throws so much shade at various topics, advice and other cultural norms through all the books, he deserves all the love he gets, despite his demeanor. Hell, he saves everyone’s lives multiple times, but what thanks do you think he gets? Hmm? Poor guy.
Experience of Reading
Adam’s whimsy and ability to bring ideas full circle makes the whole series wonderful to read. It’s easy to pick up and put down, the characters are engaging, the plot just rambles from one thing to the next in such a fun way you never know what to expect.
Like Monty Python, the books are endlessly quotable and like Fawlty Towers, you will find yourself loving even the most inept or horrible characters and rooting for them.
Don’t rely on the movie as your only inroads into this series. Read the books. Listen to the radio broadcasts. Watch the old TV series, and appeciate how ahead of its time it was with some of its effects, and how ahead of his time Adams was with some of the things in his tale.
It’s a great series. Read it if you haven’t already! Possible have a lot of beer while doing so, in memory of an author who thought it all up while lying drunk in a field in Innsmouth, staring at the stars.
Title: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Author: Douglas Adams
My favorite quote: ‘You just come along with me and have a good time. The Galaxy’s a fun place. You’ll need to have this fish in your ear.’