“It’s science fiction and it’s extremely funny…inspired lunacy that leaves hardly a science fiction cliche alive.”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

In the beginning the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move, but it was followed, in 1979, by something rather smaller but infinitely more useful and far easier to read – “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, the story of Arthur Dent, local radio executive, dressing-gown wearer and interplanetary refugee.

Originally released as a BBC Radio series, H2G2 quickly found its way to print and was followed over the period of thirty-odd years by five follow-up books, a TV series and a film. In that time the story arc gained a huge fan-base and brought its author, Douglas Adams, a degree of immortality achieved only by the lesser gods.

This edition gathers together the first five books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) and Mostly Harmless (1992) under one cover. The sixth book, And Another Thing … was written by Eoin Colfer in 2009 and is available separately.

So what exactly IS H2G2? Ostensibly, it tells of Arthur’s peregrinations across the universe in search of a nice cup of tea (the Earth having been destroyed by a Vogon Constructor Fleet to make way for a hyperspace bypass) accompanied by Zaphod Beeblebrox (ex Galactic President and totally hoopy frood), Ford Prefect (roving researcher for the Guide and expense account software beta-tester), Trillian (just some girl, you know) and Marvin (a Paranoid Android). The characters sound fun but actually they are rather cod, stock sci-fi personnel so… move on, there’s nothing to see here (although Marvin is the most endearing and best loved literary robot of all time).

There is not really much in the way of a storyline either, at least in the first two books, and what develops subsequently isn’t much cop – hopelessly confused and confusing and it’s clear that Adams was either trying too hard or not hard enough. Or at all, for that matter; he famously stated that he wasn’t much good at plots…

He also noted, even more famously, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” which hints at the true genius of the man. Douglas Adams was a profoundly gifted humourist, a satirist of no little repute if you will, and THAT is one reason why people love his books. It’s the gentle Wodehousian humour, the sideways look at late 20th century culture and technology that makes these books so special and anyone who’s read the series has his or her favourite quotes. For my part…

“For a moment or two the old man didn’t reply. He was staring at the (spaceship’s) instruments with the air of one who is trying to convert Fahrenheit to centigrade in his head while his house is burning down.”

and

“You mean,” said Arthur, “you can see into my mind?”
“Yes,” said Marvin.
Arthur stared in astonishment, “and …?”
“It amazes me how you can manage to live in anything that small.”

…sum up the man’s ironic genius but my personal favourite is the description in So Long of a Porsche… “It was a low bulbous shape, like a small whale surfing – sleek, grey and rounded and moving at a terrifying speed.” Fantastic! and if you can imagine five (shortish) books written in that vein, you have an inkling of what you will be reading.

Another reason for reading these books is Adams’ prodigious talent for setting out strange and provocative ideas: the eponymous Restaurant of the second book is one, as are his two revolutionary faster-than-light transport mechanisms – the Infinite Improbability Drive and Bistromathics. Silly? Yes. Wildly impractical? Frequently. Amusing? Yup. Inherently and strangely logical? Mais certainement… Well, maybe not always so silly. Consider the answer to the meaning of life etc etc. i.e. “42”.

What Adams is saying is that we spend so much time looking for answers that we forget to wonder which are the most important questions. Sentient household appliances, cloud computing (for which, see Hactar) anyone? And, of course, with The Guide itself he managed to predict the development of the pocket internet so, not just amusing, but also prescient and thoughtful.

I think it’s fair to say that DA did, for scifi literature, what Monty Python did for comedy and the Sex Pistols for popular music. Have you read anything by Terry Pratchett? The man owes his career, and probably also his knighthood, to Adams.

That’s a hell of a legacy.

 

Reviewed by:

Campbell McAulay

Added 28th July 2015

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Campbell McAulay

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