Through humour and cleverness, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has attained the status of a modern classic of the science fiction genre and a rite of passage in geek culture. The fact that it has been heavily reimagined and readapted and has been able to transcend cultural boundaries, speaks to a broad appeal. Its influence can be seen in Red Dwarf, Dr Who, Radiohead, Neil Gaiman and the recent SpaceX launch.
Arthur Dent is not having a good day. Having only recently discovered that his house was due to be demolished without his knowledge or consent to make way for a new highway bypass, he has had to resort to lying down in protest in front of the bulldozers that have arrived to begin the demolition as he has no other feasible idea how to stop them. The destruction of his house is swiftly put into perspective a short time later when the entire planet Earth is destroyed by a fleet of alien spaceships to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
Arthur manages to survive at the last minute only because he was fortunate enough that his friend, Ford Prefect, was not, as he had assumed, human, but was in fact an alien from a world in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Arthur’s heavy-drinking alien friend is a roving reporter for the Hitchhiker’s Guide of the Galaxy, a book which has supplanted the Encyclopaedia Galactica as being a handy reference to all things in the galaxy despite being wildly inaccurate. Ford has now been stranded on Earth for some fifteen years and has achieved little more than changing the Guide’s description of Earth from ‘Harmless’ to ‘Mostly Harmless’.
Ford and Arthur manage to escape the destruction of Earth by hitching a ride aboard one of the ships which destroyed the planet. The ships are manned (or should that be ‘Vogonned’?) by the Vogons; a particularly unpleasant alien species who, like the men who were going to demolish Arthur’s house, are mostly mindlessly following instructions.
Meanwhile, Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed President of the Imperial Galactic Government has stolen a revolutionary prototype spaceship for reasons he does not fully comprehend. The ship, the Heart of Gold, is powered by an infinite improbability drive, allowing it to travel the vast distances of interstellar space almost instantaneously.
Zaphod Beeblebrox, adventurer, ex-hippy, good timer (crook? quite possibly), manic self-publicist, terribly bad at personal relationships, often thought to be completely out to lunch. President?
The President in particular is very much a figurehead – he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the Government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.
With a ship capable of doing the highly improbable, it is surprisingly unsurprising that the unexpected keeps occurring. First, just as Arthur and Ford are ejected from the Vogon ship to their apparent deaths in the vacuum of space, the Heart of Gold happens to pick them up just in time. More improbably, it turns out that Ford and Zaphod are old friends. Even more improbably, Arthur has already met the President of the Galaxy. Finally, unfathomably, Arthur realises he is not the last surviving Earthling; piloting the Heart of Gold is Trillian (formerly Tricia McMillan), a young woman Arthur recently met at a party and thought he was getting on quite well with until Zaphod came along and swept her away.
Now that they have come together, they can join Zaphod on his quest. If only he could remember what it was for.
I freewheel a lot. I get an idea to do something, and, hey, why not, I do it. I reckon I’ll become President of the Galaxy, and it just happens, it’s easy. I decide to steal this ship. I decide to look for Magrathea, and it all just happens. Yeah, I work out how it can best be done, right, but it always works out. […] And whenever I stop and think – why did I do something? – how did I work out how to do it? – I get a very strong desire to just stop thinking about it. Like I have now.
Arthur now finds himself overwhelmed by the vastness and weirdness of space. Space, it turns out, is populated with supercomputers solving the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything; civilisations that manufacture entire planets; and artificial intelligences with personalities that range from irritatingly positive to insufferably depressing.
Still in his bathrobe and slippers with a towel over his shoulder, Arthur feels alone and bewildered by all this, and wonders when, if ever, he may again enjoy the pleasure of a good cup of tea.
‘You know,’ said Arthur thoughtfully, ‘all this explains a lot of things. All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.’
‘No,’ said the old man, ‘that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe has that.’
I had not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before, but I am pretty familiar with the 2005 film. In fact, I could hardly read the dialogue of Arthur, Zaphod, Marvin (the paranoid android) or the narrator without ‘hearing’ the voices of Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman or Stephen Fry, respectively. The film follows the plot of the novel fairly closely and so I can’t say the novel held any surprises for me and my enjoyment of it was already assured by my enjoyment of the film.
It probably goes without saying that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is quite humorous, in a very English and a very geeky kind of way. Its signature style of humour – observing absurdities, ironies and inconsistencies – is able to transcend from the everyday to the deeply philosophical, existential and scientific.
Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.
There is much more I would like to say about Hitchhiker’s, but, as I am only one book in, in a five-book (or possibly six-book) trilogy, I will save some of my more general observations until I finish the series.
What I can say here is that if, like me, you are a fan of the film, then to read the book and relive some of your favourite parts, is a treat. And even if you have not seen the film, then this book alone is a real treat. I actually have very little to say about this first novel by way of criticism. If you have tried it but found you are not a fan, it is probably for subjective reasons of personal taste than for anything necessarily flawed with this book. I would say it pays to take a leaf out of Ford Prefect’s book and leave all seriousness aside, embrace this universe with all of its quirks and absurdities, and try to have fun with it. Arthur has enough uncertainty to be shared around.
Next up; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe!