When I was half-way through Life, the Universe and Everything – and thus half-way through Douglas Adams’ five Hitchhiker’s novels – it was starting to lose me. But I needn’t have worried; everything comes together wonderfully in the end of what is possibly the best of the first three Hitchhiker’s novels.
[Note – since this novel is part three in a series, this review contains some minor spoilers with regards to the earlier novels]
Leaving Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe, is not without its problems. To return from the end of time to your own time is tricky and, it turns out, Arthur and Ford have overshot it and arrived approximately 2 million years in the ‘past’. Then, the ship Arthur and Ford find themselves on, crash lands onto a planet they soon discover is Earth. Living on Earth, 2 million years before his own time, Arthur finds that what he thought were the primitive relatives of humans are in fact dying out, and the real ancestors of Earth’s humans are the useless, redundant, members of the alien species whose ship crashed on Earth.
Earth’s mission, to discover the question to the ultimate answer, has therefore been sabotaged by this accident and Arthur must endure being stranded on the Earth of the past without, seemingly, a friend in the universe.
He wanted to shout and shake with rage that the Universe kept doing these insanely bewildering things to him.
Five years have passed since Arthur found himself back on Earth, four since he last saw Ford. But now Ford has shown up saying he has detected disturbances in the space-time continuum that may offer them a chance to escape. Soon, they are transported a couple of million years into the future, to two days before the Earth was destroyed by Vogons, and reappear at Lord’s in the middle of an Ashes Test (a cricket match between England and Australia). There, unexpectedly, the meet Slartibartfast who will take them in his ship.
Slartibartfast is not very forthcoming about what he was doing on Earth and answers Arthur and Ford’s questions with only vague references to ‘curses’ and ‘doom’. His ship, the Bistromath, though, is extraordinary. In fact, it has superseded the infinite improbability drive of the Heart of Gold, with its own Bistromatic drive. This new technology utilises the non-absoluteness of numbers which is particularly observable in a restaurant setting – the unknowability of how many people will show up for a reservation for example.
Just as Einstein observed that time was not an absolute but depended on the observer’s movement in space, and that space was not an absolute, but depended on the observer’s movement in time, so it is now realised that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer’s movement in restaurants.
But all intelligent life in the universe is in peril and it is Slartibartfast’s mission to try and save it.
Long ago, the people of the planet Krikkit lived peaceful lives, blissfully unaware that there was a whole universe of other civilisations beyond them because their planet was shrouded with a cloud of dust. When a spacecraft crash lands on their planet, the shock at this abrupt change to their worldview prompted them to make it their mission to eradicate all other civilisations in the universe so they could return to their previous state of believing themselves special and alone. They develop military technology at an incredible rate which led to the Krikkit Wars.
Peace was eventually established by locking the planet Krikkit in a time envelope. However, one ship of their murderous robot soldiers evaded the envelope and have been reconstructing a key to release Krikkit from time captivity. The key is close to completion and, if used, would unleash a devastating resumption of the Krikkit Wars.
It was half way through this third Hitchhiker’s novel that I began having doubts as to whether I could maintain a strong interest. Life, the Universe and Everything makes an encouraging start with the mission of Slartibartfast to save the universe from a resumption of the Krikkit Wars. But from there, the story meanders a lot in the middle of the novel. The silliness of the series, which was a welcome relief from the more serious reading I regularly do, was becoming a bit much and a bit tiring.
Adams frequently uses asides in these novels. Short diversions from the main story that provide a bit of unrelated humour. I enjoyed these in the first two novels, but in the middle of Life, the Universe and Everything they were becoming more enjoyable than the main story and they felt like a transparent device to keep up enthusiasm.
If I can make a diversion of my own here; there is, I believe, a point of character development that was worth noting in Life, the Universe and Everything. It concerns Ford Prefect who had, in the previous novels, shown some of his nihilistic, hedonistic, tendencies. But in Life, the Universe and Everything it really comes through. All life in the universe may be under threat but Ford could hardly care less and only wants to know where he can find a good strong drink.
‘The point is,’ he said, ‘that people like you and me, Slartibartfast, and Arthur – particularly and especially Arthur – are just dilettanti, eccentrics, layabouts, fartarounds if you like.’
Slartibartfast frowned, partly in puzzlement and partly in umbrage. He started to speak.
‘…’ is as far as he got.
‘We’re not obsessed by anything, you see,’ insisted Ford.
‘And that’s the deciding factor. We can’t win against obsession. They care, we don’t. They win.’
But I needn’t have worried about my mid-book concerns. Adams brings everything together beautifully in the end. In fact, I think I should remember Life, the Universe and Everything as an example of one of those books worth persisting with. Even those asides turn out not to be just unrelated humour but become relevant to the story.
It is not just the story of this novel that comes together. There is a substantial Epilogue that brings closure for all the unanswered questions of the earlier novels with some of the best wit of the series so far. Though a part of me wishes it could have been incorporated into the story somehow, instead of put into an epilogue. But this is a minor thing. I would even go as far as say that, with the benefit of hindsight, Life, the Universe and Everything is possibly the best novel of the original trilogy.
These first three Hitchhiker’s novels have, what are beginning to feel like to me as, the key traits of a successful trilogy. First, a strong start with a story that could stand alone but where the appeal of the universe that has been created and its characters make us yearn for more. Second, a darker novel which has its own story but serves as a bridge from the first to the third with what it leaves unresolved. And third, a concluding novel which can rival the first in its enjoyability while giving the satisfaction of conclusion.
The main question I had after reading Life, the Universe and Everything was why write more?
Next up, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!