So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is the fourth novel in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. With everything tied up nicely at the end of the third novel – Life, the Universe and Everything – this novel would have to deliver something special to breathe more life into the series.
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish begins with Arthur Dent returning to ‘Earth’. If this is unexpected for the reader, it is also a surprise to Dent. It is as if the demolition of Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy never happened. In fact, it seems everyone on Earth believes the arrival of the Vogon fleet was some sort of mass hallucination. Arthur is too glad to finally be home and eager to resume his former life to worry too much about it.
‘Well, in the circumstances I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do. I was compelled,’ said Arthur, ‘to ignore it.’
Even his house is undemolished and as he left it, except that everything is covered in dust, there is a lot of unopened mail and, strangely, a fish bowl with the message ‘So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish’ etched on it.
Through a series of chance encounters, bizarre dreams and serendipitous coincidences, Arthur finds himself brought into the orbit of a young woman named Fenchurch. It is as if the Universe is trying to bring them together. It is not just that they seem to be made for each other and are rapidly falling in love; Fenchurch can’t help but feel that there is some higher existential purpose to their relationship.
Soon, this sense of a higher purpose becomes too strong to ignore. Together they seek out a man who now calls himself ‘Wonko the Sane’ who they believe may have the answers they are looking for.
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is the fourth Hitchhiker’s novel. I felt after reading the third – Life, the Universe and Everything – that it would require something substantial to resume the series after that third novel had concluded everything so satisfactorily and brilliantly.
Unfortunately, I don’t think So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish achieves that. Of the four novels I have read thus far, it is easily the weakest. The main fault I have with it is that it ends so abruptly. Unlike the earlier novels, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish read like it was the most considered; it proceeds at a slower pace, with large unanswered questions from the outset, and things are built and revealed only slowly from there.
If you did not know the length of the book, three-quarters of the way through you would think you were in the early stages of reading a much longer and more significant novel than the earlier three. But it all comes to a conclusion shortly after that. It is like travelling down a grand avenue only to turn a corner and find it has abruptly turned into a cul-de-sac.
I am not now, nor will I ever be, a Hitchhiker’s geek. Given the mutability of the series and the overlapping, perhaps even inconsistent, variations between different editions, I imagine that to have expert knowledge in the series would be a task whose difficulty would only make it more appealing to some. I can’t say I know why Adams decided to return to the series he ended so well in the third book but, if h2g2.com is to be trusted, he wrote it because he had been asked to.
… to be honest, I really shouldn’t have written [it], and I felt that when I was writing it. I did the best I could, but it wasn’t, you know, really from the heart.
In addition, if an article at mentalfloss.com is to be trusted, Adams was notorious for failing to meet his deadlines and to finish the novel he was effectively locked in a hotel suite for three weeks which probably goes some way to explaining the abrupt ending.
Elsewhere, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish lacks much of the appeal of the earlier novels; it is mostly Earth-bound and alien-less; there is no Zaphod or Trillian and Ford has a small role. But mostly it lacks that play on quantum mechanical absurdity that makes the earlier novels appealingly geeky.
And that’s not to say that So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish doesn’t have some strong points. It is still funny. In fact, it has some of the best humour of the series so far. And the early build up, especially Arthur and Fenchurch’s budding relationship, just shows what Douglas Adams’ writing is capable of when he takes his time.
Next up is Adams’ final Hitchhiker’s novel – Mostly Harmless. Though after So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, it will not be without some reservations.