Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams [A Review]

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the fourth Hitchhiker’s novel, showed a noticeable decline in storytelling quality with the author himself admitting to lacking motivation and inspiration. What could he muster for Mostly Harmless, which would become his final novel in the series?

The Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that there may be an infinite number of alternative universes each containing different pasts and futures to our own, some subtly different, some profoundly.

Take any decision you have ever made. Now imagine a universe identical to this one in every respect except one – the ‘you’ in that other universe chose differently with regards to that one decision. This is a game we play with ourselves daily; wondering how our life would be different if we had chosen differently. Multiply this by the countless other decisions you and everyone else may have made differently and you get a bewildering myriad of alternative universes.

It is a game Douglas Adams plays in Mostly Harmless; the fifth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel and the last written by Adams. In particular, it is played by Tricia McMillan. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Tricia is a mathematician and astrophysicist who meets Arthur Dent at a fancy-dress party but is intrigued by Zaphod Beeblebrox’s claim to be from another planet and is swept away by him in his revolutionary spacecraft, the Heart of Gold, and henceforth goes by the name Trillian.

But in the alternative universe of Mostly Harmless, Tricia momentarily hesitates before going along with Zaphod and, never patient, Zaphod leaves without her. Tricia finds she can’t return to her previous career path as an astrophysicist. Knowing the existence of aliens and interstellar travel to be fact but without the evidence to prove it to the rest of the world, has rendered her previous education and career useless in her eyes and she has instead turned to an unfulfilling career as a journalist while constantly wishing she could return to that moment in her life when she could have left with Zaphod aboard his ship.

After failing to break into television in New York, Tricia returns to the UK to find a spacecraft on her lawn and aliens willing to take her on a journey. Tricia is not going to miss her opportunity again.

Meanwhile, in the universe readers are more familiar with from the previous novels, Arthur Dent endures trials greater than anything he has previously. His plan to tour to universe with the love of his life, Fenchurch, is destroyed when she mysteriously vanishes. He then travels the universe searching for a new place to call home, funding his journey by selling his DNA.

Arthur checked himself into a small motel on the outskirts of town, and sat glumly on he bed, which was damp, and flipped through the little information brochure, which was also damp. It said that the planet of NowWhat had been named after the opening words of the first settlers to arrive there after struggling across light years of space to reach the furthest unexplored outreaches of the Galaxy. The main town was called OhWell. There weren’t any other towns to speak of. Settlement on NowWhat had not been a success and the sort of people who actually wanted to live on NowWhat were not the sort of people you would want to spend time with.

Eventually he becomes stranded on Lamuella; a hospitable planet with a primitive civilisation where Arthur makes a place for himself as a sandwich maker. Here, he is as happy as he can be given the circumstances, but it is not likely the universe is going to leave him alone for long.

Trillian, like her alternative self trapped on an alternative Earth, has become a journalist in this universe too. But her demanding and sometimes dangerous career is impossible to pursue with a child. When a new assignment requires her attention, Trillian decides it is time to finally introduce her teenage daughter, Random, to her father – Arthur.

Arthur is completely unprepared to be caregiver to a daughter he never knew he had. Much less so to this particular one. Teenagers can be difficult on their own but Random has been largely raised in the absence of both parents and is understandably distrusting and disobedient. This alone would be too much for Arthur to handle, but more trouble is heading his way.

Ford Prefect has returned to the head offices of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and has been disturbed by what he has found. Whereas the Guide had once had a relaxed atmosphere where lackadaisical, disorganised and hedonistic researchers like himself can ‘work’, it now has a tightly-organised, highly-corporate environment, where unhappy workers plough away in their cubicles. Ford realises the Guide has been taken over by another corporation and, fearing for his life, he makes an escape.

In doing so, Ford accidentally discovers what the new leadership of the Guide has been up to. Ford discovers a prototype of the new guide; the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Mk II. A highly-sentient, artificially-intelligent, space-and-time-transporting and scarily-beautiful device; Ford feels he needs to get this out. So, he does so in the only safe way he can think of; he mails it to Arthur.

Mostly Harmless is the fifth Hitchhiker’s novel, the last written by Adams and is also clearly the longest. When reading the fourth novel – So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish – I felt it seemed the most considered and proceeded slowly, like it was just the beginning of a much more significant novel. This is even more true for Mostly Harmless which has a much more complex story which accumulates slowly.

I also said in my review of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, that the thing I disliked the most of that novel was that all this build-up led to an abrupt finish. I said it was like ‘travelling down a grand avenue only to turn a corner and find it has abruptly turned into a cul-de-sac’. This is also true of Mostly Harmless. This time it was like constructing an elaborate Lego set or Ikea furniture. One where you construct it in different sections individually, unsure how it will all come together and enjoying it all the while, only to turn the last page of the instructions and find one remaining step telling you to simply put the individually constructed sections together and you are done.

That being said, the abrupt ending in Mostly Harmless is more satisfying than in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish for the simple reason that it ties everything off quite nicely… again, since things were previously tied off nicely at the end of the original trilogy. Here Adams goes to the extent of using little pieces of foreshadowing from the earlier novels to leave little room for any more story. Given Adams’ reluctance to write more after the first three novels and his apparent difficulty with it, it is understandable that he wanted to give this one an unmistakeable finale.

Adams returns to a technique he used in the novel that ended the original trilogy – Life, the Universe and Everything – where there is a greater use of humorous asides, Guide references, that seem to distract from the main story, until it turns out to have been a subplot to the main story and all comes together in the end.

Also like the early novels, one thing worth noting about Mostly Harmless is that it is uncannily forward-thinking for a novel published in 1992. It includes elements that would only become more familiar after Men in Black (1997) or The Matrix (1999). But more radical is how eerily familiar the Guide Mk II is in our own current era of virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa.

The complexity of Ford Prefect is a noticeable development too. It is strange to see the normally nihilistic Ford take on a quest of his own. In Life, the Universe and Everything Ford could hardly care about the impending doom of a resumption in the Krikkit Wars, but here, the danger he identifies in the Guide Mk II inspires a most un-Ford-like selfless adventure.

It’s at times like this that you kind of think, let it all go. But then you think of guys like InfiniDim Enterprises and you think, they are not going to get away with it. They are going to suffer. It is my sacred and holy duty to see those guys suffer.

Again, like the entire series, whatever you might think of it otherwise, you can’t dispute that it is funny.

It wasn’t his job to worry about that, though. It was his job to do his job, which was to do his job. If that led to a certain narrowness of vision and circularity of thought then it wasn’t his job to worry about such things. Any such things that came his way was referred to others who had, in turn, other people to refer such things to.

When I came up with my 2018 Reading List, my plan was to read the five Hitchhiker’s novels included in this ‘complete edition’. I had completely forgotten that there is a sixth novel. It was only by luck that I came across it while perusing years-old lists I had made of books I wanted to read. So, despite being behind schedule on working my way through my 2018 Reading List, I have purchased that sixth book and started reading it. It means that instead of sharing my thoughts on the series as a whole in this review, I’m going to put them in my review of the sixth book – And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer.

Though I liked Mostly Harmless more than its predecessor So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, it still ranks below the original trilogy in my estimation. And, my feeling when beginning the sixth book is similar to my feeling when beginning the fourth – given that things have been wrapped up pretty neatly in Mostly Harmless, why start again?

Next up, And Another Thing…

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