Friday, April 09, 2010

The Universe's Guide to Hitchhikers

Title: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Author: Douglas Adams
Bookmark: built-in ribbon

I have no idea how many times I've read this series. My best guess is that this is my third run through, but the number could easily be higher. Each time, though, my impressions are the same:
  1. Douglas Adams is a genius.
  2. Absolutely anything can be satirized in a sci-fi framework.
  3. Mr. Adams got tired of these books after number three (there are five books in the Hitchhiker Trilogy)
  4. I don't care--they're still fun.
The first time I read these I had to poke around in the uncharted territory of the Adult Fiction section of my hometown library. That was before they moved to the new building, and there was a stark contrast between the kids/teen section (comfy chairs, carpeting, bright colors, lots of light) and the Adult Fiction section (concrete floors, high narrow canyons of bare steel bookshelves, sunlight creeping greenly through ivy-choked smoked glass windows). It felt like a library both secret and arcane, the type of place you see in a creepy movie where the books might be filled with strange symbols printed in blood, or where mysterious figures may direct you to a goal, and are later discovered to be twenty years dead. Then I started reading Douglas Adams, and realized that's exactly the kind of space I had discovered. He may well have been my entry into Adult Fiction. I don't remember for sure.

Now I own two separate copies of the entire trilogy. This one is black, with gold lettering on the cover, gilt-edged pages, and a long, narrow ribbon trailing from the spine to mark your place. It looks like the sort of book found in the libraries seen in those movies. Exactly the sort of thing to keep on a bedside table or shelf to add a touch of class to your collection until someone notices the picture of a small sphere (planetoid?) sticking its thumbs where its ears might be and waggling its tongue at you. Kind of what Adams' books did to... well, everything.

For those unfamiliar with the books (if you are among their number, you should read them soon, or we may not be able to be friends anymore), they start with Arthur Dent, mild-mannered Englishman, protesting the pending demolition of his house to make room for a bypass. Then his friend Ford convinces him to leave the planet with/ abducts him because the Vogons are coming, and they want to destroy the planet to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Don't try to figure out why it makes sense. You'll never get there.

Arthur and Ford (who had been stuck on our planet for fifteen years, but is actually a Betelgeusian who writes for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) proceed to have a series of wildly improbable and bizarre misadventures traipsing about the galaxy and through time, learn the secret origins of our planet and the questionable origins of our species, witness the end of the Universe, quest for Ultimate Truths, learn to fly, defy physics and escape certain death too many times to count. Oh, and they help to save the universe at least once. And that's just the first three books.

My guess is that Adams felt he was done at this point, but a clamoring public demanded more. Again, this is only a guess. I've done no actual research on that topic. The fourth book is a complete departure. When I first read it, I was annoyed that Adams had suddenly decided to write an entire novel that seemed to be nothing more than a dopey love story, and Ford (my favorite character in the series, possibly in all of literature) spends most of it setting up an elaborate telephone prank to bankrupt a technology company and possibly drive one of its sales representatives completely mad. Now, I can at least appreciate that he may have wanted to try something different, and I have to admit it contains the hottest and most physically improbable love scene ever written. Plus, he tells us God's Last Message to His Creation, which has been thoroughly commercialized, as you might expect.

The last book, though, makes it obvious that Adams was done with HHGTTG books, because SPOILER ALERT he destroys the Earth in every possible universe simultaneously, taking with it three of the major characters.


There's also a short story, Young Zaphod Plays It Safe, which I've only ever seen in my two collected editions, and takes place long before the trilogy starts, but gets stuck in the book somewhere between the third and fifth volumes (I don't remember whether it's before or after the fourth).

The important thing to remember is that he's not really trying to write a sci-fi epic. He's just using sci-fi to look at everything in our messed-up world and give it a twisted, satirical bent. Hell, he even uses it to make fun of sci-fi. It's rude, unapologetic, completely hysterical, and absolutely brilliant. To those who read this, remember to pack your towel.

Thanks, Mr. Adams. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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posted by reyn at 1:21 PM