Sunday, September 13, 2009

Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

"Far out, in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy, lies a small, unregarded yellow sun," Dougals Adams' first novel opens. "Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea," it goes on, while it dawns on the reader that hey, he's talking about the Earth, and he's also talking about us.

It might also dawn on some of the more particular kinds of readers who have backgrounds in astronomy that Adams' calculations of distance are a bit off. But this is not really that big of a deal.

The tone suggests a disdain for the Earth and its inhabitants, to be sure. And it is possible that Douglas Adams himself harbored some disdain at the time it was written, a year or so prior to the publication of the book. But you have to remember that, at the time, he was a struggling writer/performer trying very hard to become the next John Cleese, but he wasn't very good at being John Cleese. So when this opening was written, for a radio series tentatively titled "The Ends of the Earth" he was feeling a little down-trodden. But the radio series, and subsequently the book, were set to change and define his life and career forever.

The book opens with an outsider's introduction to Earth, where we find Arthur Dent, a human who is unaware that his home is about to be demolished to make way for a new bypass. This action, taken by the English government, is mirrored by the fact that the galactic government, unbeknownst to the people of Earth, have made a similar decision about Earth. Enter Ford Prefect (a name which American readers may not get, because the Ford Prefect is a car that was never sold in the United States, but imagine that the name is Ford Focus and you'll get the joke made part way through the first couple chapters), an alien researcher for a guide book for interstellar travelers titled, interestingly enough, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He saves Arthur from the destruction of Earth and together, they go on an adventure across the stars.

Basically, this book is a buddy comedy about two galactic travellers, one of whom is very much in his element in space and the other who is not. Together they meet a slew of sci-fi heroes and villans while travelling to strange new worlds in very fast spaceships with technology Arther Dent has never dreamed of.

It sounds pretty cut and dried, but Douglas Adams does several things with this book which turn the whole genre on its head. To begin with, the novel opens where so many science fiction stories end (or at least threaten to end), with the destruction of the Earth. The first villains Arthur and Ford meet are not fierce evil warriors (like Star Trek's Klingons) or heavy-handed fascists (like the Empire in Star Wars) but a race of beauracrats; a branch of the galactic democratic government that takes care of making sure all the permits are in place before beginning construction of a new bypass.

This is why Douglas Adams' work is so groundbreaking. Like so much art he's holding a mirror up to reality, but in this case the mirror is a fun-house mirror with stars and spaceships in it.

The problem with the novel, though, is that while it's hilarious and thought-provoking on subjects such as God and the human condition, our main character is a person who actually does very little in the course of the story. Things happen to him or, more frequently, to the characters around him while he observes, the quintessential fish-out-of-water. The action is driven mainly by Zaphod Beeblebrox, a character identified as the former president of the galaxy who spends the novel searching for a mystical planet without any motive. His motivation, or lack thereof, is explored but never explained.

Another problem with the novel has to do with that introductory line, calling Earth utterly insignificant. It is revealed that the Earth is, in fact, a very significant planet in its own right, so significant that it is being reconstructed (that is right, reconstructed) by a race of people who originally built it as a computer with the job of calculating the missing piece to the meaning of life (having already learned the answer from a previous computer, they must build a second to calculate the question). So the Earth is very significant, but the question, or the answer depending on which way you look at it, is not resolved when you turn the back cover.

The saving grace of this, though, is that the book is based on a radio series, and the book itself only covers a part of the series. And the last line of the book indicates that there will be a second (and luckily, there is) which may resolve these issues (unluckily, it won't).

The book is full of pieces of wisdom that are both funny and accurate. "Time is an illusion," Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent over three pints of beer apiece at noon, "lunchtime doubly so." A passage about the psychological advantage of owning a towel shows the genius of the writer at work. It is truly a sad fact that this writer was not more prolific in his too-short life. Reading this will show you just how much the world may have been robbed of.

You can find this book at any major bookseller or online. For the actual Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, please contact Megadodo Publications of Ursa Minor Beta in person by hitching a lift on the next passing spaceship. Don't forget your towel.


Molly said...

I guess I should really read this book, eh? Or is it too weird for someone like me? Check the last word of the last sentence of the second to last paragraph. Fix that.

bridget said...

Molly's comment reminds me of a card that says:

Girl #1: Where's the party at?
Girl #2: Don't end a sentence with a preposition!
Girl #1: Where's the party at, bitch?