December 18th, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews *The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy* by Douglas Adams

I am rereading my old Hitchhikers’ omnibus partly in response to Rosalynn and Catherine’s dialogue on rereading. I used to reread like crazy–there are books on this earth that I have read close to 20 times–but as I age, more and more I feel the cold hand of mortality on my shoulder as I read, and I fear I won’t get to read all the books I want even once in my life, and this stops me from doing much rereading.

Thus, a lot of books are frozen in my mind the way I read them and thought about them when I was a whippersnapper–I say something’s “brilliant” but don’t take into account that my 15-year-old mind may have been easier to impress than it is now.

I loved the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series with all my tiny geeky heart when I was a teenager. So when I found out that, after Adams’s death, some totally other person was writing a sixth book in the series, I was incensed. I could say, “Those books are perfect, Adams was unique, and this is a terrible idea.” But I hadn’t read those books in at least a decade, so what did I know?

So the other reason for rereading is to have some context by the time Eoin Colfer‘s book, titled *And Another Thing*, comes out in paperback. I want to read it, certainly, and give it a fair shake–not wrapped up in nostalgia.

I first came upon these books because I picked up the fourth title in the series (it was originally a trilogy that overspilled its limits). I read it because it was called So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and in those days I picked up any book with a funny title and read almost everything I picked up. (Other hits from that period include Elvis Jesus Coca Cola, Lady Slings the Booze, and The Paper Grail).

Of all those “funny title” reads, I loved *Fish* the most, and so went back to the beginning and read the whole series, and then the scripts for the radio show on which it was based (those made little sense to me; too much British humour, perhaps?), all the other books Adams wrote. And I watched the old film based on the book/show (the new one makes a lot more sense, by the way) and tried to get the old BBC tv show based on same, though I think by that point even my adolescent geek enthusiasm tapped out.

So it was in at least one sense very very nice to go back once more and read the old omnibus introduction, which endeavours to set the record “firmly crooked” in explaining the books’ path to creation. I probably could have read it more objectively if parts of the intro hadn’t been my grade 11 drama monologue, which I had (and apparently still have) memorized.

Then into the story–you know that story. Arthur Dent being sleepy and baffled, Ford Prefect being suave and fatalistic, saving Arthur while the rest of the earth is destroyed by a race called Vogons from a distant plant because they are creating a hyperspace expressway.

And their adventures therewith: cruising the galaxy, they run into Ford’s semi-cousin, Zaphod Beeblebrox, erstwhile president of the galaxy, and the pretty lil thing he picked up on earth, Tricia McMillan (whose name he has condensed, naturally, to Trillian). And their impossibly weird spaceship, the Heart of Gold, and Marvin the Paranoid Android, their robot. And the contented doors, and…oh, it’s all so funny and silly and great.

I love all these characters so much that the nostalgia followed me into the present reading–it took me a while to start reading like my 31-year-old self. The first clue that I could be critical was when I noticed that Ford Prefect’s name was explained twice (he’s an alien seeking to blend in on earth, and chose a name that seemed to him common among dominant lifeform, but turned out to be the name of a British subcompact car). A little editorial drop that has survived 20 years of re-issues…or maybe Adams worried readers wouldn’t catch the joke.

Whatevs. Adams is *such* an imaginative thinker that it’s totally natural, no matter what your age, to fall under his spell. The flights of fancy are thrilling, like a ship that runs on an Infinite Improbability drive: in can do anything, provided it is told exactly how improbable that thing is. The book, *The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* exists in this fictional world to calm and instruct the characters, but it is also a pretty top-heavy expositional device. Every time Adams wants to insert some new crazy planet/lifeform/foodstuff he just makes up, he has one of the characters read about it in the guide and the narrative reproduces the whole page of info. It’s really funny, so one is often distracted from the fact that that’s bit sloppy storytelling, doncha think?

Although this is a book by, for, and about adults, there is a ring of adolescent idyllicness and naivete here that I don’t think I am importing. Everyone is always moments away from death, but no one (besides a sperm whale) dies onstage. Of course, all of earth and its inhabitants are destroyed, but this is treated as a rather larky bad moment rather than a soul-destroying tragedy for the two remaining Earthlings.

People occasionally make fun of me for taking *So Long…* as my favourite Hitchhikers’ book. They dismiss it as the “romantic one”, but the fact is it is the only book in the series in which man-woman relationships make even a touch of sense (this is not a critique, but just a note: everyone in this version of the galaxy appears to be heterosexual). In this first book (the one that I am ostensibly reviewing here, in case you forgot), Trillian is the woman who travels around with Zaphod and “tells him what she thinks of him.” The relationship is left at that, but she did leave her home planet to be with him. I wonder if they’re snogging?

But I am being pennyante–this isn’t photorealist stuff, it’s semi-satire. Not satire of science-fiction but using the form of sci-fi to satirize real-life (I think). It’s sharp and believeable, within it’s own parameters, with a few (not all) well-drawn characters. The only other complaint I could possibly level against the book is that because this first book was based on several in a series of radio plays, it doesn’t quite have the structure of a self-contained book. The five books perhaps somewhat have a single structure, but not quite that either–they basically all blur into one hilarious episodic adventure.

I’ve already started reading the second book in the series, *The Restaurant at the End of the Universe* (always with the good titles, Adams–my favourite books of his are actually the Dirk Gently books: *Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency* and *The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul* [possible the best title in the history of books]). I’m finding as I try to write this review, I’m finding that bits of *Restaurant* are getting mixed up with the first book in my mind and I’ve got to be careful to reference the right book.

For example, I wanted to tell you that possible my favourite conversation-quashing line was in this book, but it’s actually in *Restaurant*–I’ll share it anway:

“Don’t try to outweird me, three-eyes. I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal.”

Nuff said.
RR

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