March 23rd, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Mostly Harmless* by Douglas Adams

I have been working on reading all the Hitchhikers’ Guide books for a few months now, trying to give the new one a fair shake when I finally read it (it’s in the post right now). And then Mark proposed the Retro Reading Challenge, so I fudged my reading challenge into his.

I’m supposed to have read the book only once, and it’s possible I did, and at least 15 years ago, which seems about right. So this is my RRC review, then:

This book is hella disjointed. The first three books in the series were too–very very very episodic, and none-too-committed to causality–whatever good gag Adams could think up to put next, that’s what happened next, coherence, plot or character development, linear time be damned. The plot never really did come together in any of the books, but the characters, showing their stripes in reaction to whatever lunacy the universe/Adams threw at them, actually did resolve in reasonably consistent, fairly likeable, not especially deep folks. At least, I found them likeable.

Then, in the fourth book in the series, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, apparently someone told the author he needed more emotional resonance or some such, and so two of the four central characters (Zaphod and Trillian) get ditched entirely, Earth gets reinstated (it was destroyed in the first book) and Arthur, the bumbling everydweeb from earth who has spent the last three books stumbling around in terror (as well he should), gets to go home, sleep in his own bed, and fall in love with a pretty girl. Ford Prefect, Arthur’s sarcastic savior from the planet Betelgeuse gets to stick around, but mainly for drunken confusion.

I never really understood the parts of *Fish* that Ford was in, but Arthur’s love story with Fenchurch is just lovely, if only from a wish fulfillment perspective–there’s all manner of impossible concidence and heart-stopping joy and this really great love scene while flying… It does not, of course, make any sense with what came before–no one has experience a genuine emotion besides fear and hunger in the entire series up until now. What’s more, no on has said a dirty word, had sex or wanted to–you could safely give the first three books to children if you so desired (they wouldn’t understand, but they wouldn’t be Corrupted, either). So making the characters say “sh*t” and experience erotic desire in book #4–well, that’s changing the rules a bit.

Thus, we are preprared for book #5, wherein 1) earth is gone again, for reasons never made clear, 2) Fenchurch is gone (for good, it seems) due to an accident that is never explained. It’s basically as if book #4 didn’t happen. Trillian, the pretty earth girl who travelled around with president of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox and “told him what she thought of him” (sex, or even Trillian’s attractiveness: never mentioned) is back, though, Zaphod does not make a reappearance after book 3 (unless you count the nothing-to-do-with-anything-and-not-even-very-funny short story, Young Zaphod Plays It Safe, which is stuck in the back of my omnibus of the first four books.

Anyway, sorry–long lead-in. Trillian’s back, although this is actually not really her but an alternative-universe version of Trillian that readers have not meant before. Before she met Zaphod and went into space, she was plain old Tricia McMillan (I think that’s clever) and she was an astrophysicist–now she’s so consumed with regret she’s left the profession, is working in television, and has very little enthusiasm for life. It’s surprisingly affecting. No, really, read:

“There was something roughly the size ofa large camper van parked about a hundred feet above her lawn.

“It was really there. Hanging there. Almost silent.

“Something moved deep inside her.

“Her arms dropped slowly down to her side. She didn’t notice the scalding coffee slopping over her foot. She was hardly breathing as slowly, inch by inch, foot by food, the craft came downwards. Its lights were playing softly over the ground as if probing and feeling it. They played over her.

“It seemed beyond all hope that she should be given her chance again. Had he found her? Had he come back?”

He hasn’t, but something else happens and for a while it seems like a female character has a plotline for the first time in HHG history…but then it fades out.

Ford has a very similar plotline to the one he had in 4–namely, hijinx–but it makes a good deal more sense and actually concerns the Hitch Hiker’s Guide and so, indirectly, the other characters and some of the things that have come before in the series. But mainly he’s just there for the hijinx. And it’s awfully fun:

“Ford hurled himself at the door of the editor-in-chief’s office, tucked himself into a tight ball as the frame splintered and gave way, rolled rapidly across the floor to where the drinks trolly laden with some of the Galazy’s most potent and expensive beverages habitually stood, seized hold of the trolley and, using it to give himself cover, trundled it and himself across the main exposed part of the office floor to where the valuable and extremely rude statue of Led and theh Octobpus stood, and took shelter behind it.”

Bwa!

And Arthur, loveable Arthur who no reader would bother reading 5 books about if they did not adore? Well, he has…a series of (mis)adventures, now on all on his own, apparently searching for enlightenment and a place to call home. The adventures are funny, but they all resolve like jokes, with punchlines. And Arthur’s story in particular is heavily freighted by this idea of alternate universes, which here makes no sense whatsoever. In Adams’s highly imaginative (but perhaps not deeply imagined) universe, Earth is located in a plural sector (ZZ), thus making it unstable in the 5th dimension–depending on where you are on that axis, sometimes Earth is present, sometimes not.

For good or ill, the above explanation does make sense to me. But how does one go about moving in the 5th dimension? Arthur keeps arriving on a planet with Earth’s coordinates, realizing it is nothing like Earth and setting off for…the exact same physical coordinates again? How does that happen?

What bugs me about this is, Adams could totatally could have answered these questions; he just got lazy and/or bored with the thought process. If there’s one thing that reading 5 books of his in rapid succession has taught me, it’s that brother was a genius, yo. He totally understood the science (and philosophy) on which he based his constructions. But he had a short attention span.

Finally Arthur gets a gig making sandwiches on a primitive planet (they’d never seen sandwiches before) and Ford gets free of his scary adventure at the HHG, and Tricia McMillan gets forgotten about. Reappears, Trillian! With a daughter in tow, fathered by Arthur although without sexual participation (ah, the series returns to form) or even knowledge.

The part with Arthur and his daughter, Random (that’s her name) is really treacly, and thus in fact Random, because trying spark paternal love in this morass of puns, sight gags and interdimensional physics is a non-starter.

So, pretty much is the resolution of the novel. The gag around which the whole ending, which–to Adams’s credit–was set up two books ago is, in my humble opinion, pretty dumb. The lunacy that surrounds it, involving Tricia, Trillian, Random, Ford, and some neat repercussions from book 1–is cooler, but when it finally ends, the bang is a whimper.

The ending, it’s been noted in various places, is also really dark, and an attempt to be the be-all end-all of endings: no more books in this series, was it seemed the author’s message. Except he later regretted that, and it seems, mentioned that regret to his wife, who contact Eoin Colfer….

This seems like a negative review but it’s not–I still love this book! In response to Mark’s challenge, I should say the love that I held for it in 1994 was blind love. Back then, my tolerance for ambiguity allowed me to not understand any of the science and still enjoy the kooky tales and gags. And in 2010, I had lost patience with kook for kook’s sake, but some of the gags are pretty good, I like the characters and I get (some of) the science.

It’s a book with enough going on that two readings probably aren’t really enough, but the several pages of analysis above are probably too much. This book was written for, and with, pleasure, and should likely not be overthought–too late for that. I love it anyway, and Colfer’s book is going to have a tough act to follow (especially if he’s going to come up with an astrophysical logic for reinstating the earth).

I actually have The Salmon of Doubt on my shelf right now, the only DA book (that I know of) that I haven’t read. I am sort of uncomfortable with it, as the book consists of stuff recovered from the author’s hard-drive, which he never (necessarily) meant to publish, but I do love his writing, probably too much to neglect anything. And perhaps there are clues in there that will help me judge *And Another Thing* when I finally get around to reading it.

I meant to make this review really thorough, but I think it is just really long…

RR

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