The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is, first of all, a cult hit, and second of all – I still don’t know if I like it. Please don’t pelt me with molting cabbages! Certainly, it’s amusing: a carefully cultivated Dada/stream of consciousness novel is the best product of the best alchemy, provided it’s done right. It’s easy to see that Adams does get it right, but we don’t necessarily like all great books. You can see the epic-ness of The Odyssey, but still itch to get your fingers entwined in an Agatha Christie. So it is with me.
I listened to the Guide as read by Stephen Fry, which is marvelous, because he really gets the voices right, really convinces you that you’re on to hot stuff. The Vogons glomp about, Marvin the Robot mutters sarcastically darkly, Zaphod Beeblebrox leers through every speech bubble. This is very useful indeed, when you are working on an indeterminate number of windows at work: painting, scraping, and cleaning, all while bent over at just the wrong angle. It’s tedious enough to create a great vacuum in your mind, enough to provide the sensation that your brain has been ruthlessly and effectively swizzled.
The book finishes the job admirably.
I have, of course, listened to this audiobook before, so this is likely the third or fourth go-round, and I couldn’t help but notice a few things I hadn’t seen before. I should warn you that what follows will contain spoilers, but it won’t really affect your experience of reading the book, should you decide to go down that road. (How many roads will a man walk down?)
There are an astounding number of casual deaths in the story. The things that kick the bucket include a sperm whale, a pot of petunias, a couple of races of aliens that got licked up by a dog, and, naturally, the whole earth itself. It was one of the most impactful moments of the book: “There was a terrible, ghastly silence. There was a terrible, ghastly noise. There was a terrible, ghastly silence.” And then our little blue-green planet was gone.
The main characters flirt with death – forced to listen to abysmal Vogon poetry, chucked out of a space lock to asphyxiate in space, followed around by nuclear missiles, and so on. They never seem to get around to dying, however, mainly because they are too useful to the story to attend the tee time in the Next Great Beyond.
One of the strangest aspects to the book is that there are several allusions to Earth people, places, and objects, which are referred to as if they are still around, post explosion, in the present tense, when the rest of the book is written looking back at the past. The book talks about our planet as much as it does about any other. I have never dipped a toe into any of the other Adams books, but I like this device; it’s a cunning way to either intimate that time travel is possible, or that the planet is reconstructed (as happens in the movie).
I also noticed again and again how government and bureaucracy is handled: government is a repository for flashy idiots, bureaucracy for the plodding ones. For example: “Anyone capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” I will avoid throwing in my two cents (that is what Facebook is for, after all). In Adams’ world, screaming incompetency is to be expected, enjoyed when possible, and fruitlessly railed at when impossible: it is not, in any way, avoidable. That the world is run by mice is just the right touch to illustrate the state of the universe: those who appear to be manipulated are in reality the ones paying for the whole experience of life on Earth. The hidden hand, the invisible pot stirrer, is just what this kind of existence calls for: the one we think is in charge is not in charge, but more than that, has no idea that his fate is not in his (three) hands.
The last thing that I noticed – and noticed early – is that there is precisely one female character, an Earth woman called Trillian. Every other character with a speaking role is male, up to and including the computers. Women might be referenced every now and then, might be provided as background noise on rare occasions, but they generally don’t speak. It’s telling, though, that Trillian (who changed her name from Tricia) has adopted an androgynous name and is the only one who actually knows how to run the fantastic new spaceship, The Heart of Gold. She doesn’t make any major decisions, but she is also seen as more competent than Arthur Dent, who is one of those people who wears a digital watch and who thinks about it. There’s a strong push-and-pull around her character, as if she has to be made just manly enough to boss people around but still womanly enough not to usurp the position of any of the men.
As I said, I’m still not sure what to think of the book. I certainly enjoy Adams’ writing style, Fry’s execution, and the level of silliness. Robin Williams liked to say that “the world is open for play,” and Adams took that to heart. I’ll close with the best part of the movie adaptation of the book, what I thought upon leaving work the day the audiobook ended: