Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

In an interview published in some editions of their partially Douglas-Adams-inspired novel Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman give one definition of "cult classic" as "books which [people have] read over and over and over, books they've dropped in baths and puddles and in bowls of parsnip soup, books held together with duct tape and putty and string, books that are no longer lent out because no one in their right mind would actually borrow something like that without having it clinically sterilized first." I would say that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the cultiest of cult classics out there, one of those books that everyone knows bits of, even if they don't know the context: the Earth being destroyed to make room for a Galactic Hyperspace Bypass; always know where your towel is; the babelfish; the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything is 42... etc. etc.

That being established, it seems entirely appropriate that I left my copy of Hitchhiker's in the pub a couple of weeks ago. It's one of those books that it seems right to own several copies of in a lifetime, and I trawled the town's charity shops in the confident faith that one of them would have a copy for sale for £1 or so. In fact, two did.

Now, I'm not one for science fiction (excluding Doctor Who which to my mind is fantasy with aliens.) The fiction is all very well, but science? I'll leave that for someone else. As such, my feelings towards Hitchhiker's are a mixture of love and grudging tolerance.

Some parts make perfect sense in a very strange, surreal sort of way. Douglas Adams had a wonderful way with words, hilarious, sometimes profound, often spot-on.

"The planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."
"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." 
"It is a well-known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it[...]Anyone who is capable of getting themelves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." - something I have cynically said of politicians for years!
"There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
As the story progresses, elements of the story fit together perfectly in context, just as long as you were paying close attention to what came earlier. Other parts, I find to be near-unreadable, stuffed full of ridiculous names and pseudo-scientific waffle that makes my brain sulk. My favourite parts of the story are the Earth-set scenes in Hitchhiker's Guide, the cricketty part of Life, The Universe and Everything, and the entirety of So Long and Thanks For All The Fish, in which our reluctant hero Arthur Dent finds himself, improbably, back on Earth which was now not destroyed, and falling in love.

But my main reason for reading this book is, I'll admit it, Marvin. Poor, dear old Marvin, the Paranoid Android (who is not actually paranoid, so much as depressed. Really, really, utterly miserable. Poor metal man.) My affection for him was rekindled after I knitted the film version, a knitted doll that seemed to take on Marvin's personality before he was even sewn together. Of course, this meant that I found the last chapter of So Long And Thanks For All The Fish utterly heartbreaking.

Oh, and the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything may be 42, but what is the question? On my latest reading of the book of that title, I wondered if I had found the answer... or rather, the question! (You know what I mean!) After meeting a man who had sworn to tell the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth, and was obeying this to the letter, Arthur Dent muses:

"I'd like to hear what he had to say. Presumably he would know what the Question to the Ultimate Answer is. It's always bothered me that we never found out."

The next thing anyone says, seemingly unrelated, although not technically a question, could be answered by 42, and would make as much sense as an Ultimate Question as anything else.*

When the film adaptation was released just a few years ago, when I saw the Guide itself appear onscreen, despite its being voiced by Stephen Fry, I sniffed and said to myself, "You call that a book? It's got no pages!" 

Six years later, I wonder if there is a Kindle cover out there with the words "DON'T PANIC" inscribed in large friendly letters on the front. Or if there isn't, then why not?

*Spoilers: "Think of a number," said the computer, "any number."


  1. I recently re-read this as I grew up with it. I will always love it but I don't know if I read it for the first time now if I would think it was amazing or not. I think the first book sort of ends suddenly and it's best read as a trilogy (even though there are now 5 books).

  2. Oh oh oh. I can't even explain how much I adore this book. My aunt bought me it when I was about fourteen and I've read it so many times since then. I didn't like the following books anywhere near as much, but this one would easily be one of my Desert Island Books!


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