Review of "The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
Don't expect a neat, logical, even chronological plotline from the five-novel "trilogy" that comprises author Douglas Adam's The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. These books are, in order of publication and order of appearance in this compendium:
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy,
- The Restaurant at The End of The Universe,
- Life The Universe And Everything,
- So Long And Thanks for All The Fish, and
- Mostly Harmless.
- A bonus short story entitled Young Zaphod Plays It Safe is also included
The Main Characters
The cast and crew of the series vary somewhat, but the main characters, human and otherwise, essentially boil down to:
- Arthur Dent, a somewhat high-strung, very proper, bathrobe-clad Englishman who gets caught up trying to defend his real Earthly home from being bulldozed to make way for an expressway bypass, only to discover, on the very same day, that alien Vogons intend to bulldoze Earth to make way for an intergalactic bypass.
- Ford Prefect is a space-hopping, party-loving, towel-wielding journalist contributor to The Hitchhiker's Guide. Originally from a sarcasm-challenged planet of Betelgeuse, he saves Arthur Dent when Earth is destroyed by the Vogons, then reluctantly gets mixed up in various crusades to save the Universe from destruction, while simultaneously searching for the question to the ultimate answer.
- Zaphod Beeblebrox is the two-headed President of the Galaxy who steals The Heart of Gold, a vehicle with a revolutionary Improbability Drive propulsion system. With his female sidekick, sometimes girlfriend Trillian, he goes off on several quests with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect to look for a good restaurant, during which they accidentally protect the Galaxy too.
- Marvin, the Paranoid Android, is a morose robot with a decidedly dejected outlook on existence. Despite being on a perpetual bummer bender, Marvin nevertheless rescues the principle characters on several occasions, even though he quite correctly believes he will not be appreciated for it.
During their convoluted travels through space and time, Arthur Dent and his companions learn that the ultimate answer to the meaning of existence is the befuddling number 42, a head-scratcher that propels them off on a largely futile quest to learn the Question to the Ultimate Answer. After a series of further adventures that leave them famished, the protagonists wind up at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Here, Ford Prefect encounters his rather unresponsive rock star friend Hotblack Desiato, who turns out to be spending a year dead for tax purposes. From the comfort of this elegant setting, Arthur and pals watch the actual end of the Universe for dinner theater.
In the subsequent Life, the Universe and Everything, Arthur and company save the Galaxy from homicidal attack robots commissioned by the family-values loving inhabitants of the planet Krikkit. Although extremely gentle and peaceful on their own world, the people of Krikkit have an intense hatred for anything non-Krikkit in nature. With the aid of the mystifying physics of the Somebody Else's Problem field (SEP), Arthur and friends foil the plot.
So Long And Thanks for All The Fish sees Arthur transported back to Earth, which appears to have escaped Vogon Destruction, after all. He falls in love with a young lady named Fenchurch, who he teaches her the technique of flying by missing the ground, then learns that all the dolphins have fled the planet, leaving behind a message of gratitude for the fish. Reuniting with Ford Prefect, who helps the couple hijack a flying saucer, Arthur and Fenchurch travel to a distant world to view God's final message to creation. This divine memorandum to the inhabitants of the Universe turns out to be, "We apologize for all the inconvenience."
Mostly Harmless finds our once again orphaned Arthur looking for a planet to settle down on, a quest that leads him to a crash landing on Lamuella, where he becomes the revered sandwich maker the locals believe was sent from the heavens by their supreme being, an earwig named Bob. Meanwhile, Ford Prefect discovers that the offices of The Hitchhiker's Guide have been infiltrated by the Vogons, and sets out to correct this wrongdoing. I'll leave it to you to find out if Arthur and Ford are successful in preventing the obliteration of Earth by the Grebulons, an alien race that the destructive Vogons have insidiously manipulated to carry out the act.
Beware of Laughing Mailmen
What should you do when you observe apparently solitary letter carriers chuckling to themselves from the innards of their parked mail trucks—call the Postal Inspectors? This is exactly the effect suffered by this apparently unhinged mailman during the agreeable hours spent reading The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide on his lunch break. Here are a couple of quotes that tickled this mailman's fancy and may amuse you too, or not.
Wowbagger the Infinitely Pronged was-indeed, is-one of the Universe's very small number of immortal beings.
Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them...So things began to pall for him. The merry smiles he used to wear at other people's funerals began to fade...This was the point at which he conceived his purpose...
He would insult the Universe.
...he would insult everybody in it...in alphabetical order.— Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe And Everything, Chapter 1
He (Arthur Dent) almost danced to the fridge, found the three least hairy things in it, put them on a plate and...he called them breakfast and ate them. Between them they killed a virulent space disease he'd picked up without knowing it in the Flargathon Gas Swamps a few days earlier, which otherwise would have killed off half the population of the Western Hemisphere, blinded the other half, and driven everyone else psychotic and sterile, so the Earth was lucky there.— Douglas Adams, So Long, And Thanks for All The Fish, Chapter 8
He (Ford Prefect) sat on a step, took from his satchel a bottle of that Ol' Janx Spirit and a towel. He opened the bottle and wiped the top of it with the towel, which had the opposite effect of the one intended, in that the Ol' Janx Sprit instantly killed off millions of the germs which had been slowly building up quite a complex and enlightened civilization on the smellier patches of his towel.— Douglas Adams - So Long, And Thanks for All The Fish, Chapter 5
So What Does It Mean, Really, and Should We Care?
What are we supposed to call Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide, really? Is it science fiction, magical realism, or pure absurdism? Can it be defined by any genre or literary category at all? Is there a hidden meaning behind its mirth, or was it contrived by this former Monty Python writer for pure comedy value?
If it is science fiction, then the science is sketchy at best, there being no Improbability Drives or Somebody Else's Problem Fields in development, at least as of this writing. Perhaps it leans more toward magical realism, the Arthur and Fenchurch flying above London scene more Salman Rushdie than Isaac Asimov. Ultimately, whether calculated or not, Adam's approach echoes Camus' absurdist outlook, a futile search for meaning, likened to the mythical Sisyphus attempting to push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll down again as he nears the summit.
Therefore, should we label the Hitchhiker's Guide as nihilist? Is Adams saying that there isn't any meaning and order in a universe in which the inhabitants can easily become unfixed from any particular place and time? Is the author proposing the futility of looking for enlightenment beyond the limited boundaries of our own solar system, in a universe inhabited by beings as capriciously destructive as our own species? Are there any higher principles to look for in the stars, or should we simply eke along the timeline of our meaningless carbon-based lives until, at last, like Arthur Dent, we experience a "tremendous feeling of peace" that it is finally over?
Besides "42," what is the answer to Douglas Adams' Ultimate Question? Other than environmental activism and what he called "radical atheism," the late author of the series didn't seem to subscribe to any deep philosophical schools of thought. Author Nicholas Joll actually wrote a book on this subject, entitled Philosophy & The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy, but I couldn't find any free hints on the Internet about his ultimate conclusions. Not willing to purchase a book whose sole purpose is to overly analyze another book, I conclude that, in the absence of any driving philosophical force to be found in the series or elsewhere, perhaps there just isn't any.
This mailman reviewer's advice is to just enjoy Hitchhiker's Guide for what it is. Don't read anything into it, especially if you only read in half-hour chunks on your lunch break. There is food for thought here, but don't choke on it while you are laughing out loud.