Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
This is the story of 'The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book, ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than ‘The Celestial Homecare Omnibus’, better selling than ‘Fifty-Three More Things To Do In Zero Gravity’, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: ‘Where God Went Wrong’, ‘Some More Of God's Greatest Mistakes’, and ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?’. And in many of the more relaxed civilizations on the outer eastern rim of the galaxy, the ‘Hitch Hiker's Guide’ has already supplanted the great ‘Encyclopaedia Galactica’ as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom. Because although it has many omissions, contains much that is apocryphal - or at least wildly inaccurate - it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important ways: first, it is slightly cheaper, and second, it has the words ‘Don’t Panic’ inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover. To tell the story of the book, it's best to tell the story of some of the minds behind it. A human, from the planet Earth, was one of them, though as our story opens, he no more knows his destiny than a tea-leaf knows the history of the East India Company. His name is Arthur Dent, he is a six-foot tall ape descendant, and someone is trying to drive a bypass through his home.
Poor Arthur Dent.  He wakes up to discover that the local council destroying his house and by lunchtime a fleet of flying saucers destroys his planet. Luckily, by an amazing coincidence, one of his closest friends turns out not to be from Guildford after all, but is an alien from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.   Unluckily, when they hitch a lift aboard one of the spaceships that blasted the planet to rubble, Arthur and his Betelgeusian friend Ford Prefect are captured and forced to listen to the captain's poetry before being thrown out an airlock.

The latter was much preferable.

And so, at the end of the world and the point of certain death for our heroes, our story begins.

It isn't often that one finds a book that starts with the end of the world and it's even rarer that the end should be treated so casually, but such is the case with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's also odd to be reviewing a book about an electronic book that already seems hopelessly dated in the age of the Kindle when ebooks are already out-selling the old paper variety. Still, after over thirty years, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy holds up well if for no other reason than that Douglas Adams discovered the truth about the future: Technology will not be frightening, it will be aggravating.  Based on the wildly successful Radio Four series by the same name, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is that rara avis; a science fiction comedy that is actually funny.   Adams created a fascinating universe where order is merely an illusion and any sort of insanity is not only possible, but occurs regularly.  It's a place where fish translate languages, restaurants do a booming business at the end of the universe and the last thing that anyone should ever have is a sense of perspective.

The only real failing of Hitchhikers is that Adams hit the mark so beautifully in the original radio scripts that he never had anywhere to go with it.  True, the book adaptations and sequels made sense because most people never had a chance to hear the radio version and so did the jump to television in the '80s because it allowed Adams to reach a wider audience while the original radio cast were still young enough to reprise their roles, but after?  Comic books, coffee table books, a very bad feature film; none of what came after had a chance of going anywhere because everyone loved the originals so much that they wanted to hear the same jokes over and over again, yet complained that it all came across a bit stale.

There's an old saying about not being able to catch lightning in a bottle twice.  There should also be one about how only one brilliant version of a gag is like jumping off a cliff; for most people, once is enough.

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