Friday, January 10, 2020

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams
Completed 1/9/2020, Reviewed 1/10/2020
4 stars

This is a reread for my book club.  The last time I read this book was after the BBC series was aired on PBS way back in the early ‘80s.  I loved the series and I loved the book.  Almost forty years later, I thought the book was okay.  I think there are several reasons for that.  For one, I loved the British humor of the time, specifically Monty Python and Doctor Who.  Douglas Adams actually wrote several of the Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes.  Second, it was new.  Every absurdity was a surprise.  I couldn’t believe the things that Adams could come up with:  the dolphins, the white mice, the sperm whale.  Now, absurd British humor seems old hat.  It rarely seems fresh anymore, only derivative.  Also, the jokes in this book are so iconic that nothing surprised me.

Arthur Dent is a hapless, very British human who is whisked off the Earth by alien Ford Prefect seconds before the Earth is destroyed by a Vogon construction fleet to make way for the Pan-Galactic Super Highway.  Using their hitchhiker device, the pair are eventually picked up by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the Galaxy, and Trillian, an Earth woman Arthur tried to pick up at a party once.  Zaphod is on the run for stealing a spaceship and in search of the greatest treasure in the universe.  In their search, Arthur learns of the real purpose of the Earth and of the secret hidden in his brain.

As I read the book this time, I still thought the plot was very imaginative.  It has numerous twists and turns and was not predictable at all.  I have not read a book outside the Hitchhiker series that had this much creativity since.  Yes, there have been funny books, but this has an extreme level of absurdity surpassed only by the non-linearly connected skits of Monty Python. 

The characters are not wooden, but they are not fleshed out too well.  The book is (as are all in the series) quite short, so there is not enough time to really make you feel like you know all the characters.  You eventually pick up their personalities by their reactions to all the crazy situations they get into.  Arthur is great.  There’s nothing more enjoyable than the staid Brit who is confronted by absurd situations.  I thought Ford Prefect (named after a model of the Ford automobile) was a little lackluster, not really the perfect counterpoint to Arthur’s exasperation that I remember.  And while Zaphod and Trillian are also major characters, I didn’t think they were really fleshed out.  Perhaps they will be as I get through the series.

I had a hard time appreciating the jokes.  I think that’s because they are so iconic, as I pointed out above, that I remembered almost all of them.  I guess that’s a testament to the humor, that these jokes entered the cultural zeitgeist and remains permanently etched in my mind.  I remember some of the obscure things, like the optimum number of buffers in DOS 2.0 being 42, a number chosen because the developer loved the book.  In the intro to the edition I read, Neil Gaiman provides a list of the references that have entered the culture.

I’m quite sure that when I first read the book, I would have given it five stars.  Now, on the reread, I wanted to give it three stars out of five.  I don’t know if that’s fair, because I think after all this time with the book permanently etched in my mind, I couldn’t appreciate how original this was when it first came out.  So, I’m giving it four stars to honor my original reaction to the book averaged out with my current experience.  I’ll still read the rest of the series, as I have acquired the digital omnibus edition of all five books, and even though I had books four and five, I never read them.  His books are quick reads so I’m sure I’ll get through them all in the next couple of months, in between a bunch of other books on my TBR list.

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