The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
By Douglas Adams
I have a few reviews coming up this month that have to published on very specific dates, so it was going to be a little quiet around here for a few weeks. But I hate to let too many days go by without some sort of content so I thought it would be a good idea to discuss a couple of novels that I am currently rereading with classes or individual students. These are not new reads, but they are fresh enough in my memory to discuss with clarity and assurance, so let's get to it.
So anyway, I miss Douglas Adams. His death in 2001 is perhaps the only literary death that truly shook me not only due to his age (he was only 49) but because he was my first real literary love affair and the the author of the first book that really, truly made me stagger in awe. More on that later, but first, the story of how The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy very nearly cost me my university education.
Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it did almost make me fail my first year Western history exam (which would have been a disaster because that was my major). Here's the story:
It was the night before the exam and like any good Canadian university student, I was cracking my textbooks for the first time that semester in an effort to cram as much of the course material into my head in the ten hours (give or take) before the exam. I had the books all laid out on my bed OCD style and was just brewing up a pot of extra strong coffee when a friend from down the hall walked by my open dorm room door and tossed an inconspicuous little paperback onto the top of my neat textbook pile. He tossed it in a manner that suggested that he was discarding a chewing gum wrapper or a banana peel. He didn't even stop to tell me what it was.
At first, I thought it was some sort of exam prank. I'd grab whatever it was off my bed and find it covered in goo, or something equally annoying and time consuming. But when I went over and picked it up it was the oldest, most busted up paperback I'd ever seen. What was left of the cover was hanging on by the merest suggestion of a fiber, the spine was exposed, cracked and separating somewhere in the vicinity of page 86, there was no back cover at all and it looked like it had taken a dip in the bathtub on more than one occasion.
A looker, she was not, but something possessed me to flip to the beginning of chapter one to see why exactly my buddy had discarded this dilapidated old novel into my room.
Eight hours later, I finished The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, admitted to myself that it was my new favorite book and proceeded to shit bricks about my history exam that was less than three hours away (textbooks still unopened).
The story ends well. I ended up doing fine on the exam and continued my studies over the next three years without incident, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours. But I learned a couple of valuable lessons that night. First, I learned the practical usages for a towel, both physical and psychological. Second, never, ever start a novel when there is something pressing to accomplish. I have a difficult time prioritizing anything over books. And third, never underestimate the power of Douglas Adams.
Since then I've read this novel at least a half dozen times and it never ceases to make me smile. Through the fictional notion of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (A tablet-like guidebook for interstellar travelers), Adams prophesied the advent of the Internet, the e-reader, tablets, smart phones... or at the very least, Wikipedia. The Babel Fish imagined in the novel predated translation software (one program that actually bears the name Babel fish, in fact) and we are probably less than a decade away from very practical translation apps that will be able to instantly translate any language into any other language at conversation speed. Hell, Adams predicted (almost to the exact spelling), Google. And he did it with such ease that it seemed as though he were blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. With such accuracy one might require three pints of bitter to soften the mental blow of his awesomeness.
On a more serious note, Adams was the first author I ever read that put a fine point on many of the questions I had about religion. I've been an atheist since I can remember. The way gay people say they've always known they were gay, that's me except with atheism. My family wasn't particularly devout, but they were church going people. But as far back as I can remember I found the entire ordeal of church, the rituals the forced (to me, anyway) joy and the stories to be deeply unsettling and, at times, creepy. It was Adams through The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that made me realize that I wasn't the only one who thought everyone around me was taking crazy pills. I credit Adams for allowing me to be unapologetically atheist. It's made my spiritual life a lot easier to reconcile.
But what I like most about this The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and to a lesser extent the rest of the trilogy of five) is that unlike so many science fiction writers (I'm looking at you Arthur C. Clarke!) Adams wrote with a scathingly astute sense of humor and irony and he never once, ever took himself or his story seriously. The fact that the reader navigates Adam's world of morose robots, fjord designers and rock star politicians from the perspective of the mildest of mild-mannered Englishmen is as much a bottomless well of comedic potential as it is a source of comfort in a universe populated by drug and alcohol fueled party animals. Adams had enough sense to ground his readers with Arthur Dent when he knew full well that he was going to send us into a universe so supremely bizarre that there was at least someone we could look to in order to ask the questions we are all thinking about. Want to know the science behind the Improbability Drive? Don't worry, Arthur has you covered, and he'll try to bring along a cup or tea as well.
Thirty years after publication (and ten years after the untimely death of Adams himself) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels remain not only readable but also as relevant as they were in 1979. There are precious few works of science fiction that can compare to the Hitchhiker series. When so many authors were grappling with the moral, existential and ethical questions of androids, space travel, alien contact and cloning, Douglas Adams threw caution to the wind and made the sci-fi universe safe for those of us who would simply rather bypass the difficult questions, buy a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster and see where the evening takes us.
Here's to Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's series. He made all other sic-fi sound like Vogon poetry by comparison.
Incidentally, I still own that busted up copy of the book. It's one of my prized possessions.