“the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.”
Arthur Dent enjoys cricket and tea and masks his crippling emotional repression and general reserve with a nice line in dry understatement. He has a friend; an out-of-work actor from Guildford called Ford Prefect. Except Ford’s not from Guildford, he’s not even from Surrey. He’s from a planet near Betelgeuse, which can’t be accessed via the A3.
And then the planet Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
Suffice it to say, Arthur isn’t exactly prepared for this eventuality.
The trilogy in 5 parts (and definitely no more than that) is a clever-but-silly sci-fi saga, gently existential with cups of tea, towels and dressing gowns.
Between the movie, TV show and radio play I’ve always vaguely wondered how I’d gotten it so wrong with the books. After all I grew up on a diet of spiritual bedfellows Monty Python, Radio 4 comedy and Blackadder. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry exemplified precisely this sort of cosy British humour for people who appreciate that not all jokes need involve penises or naughty words. In fact, author Douglas Adams was 1 of 2 people (the other being Neil Innes) to be given a writing credit by the Python team.
In the interests of full disclosure, I adore the books but abhor the rest. Perhaps it’s because for me the series isn’t Stephen Fry voicing the eponymous Guide and certainly isn’t old-fashioned or gentle.
Because it’s actually properly, nightmarishly, totally fucking dark.
Let’s start at the start: “most of the people were unhappy for pretty much of the time.” The book is written in an easy breezy, light-hearted fashion designed to hide the darkness but it’s there, hidden beneath the witticisms and puns, beneath the cricket, tea, bathrobes, chesterfield sofas, beneath even the fundamental universality of the gin and tonic. And, of course, beneath the towel.
That bloody towel is symbolic of everything lacking in most versions. As the eponymous Guide would have it, a man who knows where his towel is probably organised enough to possess all sorts of ostensibly more important things and is thus more likely to be lent said things by strangers. That is, one of the fundamental uses of the towel is to mislead perfect strangers in order to take advantage of them. Half the joke goes missing if that subtext is jettisoned.
And to make matters worse, Arthur’s in a dressing gown, probably the least appropriate apparel for traipsing around a universe that is at best indifferent to your continuing existence and at worst actively wants to end it. See above.
And finally to make matters even more worser than that (me speak English good), having survived the destruction of Earth, the appalling poetry of officious aliens and the depths of space, he ends up in a stolen spaceship so advanced as to have rendered hyperspace bypasses obsolete. Said spaceship’s existence predates the destruction of the Earth.
Which means that Earth was destroyed for absolutely no reason whatsoever. See above.
The fact that he shares this spaceship with a woman he failed to get off with at a party and the fugitive ex-president of the galaxy for whom she’d quickly abandoned him only adds insult to injury. Awkward…
Naturally enough Arthur’s response is to spend much of the first couple of books pining for a half-decent cup of tea.
But even this is almost pitifully emblematic. Replace the cup of tea with any other edible cultural signifier, particularly one that means something to you personally and you’ll see what I mean. People find comfort in food and drink, particularly those that remind them of home or security. Almost everyone Arthur has ever loved, despised or merely encountered is dead and gone, everything he has ever known no longer exists and will only ever be summed up by the words ‘mostly harmless’.
There’s no going back for Arthur, and he’s not quite bursting with useful talents or transferable skills, let alone any desire whatsoever to embrace his new circumstances. The tea represents a tiny reminder of a lost reality to which he can never return (later on of course he does, several times, but at this point he doesn’t know that).
It’s a form of grief in other words.
Over the course of the series the tone will evolve as we experience the galaxy through Arthur’s eyes and see him in turn become another jaded veteran, eventually turning his back on the galaxy to find a way home in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.
That novel would have been a satisfying end to the series, offering some semblance of a happy ending for most of the characters. SLATFATF offers a diametric opposite of the previous 3 novels, with Arthur embracing technology and positivity and finding love home on Earth. The novel sees him ultimately making the conscious decision to return to space exploration with his new squeeze despite his previous experiences living as a bewildered refugee from an obliterated civilisation fearful of the galaxy’s next horror. I believe that’s called taking ownership.
But of course that positive outlook was swiftly undone by series closer Mostly Harmless, far and away the bleakest book, which painted the galaxy and its inhabitants as unthinkingly cruel, reflexively cynical; bitter. Mostly Harmless returned to the inherent technophobia of the series with a Hitchhiker’s Guide Mk II and introduced a new character in the form of Trillian and Arthur’s daughter, a girl whose bad experiences of the galaxy are more extreme even than Arthur’s own.
Douglas Adams intended to write a sixth instalment prior to his untimely death. He claimed to have been in a very dark place when he wrote Mostly Harmless and felt afterwards that maybe they’d deserved a slightly nicer send off.
So there you have it, the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – on balance maybe not all that suitable for your 12 year old kid…
If all that hasn’t convinced you, I’ve one last argument up my sleeve: customer service doors that take enormous (and quite vocal) pleasure in opening for you.