I like to imagine that Douglas Adams’s first foray in to science fiction (or what he refers to as such, which is by no means the same thing) came about because his aunt told him that being an author was a decent enough career choice. Choose yer own ‘ours, wear what you want, type away a bit, publish, make a bitta reaso’ coin, meet girls down at the local pub…it’s a job, innit?
And in choosing this career and writing his trilogy of six books (he and Piers Anthony have this affinity for trilogies in multiplicate), Adams created one of the touchstones of 20th century pop fiction. Quite simply, THGTTG blew the doors off sci-fi in a way nobody had before, and few have since. He made it fun. He made it different. I rolled in the aisles the first time I read it, and have never taken life entirely seriously since. The Guide is the literary equivalent of Bruised Forearm Movie, the grinning sibling to P.G. Woodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, Monty Python, Ripping Yarns, “Brazil” and “A Fish Called Wanda”, with that same sly, dry, understated wit so characteristic of British humour. No American could have ever written it, that’s for sure.
Very much like Adams’s not remembering how he got the idea, merely how he remembered how he told the story of the idea, so much of what is in the book has actually been forgotten, and one recalls only the central influences on our culture: this would be things like the Guide itself; the phrase “Don’t Panic”; the hilarious take on bureaucracy that have influenced a thousand stories; the Ultimate Answer to the Life, Universe and Everything and its brilliant answer (which I would not dream of revealing here), after which the computer that answered it was to design a more powerful successor meant to pose the question the answer was for; how God was proven not to exist as a result of Intelligent Design being true (wrap your head around that one!); and all the small asides and departures from the main story to talk about weird stuff we can never quite recall, but which we always remember we read while grinning like idiots.
For a book or series this weirdly influential (I’ll get to that in a minute), it had remarkably humble beginnings. It began life as a radio serial in 1977 or 1978, meant to discuss the end of the earth in six different ways: Adams decided he needed something to tie the episodes together thematically, drew on his experiences as a hitchhiker through Europe and came up with the idea of an itinerant researcher. The radio serial (of the same kind I remember with great fondness from the days before TV arrived in Mudland, when my family and I would be huddled around the radio listening to “The Clithero Kid” or “Portia Faces Life” or some such) proved tremendously popular, was rebroadcast a number of times, and even had an LP cut for it, before Adams novelized them, starting in 1979.
In brief, THGTTG follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, last survivor of Earth after the Vogons demolish it to make way for a hyperspace bypass (“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it; all the planning charts have been on display on Alpha Centauri for over fifty years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any complaints…”), and his friend and savior Ford Prefect, who is the Hitchhiker doing research for the Encyclopedia Galactica (shades of Asimov there, I need hardly note – who says the influences have to go one way only?). They locate a place called Margrathean that manufactures luxury planets, and then two mice get involved, except they’re not really mice but designers of Deep Thought (was Deep Blue named after this?) which had this question to answer, and then…well, there’s not much point ot me going on. This is one of those books that, in a world starved of new and interesting things, we almost owe to ourselves to read and discover for the first time. It’s an exercise in style as much as anything else: certainly the plot is itself a bit of a MacGuffin (in my opinion) to hide Adam’s joy in just writing absurd prose that somehow hangs together…brilliantly.
Humour that is aware of itself is seldom funny to me, which is why Idiot Plots and American sitcoms rarely turn my crank. It’s when intelligent people act according to their natures, when everyone is a straight man and nobody knows that what they are doing is comical, that I sit up to take notice. And when you have an exchange like the one between Arthur Dent and the man about to demolish his house, who is proven wrong on every point but gamely retreats as each of his excuses is rebuffed, or when the Vogon recites his poetry and everyone ties themselves into pretzels of agony, well, then I just have to laugh with sheer delight. Even if THGTTG is worth reading for no other reason than its slyly subversive take on stupidity and officiousness, and had no other redeeming features whatsoever, then it would not have been a waste of time. It may quite simply be the funniest book I’ve ever read (and that’s saying something).
And then there are the downstream impacts it has had. The “Matrix” was famous for referring to it (not least of which is the word itself). “Resistance is futile” and the Babel Fish are links to the book and and Star Trek (this is the greatest TV show ever made, Curt, no matter what you think); “Towel Day” and “Don’t Panic” are almost institutions in some places. The humourous marriage with science fiction allowed other shows like “Red Dwarf” and “3rd Rock” to be glimpsed, and I like to think that “Pigs in Space” skits from the original prime time Muppet Show owed as much to Star Trek as their evident thought transferrence with Doug Adams (okay, I admit it, I’m reaching here). And the whimsical style of writing, together with the odd aliens with strange names acting in funny ways is lifted pretty much wholesale by L. Ron Hubbard in the concluding act of Battlefield Earth – just say “Snakegrowltime Equation” to understand what I mean (BE, while a good book, may be the single worst movie adaptation ever made). And lastly, the crowdsourced online encyclopedia H2G2.com predated wikipedia by a full two years…how’s that for prescience?
It occurs to me that black humour like the Guide is a dying artform in the field of letters. It’s more a mindset, a way of expressing the ludicrous in pretentious prose, that we so miss in our reading today. We’re so serious these days…can’t remember the last time I had a belly-laugh so great it had me in pain, with tears rolling down my cheeks. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy nudges us to lighten up, reminds us not to take things too seriously all the time. Chillax bro’, it says. And a book like this is probably as good a reason as any to let us not be vapourized by Vogons making a bypass (whenever they decide to). We deserve to live if we can produce work of this kind: forget love, art, Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, daVinci, Mozart or the damned cuckoo clock…we deserve to live because the Guide made us laugh.