Why have I never read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, that irreverent touchstone of science fiction and British comedy? Allow me, in typically discursive Adams fashion, to offer up an explanation. Eventually.
Whenever I meet fellow pop-culture junkies, I’m always interested to hear their origin stories, specifically that moment in their childhood or adolescence when they broke from the mainstream and started paddling down obscure tributaries. Some had a guide, like an older sibling who funneled them hand-me-down Replacements albums, or alterna-parents who wanted them to inherit their own curiosities. Other were forced down that path by isolation, like latchkey kids who dieted on television and comic books until their folks came home or outcasts who embraced their status and deliberately swerved into underground culture.
Perhaps my favorite origin story is that of Paul Schrader, the great screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation Of Christ, and director of Blue Collar, American Gigolo, Auto Focus, and many others. A late-bloomer to say the least, Schrader grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his parents were strict Calvinists, and he didn’t even see his first movie until he was 18 years old. His film knowledge increased precipitously from there—though he got a BA in theology at Calvin College, he was one of the ’70s film-school brats—but Schrader completely missed that verdant period in many kids’ lives when pop culture (or culture of any kind, really) provides an education of another sort.
My origin story is closer to Schrader’s than most of my colleagues’, if not nearly as severe. We had a television and used it like everyone else did, and while my parents weren’t exactly the types to project Kenneth Anger shorts in the basement, they weren’t forbidding, either. At the same time, however, I grew up in a small town outside Toledo, Ohio, and concerned myself mostly with playing sports and fitting in. A few stray Beatles records aside, my family did little to supplement any odd pop-culture habits that might have developed. There were embryonic signs of the person I would become—before I even knew how film worked, I used to draw pictures on strips of construction paper and run them through the slats on the saloon doors between the kitchen and the dining room—but it wasn’t until I was 16 and got a job at a movie theater that my interested started to crystallize. And even then, I didn’t read my first comic book until after 30.
All of which is to say that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy would have blown my mind had I read it in my teens like everyone else I know. Now, having finally read the first three books of the five-book “trilogy,” I have cause to speculate about how differently things might have been for me if I had. There’s a part of me that’s grateful Adams’ book passed over my formative years: Perhaps I’d have turned into one of those helpless Anglophiles who disappeared down the rabbit hole of British humor from an early age, and insist that TV comedy more or less ended after Fawlty Towers. More likely, Adams’ whimsical notions of the universe—and our pitiful little place in it—would have captured the imagination of my prepubescent self, a Catholic boy already well into lapsing without Adams shoving me gleefully off the cliff.
Catching up on Hitchhiker’s Guide now feels a little like a nostalgia trip for an experience I never had, though the novels have an irreverent zip to them that’s evergreen—albeit sharply diminished with each successive offering. The books have their genesis in radio programs, and the narratives have a patched-together quality that’s occasionally frustrating, but also key to their roundabout charms. (It’s now that I fully realize what a foolish undertaking the 2005 movie adaptation really was, and can start perhaps to appreciate it for being less of a crushing failure than it might have been.) While Adams does get around to tending to his shaggy-dog stories—and, in the case of the first Hitchhiker’s Guide at least, has the ability to resolve them ingeniously—the chief pleasure of the books comes when Adams starts fucking around, which fortunately is about 90 percent of the time. It’s a rare case where the story seems like superfluous wheel-spinning and the asides are what’s truly essential.
Just to bring us up to speed, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy follows Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman, and his friend Ford Prefect, who takes human form but happens to be an alien on Earth researching an article for the voluminous guide in question. (The entry on Earth, in full, after editing: “Mostly harmless.”) As the book opens, Arthur is trying to prevent a bulldozer from leveling his house to make way for a bypass, but Ford tips him off to a more pressing concern: An officious alien race call the Vogons—authors of the third-worst poetry in the universe (the worst coming from “Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Sussex”)—intend on demolishing Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Before they do, Ford and Arthur hitch a lift on a Vogon demolition ship, where they’re captured, tortured by a poetry reading, and exiled to certain death in open space.
By miraculous improbability—22079460347, to be exact—the pair get picked up by the Heart Of Gold, a sleek ship that runs on the revolutionary Infinite Improbability Drive, which appears capable of irrationally whisking through space and time. They’re joined on the ship by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the rogue two-headed president of the galaxy (a nominal position); Trillian, the last remaining human besides Arthur to survive Earth’s destruction (she left a party early); and a clinically depressed robot named Marvin The Paranoid Android. Each book whisks the gang off to various adventures: To explore a now-dead planet that once manufactured custom-made luxury planets (Hitchhiker’s Guide), to get some lunch at The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (and perhaps divine the Question To The Ultimate Answer Of Life, The Universe And Everything), and to recover the stolen Infinite Improbability Drive from Krikkit robots while talking sense to a war-mongering super-computer (Life, The Universe And Everything).
The greatest thing the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to offer the world is perspective: To my mind, “Mostly harmless” is Adams’ masterstroke, because it wrenches us out of our solipsism. In this inconceivably large volume of universal facts and figures, chock-a-block full of useful information about ports of call throughout the galaxy, the entry on Earth only rates two words—and that’s twice as many words as the entry had before it was modified. (Before it was merely “harmless.”) Adams does everything he can to make our insignificance hilariously apparent: The books are constantly taking stock of the expanse of space and time, and it’s riddled with statistics and factoids that underline the “bigness” of infinity. (“Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we’re trying to get across here.”) A sample entry on “The Universe” in the guide—found between the pages of 938,324 and 938,326—actually puts the population of the universe at “None,” because there’s an infinite number of worlds (not all populated) in an infinite amount of space, so any finite number divided by infinity amounts to nothing, meaning the population has to be zero. (“Any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.”)
Given that, it’s a slight disappointment that the Earth does—or did, before the Vogons destroyed it—have a purpose, and that Arthur does have a (relatively) special role beyond being one of only two survivors of the doomed planet. The first book tells of a city-sized supercomputer called Deep Thought that was built by supremely intelligent, “pandimensional” beings to determine the “Answer To The Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe And Everything.” That profoundly unsatisfying answer, after 7.5 million years of calculation: 42. The focus then shifted from the Question to the Answer, and we discover, through a visit to Magrathea, the planet that once specialized in building luxury planets, that Earth was manufactured as an organic program to calculate the Question—and that an answer was forthcoming in the moment before the Vogons blasted through it. And that makes Arthur a potential source for extraction, bestowing upon him an importance that wound seem to run counter to Adams’ philosophical vision.
Then again, the Question is wrong, the Answer is baffling, and the whole inquiry is colossally pointless, so really, all the improbable happenings that make Arthur special amount to less than nothing anyway. Had I caught Hitchhiker’s Guide at the right time, it would have confirmed the suspicions I had from an early age, kneeling next to my family during Sunday mass at St. Rose Catholic Church, that this God business was a lot of hooey. (Though this perspective was more the product of boredom and snotty resentment than any deep consideration on my part.) Adams’ book would have done better than merely crystallizing my budding atheism by forcing a healthy perspective: Life may have no meaning—and may, in fact, be stupendously, outrageously, infinitely meaningless in the grand scheme of things—but at least we can have a good laugh about it. Perhaps that’s why I find Marvin, the clinically depressed robot, the most compelling and identifiable of Adams’ characters; he’s the only one who really grasps his existential situation, sighing wearily into the void.
Though the first book resolves itself ingeniously, the other two are increasingly listless, which may be a natural consequence of knocking about infinity like a narrative pinball. The passages I’ll cherish most in Hitchhiker’s Guide are all the little footnotes and asides: A sperm whale, having materialized miles above an alien planet, quickly coming to terms with its identity on the way down; the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser learning how to reproduce a simple cup of tea—a process that cripples the ship’s computing power in a moment of crisis; the whimsical story of dolphins, a far more intelligent creature (along with mice) than man, exiting the Earth by their own means and graciously at that. (“So long and thanks for all the fish.”) The 12-year-old me would have been delighted to stargaze with Adams at my side, nurturing the know-it-all wiseass within. Reading Hitchhiker’s Guide today is no less delightful, if tinged with the regret that we didn’t get to know each other when it really mattered.