It’s not often that a book begins with the end of the world. But the destruction of the Earth is the very premise that kicks off Douglas Adams’ series of five books about rescued Earthling Arthur Dent and his exciting, dangerous and sometimes downright bizarre adventures around the Galaxy.
Poor Arthur Dent is not having a great day. After waking to discover a bulldozer about to demolish his house to make room for a new bypass, he is soon faced with the rather more catastrophic prospect of the entire Earth being obliterated in favour of a hyperspatial express route. If this were not enough, he also discovers that his eccentric friend Ford Prefect is in fact not a human at all but an alien from somewhere called Betelgeuse. A lot to take in before lunchtime.
Douglas Adams’ collection of science-fiction books started life as a radio series and these origins can still be detected in the novel. Filled with countless sparklingly witty lines, the focus of Adams’ fiction is surface dazzle, cleverly playing around with language and constantly cracking jokes – all aspects that would have jumped out of the radio – rather than delving into character progression. Arthur Dent, for instance, ends the book in much the same way as he began it: weary, confused and in search of a cup of tea (and who blames him?). Granted, he knows a bit more about space, but this doesn’t essentially alter his personality.
Not that this is a criticism. Despite having barely any character progression, each of Adams’ vivid cast of players leaps from the page fully formed and they all feel surprisingly real – if a little alien in some cases. Where else would you find a depressed robot, a man with two heads and speaking mice all in one book? Furthermore, this is far from being a character driven narrative and it is the dazzling cleverness and imagination of it all that makes an impression. Often not only laugh out loud but side-splitting, belly laugh, tears streaming down the face funny, it is a delight of a read that indulged both my funny bone and my inner geek. Taking on a whole genre and successfully, gently spoofing it while simultaneously maintaining a geeky sort of respect for it is no mean feat.
There is the feeling, however, that this is only a fragment of the whole, one jigsaw piece of a bigger picture. While it is packaged as a complete novel, I cannot help but feel that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is only really setting up the later episodes, and while it is very entertaining in its own right I do now think that I need to go away and read the subsequent four books. This, I suppose, is the intended effect, but it would have been a little more satisfying for the novel to be more of a complete entity in itself.
Funny as it is, I would hesitate in recommending this to any readers who do not have at least a small measure of appreciation for sci-fi, as the jokes may fall slightly flat for those who do not enjoy the genre. But for a closet sci-fi fan like me, Adams’ book is a hilarious trip around the stars that is very British, very clever and very very funny.