Book Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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Published: 1979

If you mention this book to your average British bookworm their eyes light up and they get super excited – similar sight when someones mentions Harry Potter to me. You can tell their are avid fans. In fact, this book is a prominent series in British popular culture, and as well as becoming a international phenomenon. This is just the first book in a 6 part series, it’s got a radio show (thats actually how it started!), TV series, stage shows, video games, comic books and most recently a film starring Martin Freeman. The world is positively obsessed!

Sadly, I cannot say I fall into that category. Trust me, no one is more upset about this news then I am. I just did not find it entertaining, funny or prolific in any sense of the word. There were several factors for disliking this book, and I’ve managed to narrow it down to two things; characters and theme of absurdity.

I struggled with the fact that all the characters were quite annoying, meaning I wasn’t really rooting for anyone. You have Arthur, the main protagonist, who is meant to represent the human race and I believe the reader as well, that is just shocked for most of the novel and confused (as are we!). Then there is his vague and preoccupied best-friend alien Ford Prefect, who occasionally answers Arthur’s questions and seems a bit on edge for most of the book. He’s meant to represent the nomad journalist longing for adventure and wanting to update his guide to the universe. There is also a depressed robot (who I probably relate to most on this book while reading it), an arrogant president of the Imperial Galactic Government, Zaphod Beeblebrox (slightly more intelligent than Trump). I understand that most of his characters are trying to prove a certain point i.e. Vogons are a stab at the beaurocrats while the mice are meant to be a higher intelligent version of humans, etc but the author wrote the book made these characters like subjects in a lab rather than characters that you can sympathise or get to know better.

The other struggle for me was the theme of absurdity that forms the basis of this book. I understand that this is Douglas Adams just poking fun at the government, establishments  and the absurd world we call home. It just really didn’t fly with me, if anything it agitated me as it was hard to follow the plot and get into the book. What kind of absurdities do you say? Take the entire page written about the importance of towels. Yes, you’ve read it correctly:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value…more importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. (22)

I guess he was trying to be funny here? Just not really a laugh out loud moment for me. There are other things, that aren’t only absurd, but that happen randomly, without any cause of meaning. Take Ford Prefect’s question to Arthur whether he was busy, when he was trying to stop the bulldozer from destroying his home:

‘Ford! Hello, how are you?’

‘Fine,’ said Ford, ‘look are you busy?’

‘Am I busy?’ exclaimed Arthur. ‘Well, I’ve just got all these bulldozers and things to lie in front go because they’ll knock my house down if I don’t, but other than that…well, no not especially, why?’ (11)

What a hilarious and unexpected response! I could just hear the audience laughing in the background. I can tell that these are meant to be funny, and highlight the absurdity of what was happening but I kept just looking at how many pages were left in the chapter and hoping it would get better I’m afraid to say!

There are many contradictions throughout the novel as well. Such as mice ruling the human race, instead of them being our lab rats. Or the name of the ship that Zophad commands is called Heart of Gold, implying someone that is caring and nice, which is a contradiction because he’s a devious, narcissistic and irresponsible fellow. The fact that he’s the president of the Imperial Galactic Government just shows us how Douglas Adams views government officials and how manipulated the government body is. Most of the other characters and machines that they encounter in the galaxy are all selfish individuals who are pretending to be all sorts of things if it benefits them.

Douglas Adams is also trying to test our understanding of intelligence, by shattering our view that humans are the more intelligent life forms on the planet, and instead declaring that dolphins and mice are actually the more superior species in the galaxy, for the dolphins knew about the destruction of Earth and tried to, unsuccessfully to warn the humans, and we learn that it was the mice who had actually commissioned Earth to be made:

‘Earthman, the planet that you lived on was commissioned, paid for, and run by mice…they are merely the protrusion into our dimensions of vast hyper-intelligent pan-dimentional beings.’ (138)

I know this comedy/science fiction novel is meant to be a satire and a stab at establishment and authority but I just couldn’t get into it at all. The most fun I had was actually writing this review and looking back and trying to analyse some of the passage and their meaning. He’s a brilliant guy and I applaud him for trying something a bit different with this novel, I just can’t say I enjoyed the journey particularly. Maybe if I read it a third time…

Q: What do you think of this book? I’d love for someone to shine the light on it for me!

 

 

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

  1. I love the radio series, but I struggled a little with the wordiness of the text as a novel. It may not be laugh-out-loud funny (and I don’t know where you’re from, (sorry!) so I don’t know whether the Britishness of the humour might be a factor in your reading experience) but it certainly got a fair few wry smiles from me. Try the radio series if you can get hold of it – it might not make more sense but in my experience it’s an easier way to approach the nonsense! On another note, I think some of the “contradictions” you’ve identified form part of the social critique Adams is presenting in the novel. One last question – have you read anything by Terry Pratchett? I think there are some similarities in the mixture of nonsense, satire, character and narrative – any thoughts?

    • Thanks so much for this detailed reply @writingverbaboutwritingnoun! Yeah, I definitely agree that there is a lot of British humour in it, and although I am getting better (having lived here for half a decade) it doesn’t come entirely naturally to me. At the same time, this novel was massive in America and other parts of the world so that shouldn’t have been the be all, end all!
      No I haven’t read anything by Terry Pratchett before – which novel do you recommend I try from him?
      Thanks again for your reply!

      • My favourite among Pratchett’s Discworld novels (although I certainly haven’t read them all) is perhaps Mort, which explores the idea of the anthropomorphic figure of Death, with an inquisitive farm boy becoming Death’s apprentice. If that sounds a bit abstract, The Truth is about the early days of newspapers and the press. If you’re not aware, all the Discworld books share a world, with settings and characters recurring in various books. Although there’s a suggested reading order, I’m not sure The Colour of Magic is the best place to start in terms of capturing the feel of the series. There are various storylines focussed on different groups of characters and themes: a few are mainly about witches, some about the city watch police force, some about the wizarding university, and it helps to read these threads in order (I should think it would be easy enough to find a guide online) but you certainly don’t have to read them all!
        If the Discworld sounds a bit much there’s a peripheral collection about a practical and independent young witch growing up in the countryside, originally aimed at a slightly younger audience, four books beginning with The Wee Free Men. For something which still has the Pratchett style but isn’t based in fantasy, Nation is a charming and funny story about the British empire, culture shock, tradition, religion, language and young love, set on a fictional Pacific Island. Again, it’s aimed at younger readers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, thought-provoking, witty and satirical.

  2. I tried the book and it didn’t quite work for me—for the same reasons you state. But the movie with Freeman? That definitely worked. It needed the actual facial and verbal aspects of humor to make it all so funny.

      • It’s such a long time ago so I’m not sure. However, my recollection is that I didn’t think it funny at all at first. I think I continued listened probably because the radio was often on at the scheduled time. I needed to listen again before I saw the funny side.

  3. Pingback: Wednesday Wondering: Twenty-Eighteen Book Awards | friendlybookworm

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