So Long and Thanks For All the Fish

“In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” So begins not Douglas Adams’ seminal work, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, but its sequel, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.” Hard to find a better opening line for this blog post though, you have to admit. This year marks 45 years of “Hitchhiker’s,” if you believe in things such as time being a straight line constantly moving forward. In honor of the anniversary, as well as Towel Day on May 25 (a day dedicated to honoring Adams’ life), I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the legacy of “Hitchhiker’s” all these years later.

Cover of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas AdamsI said that “Hitchhiker’s” began 45 years ago, but I’m afraid that was a small lie. You see, Douglas Adams (1952-2011) actually started the series 46 years ago in 1978, as a radio comedy on the airwaves of the British Broadcasting Corporation. As the radio series picked up steam and a new season was commissioned, Adams wrote a novelization of the first four episodes of the first series, and “Restaurant” is actually a novelization of episodes five through twelve of the radio series, but with things reordered, as well as some additions and subtractions. Keeping up so far? By the time of Adams’ death, there was a trilogy of five books, a television series, movie adaptation, video games, a stage show, and of course, the radio shows, each with some variations on the characters and story. Adams was also working on a sixth book, which was ultimately turned into “And Another Thing…” a collaboration by author Eoin Colfer and Adams’ widow, Jane Belson.

Cover of "And Another Thing..." by Eoin Colfer

I was first introduced to Adams through an omnibus edition of “Hitchhiker’s” and read one story right after another, which is probably the best way to take in the books if you want to make any kind of sense of them. Although trying to make sense of the books might be an exercise in futility, I decided to reread the first book in preparation for this post, and I came away with many more insights than my younger self picked up on. For example, I thought Adams wrote more satirically, and often compared his works to those of Terry Pratchett and the Discworld, one author in science fiction, another in fantasy. At least in the first book, Adams does have some satire, but leans much more heavily into absurdist humor. Which is fun and a good time! As for the plot, well, it reads as if the novel was originally written in smaller chunks for radio.

The science fiction setting allows for the characters to constantly be facing dire peril, only for the solution to the problem to just happen to or around them; it’s simply an on-going series of deus ex machina. This leads to many memorable scenes and lines, such as the last thoughts of a whale and the bowl of petunias, which even in context doesn’t make a lot of sense. Then there’s the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything, which turns out to be much simpler than readers might expect. Looking at the first book in a vacuum, the protagonists and plot exist solely for jokes, quips and some observations about universal experiences. Humor was the driving force of this story, and unfortunately it loses cohesion as a result. Without having recently read the rest of the books in the series, I do remember there being character development and story arcs, but it takes a while to get going.

In many ways, the story is a product of its time and author, with many British references that went over my head as a younger reader (and an American), but would likely go over the heads of many Brits today. Adams did, however, accurately predict a number of technological developments, such as the Guide being available on what we would now consider a tablet: “If it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.” There’s a brief aside later about a radio on a spaceship: “For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch sensitive — you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same programme.” Gesture controls for phones and televisions are still a thing of science fiction, for now, but the fact that Adams was considering such technological developments almost 50 years ago is astonishing. Now if only we could make the Babel Fish a thing…

It was frustrating to find that the original “Hitchhiker’s” didn’t hold up as well as I had anticipated, but Adams unquestionably left a legacy to be proud of, including influencing authors I read from and enjoy today. For health and safety reasons, neither the library nor myself suggest hitchhiking, but always having a towel when you travel seems like solid advice. After all, “any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

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