The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

May 22, 2009

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Published 1980
Douglas Adams was born March 11, 1952, the son of Christopher Douglas, a management consultant, and Jane Donovan, a nurse. Adams was a recipient of an honors degree in English Literature from St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1974. He began his writing career as a scriptwriter for radio and television comedies. For a time, he supported himself with odd jobs ranging from cleaning chicken houses to guarding the royal family of Qatar. “I was lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck and gazing up at the stars,” he says of the inspiration for his most famous story. “It occurred to me that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.” His idea, first conceived as a radio series, was developed for the British Broadcasting Company. The 1978 series gradually won an enthusiastic following. Pan Books approached Adams to novelize his scripts. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sold one hundred thousand copies the first month and eventually sold two million copies in England alone. Across the Atlantic Ocean, similar success followed with a radio series on National Public Radio and a television version of the book.
Adams added four books to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything, (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). Tired of the series, Adams coauthored Last Chance to See with zoologist Mark Carwardine in 1990. In a departure from the “Hitchhiker” books, it recounts their journey to see seven endangered species. He also developed a detective series which includes Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988).
Moments before the earth is demolished to make way for a “hyperspacial express route,” Arthur Dent is rescued by Ford Prefect, an alien who is disguised as an out-of-work actor. Prefect, who has become Dent’s friend of several years, has been stranded on Earth while researching the planet for the revised version of the electronic book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The pair’s misadventures as they ricochet from a Vogon spaceship, to the Heart of Gold state-of-the-art spaceship, to the planet factory, Magrathea, form the book’s prime focus: satire.
Though initially set in England, the majority of the story takes place in space, either in spaceships or on the planet Magrathea. Adams creates his own worlds, cultures, creatures, and vocabularies in satire that fillets science fiction cliches and the human condition.
Dent and Prefect find themselves in two ships very unlike the usual spare and futuristic spaceship of science fiction genre. Just as the earth is vaporized, they use a “transformational beam” to board the spaceship of a Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz. In the ship’s galley, Dent first sees dirty dishes and dirty alien underwear scattered about. Sitting on mattresses that have been grown and dried from the Sqornshellous Zeta swamps, Dent is not comforted by Prefect’s reassurance that “very few have ever come to life again.”
The Heart of Gold is the second ship to pick up the pair. In Adams’s world, this ultimate space-age transportation is shaped like a running shoe and has its own sales brochure. Giving it an Improbability Drive, which powers the ship through every point in the universe, Adams creates scenes within the ship that combine elements of an Andy Warhol painting with Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.”
Finding Magrathea had been a high priority of many previous space explorations. When the characters accidentally discover it, Prefect ranks its drab and desolate exterior somewhere below “cat litter.” They learn its interior is three million miles across and that Magrathea’s inhabitants used to make planets inside it.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy includes five characters: Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian (Tricia MacMillan), Slartibartfast, and Marvin, the robot. Though all are likable enough, they are one-dimensional creations who merely react to circumstances rather than handle them.
Arthur Dent is hardly the customary space hero. He has no answers, no solutions, and exhibits no bravery. The only thing he actually does is lie down in the mud in front of bulldozers intent on demolishing his home. During crises in space, he curls up in the fetal position, screeches “Huhhhhgggnnnnn,” falls asleep, or asks for a cup of tea.
Adams has said, “Arthur Dent is to a certain extent autobiographical. He moves from one astonishing event to another without fully comprehending what’s going on. He’s the Everyman Character—an ordinary person caught up in some extraordinary events.”
Zaphod Beeblebox sums Arthur up quite well when other aliens propose to replace Arthur’s brain with an electronic one. “You’d just have to program it to say ‘What?’ and ‘I don’t understand’ and ‘Where’s the tea?’” he responds.
Arthur’s sardonic one-liners in the face of the catastrophe provide much of the humor in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For example, after being told by Ford Prefect that they are safe in a Vogon Constructor Fleet spaceship, Arthur says, “This is obviously some strange usage of the word safe that I wasn’t previously aware of.”
Ford Prefect accepts Dent for what he is, and the two are good friends. Prefect is a roving researcher for the electronic book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After being stranded for fifteen years on Earth, he expands its guidebook description from “harmless” to “mostly harmless.” He spends his time crashing university parties, drinking, or trying to pick up girls. As Arthur mourns the loss of Earth and its inhabitants, Prefect tries to reassure him by saying, “You just come along with me and have a good time. The Galaxy’s a fun place.”
Prefect does not get very upset about any kind of peril, including his impending demise in the vacuum of space. As trouble appears, his first defense is to simply talk his way out of it. Ironically, Prefect cannot understand why humans talk so much, but decides if they do not continually exercise their lips, their brains start working. Zaphod Beeblebrox should be, as a space creature with three arms and two heads, a villain. Instead he turns out to be Ford Prefect’s semi-cousin, President of the Imperial Galactic Government, and mostly harmless himself. He is an adventurer, but is barely capable of piloting the spaceship he has stolen.
Trillian is an attractive human who Dent once tried to pick up at a party. As Zaphod Beeblebrox’s companion, she does little but fiddle with the spaceship’s controls and stand behind someone, anyone, during dangerous situations. Her most important contribution in the book is to bring two white mice (actually “hyperintelligent pandimensional beings” who first commissioned the creation of Earth) into the Heart of Gold spaceship.
Marvin is a prototype robot. Zaphod Beeblebrox calls him “the Paranoid Android,” and Dent labels him “an electronic sulking machine.” The first thing he says is, “I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.” Marvin is depressed, despairing, hopeless, abject, and wretched throughout the novel. Some reviewers credit him to be a satiric statement against the “me-first generation.”
Slartibartfast functions in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to give information. An award-winning fjord designer, he fills in missing information for Arthur and the readers. He explains Magrathea’s history and also explains that space travelers commissioned the creation of the Earth in order to find the Ultimate Question for the Ultimate Answer.
Adams has said, “I’m not a science fiction writer, but a comedy writer who happens to be using the conventions of science fiction for this particular thing.” Adams quickly deflates the arrogant notion that Earth and human kind are somehow pivotal to the universe. Earth is so obscure in the largeness of space, its entry in Ford Prefect’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just barely discernible, listed above “Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.”
The computer in science fiction is always in control by virtue of its unerring logic. On the other hand, the Heart of Gold’s computer is merely brash and cheery, and completely defenseless in protecting its ship. It can only sing “When You Walk through the Storm” as nuclear warheads approach. It wants a relationship with its programmers, and it possesses a matriarchal back-up personality which cautions Arthur and his companions to stay “all wrapped up snug and warm, and no playing with any naughty bug-eyed monsters.”
As a comedy writer, he turns the laugh toward religion, nonviolence, alcohol, dollar-a-day guide books, philosophy, science, and poetry in seeming random fashion.
Adams’s satire is not bitter. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is mostly about fun—fun with words, fun with genre, fun with television, and fun with human nature.
A great deal of Adams’s humor depends on the unexpected. The coveted Heart of Gold spaceship is shaped like a running shoe. Nuclear warheads, attacking the space ship, unexpectedly turn into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale. Adams’s satire pokes fun at Scripture as well as the notion that monkeys left with a typewriter will eventually pound out a Shakespeare play.
Adams frequently employs the technique of flashback. As Arthur knows nothing of events in space, filling him in on past events provides the reader with similar information. Adams accomplishes this with a variety of vehicles, including footnotes and narration. Entries in the electronic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tell Arthur about Magrathea, and Slartibartfast explains the creation of Deep Thought and its mission to arrive at Life’s Ultimate Answer.
Adams’s satire skewers several sacred icons of society: science, poetry, philosophy, and government. As Dent and Prefect romp through space, the various other characters and events act as vehicles for Adams’s social commentary.
His technological wonders include the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic, the Paralyso-Matic bomb, the Babel fish translator, and Kill-O-Zap gun. With names sounding like something out of a comic book, they make it impossible to take the technology of his world seriously.
Adams takes to task society’s fascination and dependence on computers. The computer on the Heart of Gold and on Marvin the robot should solve problems with unwavering, impersonal logic. Instead the spaceship’s computer whines and breaks into song. Marvin is emotion on wheels. Two of the funniest sections in the book satirize poets and philosophers. The recitation of the poem “Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” causes members of the audience to die of internal hemorrhaging. One listener survives by gnawing off his own leg. Captured by a Vogon, Arthur and Ford are strapped into Poetry Appreciation chairs, attached to “imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers,” and then forced to listen to Vogon poetry. Only Adams’s view of philosophers and philosophy is more scathing. His philosophers are part of the “Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons.” More concerned with job security than finding meaning to life, they argue for rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.
Adams points to the governmental ineffectiveness. In his world, the primary function of the President of the Intergalactic Government is to draw attention away from power rather than exercise it. Civil service in Adams’s world is manned by clods who are expert only at bludgeoning beautiful creatures to death.
1. Why does this book continue to be popular, especially among college students and adolescents?
2. Adams’s humor has been described as both sophomoric and brilliant. Decide which term best describes Adams’s work and justify your opinion.
3. How effective is Adams’s use of the technique of flashback in the novel?
4. What unresolved questions or conflicts in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy makes a sequel likely?
5. Compare and contrast Adams’s portrayal of space alien creatures in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to those found in science fiction genre.
6. What science fiction cliches does Adams’s satire target?
7. How does Adams sustain his generally upbeat and buoyant tone throughout the book?
8. What foibles of human nature does Adams take issue with in his book?
9. The space-age technology in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy may have seemed far-fetched and bizarre in 1980. Which of the inventions that Adams includes have appeared in society two decades later? How do you explain this seemingly prophetic materialization?
10. Some critics find the characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy interesting because of the way they react to challenging circumstances. Discuss each character’s response to the attack by Magrathea’s missiles.
1. Much of the technology described in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as being science fiction is now part of our daily lives. Pick one of these three inventions—digital watches, hydroboats (vehicles which hover above water without touching it), and virtual reality games—and research the development of it.
2. Adams has described his main character, Arthur Dent, as a semi-autobiographical character. Research the real-life accomplishments of Adams and discover the similarities between the author and Arthur.
3. Just about the only action Arthur Dent ever initiates takes place in the first chapter when he lies down in front of the bulldozer. Research at least one person who initiated passive resistance in modern history. Relate the circumstances which inspired it, and discuss the results of the disobedience.
4. Ford Prefect’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was published on a “sub meson electronic component.” Investigate electronic publishing today and the arguments for and against this form of publishing.
5. Carl Sagan was a controversial scientist. Compare his views of the origin of the universe to those given in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
6. For inventing the Infinite Improbability Drive a student scientist is awarded the Galactic Institute’s Prize for Extreme Cleverness. Pick a Nobel Prize winner in one of the science or medicine categories. Research what contribution or discovery earned him or her such renown.
7. Marvin is a robot of unique qualities. Compare and contrast his capabilities, personality, and programmed functions to other famous robots such as Robby the Robot of “Lost in Space” television fame, R2D2 and C3PO of the “Star Wars” movies, or Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
8. Investigate references in the Gospels that Adams parodies when Deep Thought announces it is only the second largest computer in the universe.
9. Read selections from the “Monty Python” television scripts and the books of Jonathan Swift and Kurt Vonnegut. Compare and contrast Adams to each of them.
10. Obtain The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in radio script and/or television script form. Compare and contrast the effectiveness of these forms to the book.
Adams’s five books in the “Hitchhiker” series send his quartet of characters forward and backward in time after The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. By programming the second largest computer in history to deliberate seven and one-half million years, they learn in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the Ultimate Answer is 42. The problem they pursue through subsequent books is finding the Ultimate Question for the Ultimate Answer. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, they discover the true reason for Earth’s existence. In Life, the Universe and Everything, their mission is to save the entire universe from Krikkit white killer robots. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish recounts how Arthur finds true love, while in Mostly Harmless, Arthur searches for home and discovers his estranged daughter who is searching for the planet of her ancestors.

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