Wednesday, 31 October 2012

We Humbly Recommend... The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

People of Earth, your attention please

If there's one thing that's been with me since the year dot, it's science fiction. While Star Wars filled my head up with spaceships and ideas of telekinetic power, it was Douglas Adams that led me to the serious questions that scientists were asking. Are asking. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is meant to be a comedy and yet wound between the one liners and the absurd astronomical notions is a profundity that often borders on the philosophical.

The Hitchhiker's Guide has manifested itself in many guises. There the TV series, which has dated horribly, but still has some nice bits, especially the animated book sequences. The original radio series however is for me the best thing audio recording ever produced. I can quote most of both series, I've listened to them that many times. There is also the computer game, a text based version also written by Adams and hugely popular. There was even a stage play of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. We don't talk about the film. We never talk about the film.

Then there's the novels. Again, I have been reading these books since I was a teenager, listened to them being read by Stephen Moore and Douglas Adams until the tapes broke. I can quote large sections of them, they hold wonder to me, like Lewis Carroll or Harry Potter do for others. But also because Douglas Adams was a master at writing lean, wonderfully constructed sentences. Like the book's opening lines:

This is the story of ‘The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book, ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than ‘The Celestial Homecare Omnibus', better selling than ‘Fifty-Three More Things To Do In Zero Gravity', and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: ‘Where God Went Wrong', ‘Some More Of God's Greatest Mistakes', and ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?'.

The first few books in the trilogy are the most coherent version of the story Douglas Adams was trying to tell. It became less coherent as the trilogy spilled over into four and five books, but certainly the first three are the definitive Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Science fiction is at its best when it is using the distant future to comment upon present day issues and the Hitchhiker's Guide is no exception. Planet Earth is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass and the last remaining human being, Arthur Dent, travels across the galaxy encountering bureaucrats and lunatics wherever he goes. The Hitchhiker's Guide is essentially the narrator of the story, or at least the book's chorus, frequent interrupting the plot with examples from the guidebook's pages.

The idea of a personal guidebook seemed farfetched when the Hitchhiker's Guide began its life in the late 70s and yet now with smart phones the phenomenon is almost ubiquitous. The Hitchhiker's Guide also features the Babel Fish, a fish that translates any language for you from inside your ear. There is now Babel Fish translation software freely available on the internet. Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov are credited with predicting much of future technology. As George Orwell knew, predicting the future is ultimately useless, yet Douglas Adams got so much right about the technological advancement of the last thirty years. And more than that, he helped shape its future course.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had a powerful effect on my mind when I first read it all those years ago and remains so today. Douglas Adams taught me the principal of reducio ad absurdo, of testing principles by reducing them to the level of the absurd. It's a useful skill to have. But mostly Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide just make me laugh. They're very funny books and all quite short and the philosophical aspects are so subtly done that you barely even notice they're there. The prose rips off the tongue and the grand absurd ideas warm your brain like the spreading glow from a glass of brandy. Like Sherlock Holmes or P G Wodehouse, they're a treat. Read them and luxuriate.


  1. It's nice to see that you are alive to the philosophical aspects of Hitchhiker (and to the loveliness of the babel fish graphic!).

    1. Cheers. I've read quite a lot of philosophy and yet I'd say Douglas Adams was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.