Comedy · Science Fiction

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

1792by: Douglas Adams

Okay, I know that’s not the actual book cover, but I love Marvin and I love that graphic – so that’s what’s heading this post.   I listened to this instead of reading it – it’s a reread – with Stephen Fry narrating.  It was brilliant.  (With the 2 qualifications: 1) The timing was a little off on some of the chapter changes and 2) Fry pronounces some words very weirdly, probably because he’s British. It was disconcerting for this Texan.)

The first time I read Hitchhiker’s, I liked it a lot but I didn’t fully understand why it was so great.  On rereading it – as an adult rather than a teenager – I found it much funnier.  I’m actually surprised by how much of it is still relevant – and the GooglePlex! How did Adams know?! 

Hearing it narrated was great for the comedy, naturally. Somehow hearing things read aloud makes the comedy easier to understand for me.  I think I laugh more, too – something that I’d read and go, “oh that’s funny” makes me chuckle when I hear it narrated well.

Anyway, for any not in the know out there, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  is a comedic science fiction that more or less follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, an ordinary Englishman who finds himself flying off into space in a series of rather unnerving mishaps.  Dent is ordinary and uninteresting, really.  If he were the main character of a modern fiction, it would be a one exposing how our lives are so mundane and ruled by petty concerns; at the end he would die slightly unsatisfied but never understanding why, making the writer’s point about, to quote one of my art professors, “a vulgar 9-5 job.”   Thankfully, it is Adams who wrote about him and Dent is instead a hilarious counterpoint to the wonders of space, aliens, and technology.  And I like the unabashed preference Dent has for his home life.  It’s funny to think of someone, off on the adventure of a lifetime, longing for their ordinary home on in a small town in the English countryside, certainly, but it’s also, I think, a feeling we all have when off adventuring. Comedy usually has more than a grain of truth

Other main characters include the smart and savvy Trillion, whom I loved and wanted to see more of; Ford Prefect, the congenial alien writer; Zaphod Beeblebox, President of the Galaxy; and, of course, Marvin, the bored and depressed robot.  The nicest thing about the characters is that they all balance each other out both character- and comedy-wise.  Nobody’s overdone but the reader’s never kept too long at any one extreme.

Douglas Adams’ gets his humor from the absurd and obvious.  A famous quote of his, and one that I think exemplifies his humor, is, “The ship hung in the air much in the way bricks don’t.”  He’s got a knack for using obvious observations in absurd ways that make you delight in the unexpected juxtaposition of words and images.  Hitchhiker’s spends a good deal of time satirizing bureaucracy and government (can you really talk about one without the other?), and if you haven’t felt the way his characters feel after a bad experience in a government office, you are probably a saint.  His plot is much less complicated than Terry Prachett’s tend to be, though I think Prachett’s characters are more to my taste.  I liked the droll statements and the “say what?” moments that jolt you out of reading mode into laughing mode; these are mostly found in the narration.  I never got thrown out of the story but I was always surprised and delighted to find myself laughing.

In short, Douglas is truly deserving of his status as the king of sci-fi comedy.  If you like comedy or science fiction, you should definitely give him a shot.  I’m going out on a limb here and saying he has nearly universal appeal; I can’t think of a reason someone would dislike him except for not liking the genres he writes in.  (Well.  If your preferred humor is vulgar or obscene, than he’s probably not for you. So I guess there’s that.)

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