Saturday, July 28, 2007

Review: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide by Douglas Adams. Highly recommended.

If finding out your house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a highway bypass is unnerving and life changing, imagine finding out the same is about to happen to your planet. Thus begin the adventures of human Arthur Dent in The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide by Douglas Adams.

Of course Adams is not the first writer to use science fiction to satirize the foibles of the human race and its institutions and culture (including science fiction), but he does does so with a rare combination of sophistication, style, and humor. His description of why the bypass is being built and why Arthur doesn't know about it alone starts the series off on a scathing note. In the universe of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the book within a book), people sometimes survive government and corporate bureaucracy and personal greed and thoughtlessness, but more often destruction and waste seem to result.

Throughout his post-Earth adventures with Ford Prefect, the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, fellow human Trillian (Tricia McMillan), and Marvin the perpetually downcast robot who takes lows to new highs, Arthur is the proverbial Everyman, whose struggles to make tea (and thus achieve some sense of ordinariness) in his new life result in near-destruction. At one point, he happily serves as "Sandwich Maker" on a pre-technological world that views this skill with awe.

Adams is perhaps strongest in his numerous asides in which he talks about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the publication for which Ford Prefect researches and writes, and the Encyclopedia Galactica; the nature of improbability; the humorously and seemingly invariable and inevitable tragic histories of various planets and races; and various theories surrounding such things as time, space, and infinity, almost always with a slyly serious wink about the absurdity of it all. These digressions allow his imagination and his intellect to soar and in many cases are more interesting than the story itself. This may go back to how The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy begins—that people want to move between Points A and B very fast, and that people at Point C in between (Everyman Arthur Dent) "often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be." There seem to be no Points A and B in Arthur's new universe; there are infinite points and lines and continuums, most of them absurd in one way or another.

With the exception of Trillian, Arthur's fellow travelers are well drawn. The most amusing is, sadly, Marvin, whose programmed depression is annoying and whose perception is accurate.

There are ingenious ideas scattered throughout the six stories, including the irony of a lorry driver who hates the perpetual rain that follows him no matter where he goes because, unbeknownst to him, he is a Rain God.

The problem is that many of these ideas, like life events, crop up randomly, play themselves out, and then seem to fall flat in the end. Undoubtedly, this is part of the universe as Adams sees it; it is made up of absurdity upon absurdity, which may not have neat Point A to Point B progressions. Some of this lack of cohesion also may be the result of transforming material written for episodic radio into book form; a certain sense and continuity may have been lost as the author diverts his tale to Points E, M, and T.

The first two books, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, are the best in the series. Life, the Universe and Everything is, almost as the title promises, too contorted and meandering. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, which takes place on Earth, lacks an engaging focal point, which makes it seem long and tedious at times. "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe" appears to be a throwaway story reflecting the author's views. Mostly Harmless, written at what Adams admitted was a bad time in his life, lacks the élan of the earliest books; it is more downbeat in attitude than its predecessors and borders on determined and grim. Marvin is long gone as comic relief; the weakest character, Tricia/Trillian, now moves to the forefront but without further development; and even Ford Prefect has sobered up, quite out of character. It as though Adams wanted his characters, most notably Random, to reflect his anger and depression and his universe to end without possibility of resurrection—in the same way that Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes.

Underneath the satire, the humor, and the bitterness, The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide is imaginative and thought provoking, revealing a rare story-telling and writing gift that is brilliant both on the surface and in the depths.

Saturday, 28 July 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

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