The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Book Review)

[There are significant spoilers for the entire novel in this review.]

Title: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Author: Douglas Adams

Publication Date: October 12, 1979

Producer: 2005 Random House, Inc. Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc.

Narrated by: Stephen Fry

Recording Time: 5 hours, 51 minutes

THE PLOT

The novel begins by describing humanity as primitive and unhappy. It also describes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book that provides information everything in the galaxy.

Arthur Dent, the human protagonist, wakes up at his home in England and learns that the the local planning council plans to demolish his house. He thus lies down in front of the bulldozer to prevent this from happening. His friend Ford Prefect, who is unbeknownst to Arthur an alien from Betelgeuse, is a researcher writing for The Hitchhiker’s Guide who has been posing on earth as an out-of-work actor for 15 years. Ford convinces the man behind this dozing plan, Mr. Prosser, to lie down in front of the bulldozer for Arthur so that he can buy Arthur six pints of beer at the pub. After Arthur and Ford leave, the construction crew demolishing the house anyway, the noise of which draws Arthur back. As this is occurring, everyone stops and sees a fleet of alien spaceships overhead. The Vogons, an unattractive race of alien bureaucrats, announce to the planet that they are here to demolish earth in order to clear the way for a hyperspace expressway. Just before the earth is destroyed, Ford and Arthur hitch a ride on a Vogonship, courtesy of help from the Dentrassis, a race who serve as the cooks on the Vogon fleet. Arthur and Ford are discovered by the Vogons, who torture them by forcing them to listen to Vogon poetry before tossing them out of an airlock into the void of space.

Elsewhere, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Ford’s “semi-cousin” and the President of the Galaxy, steals the spaceship named Heart of Gold at its unveiling along with Trillian, his human companion. The Heart of Gold is powered by an “Infinite Improbability Drive” that allows it to travel instantaneously to any point in space by simultaneously passing through every point in the universe at once. After Zaphod steals the ship, the ship then rescues Arthur and Ford less than a second before they would have died. Zaphod then takes his passengers—Arthur, Ford, Trillian, a depressed super-robot named Marvin, to a planet called Magrathea, which was until they found it, thought to be mythical. Magrathea is thought to have been a planet that specialized in custom-building other planets. After some initial doubt from Ford that the planet is Magrathea, the planet’s computers communicate with their ship, send them warning messages to leave, and then fires two nuclear warheads at the Heart of Gold. After the aliens and the ship are unable to come up with a plan to save themselves, Arthur accidentally saves them by activating the Infinite Improbability Drive improperly. His action causes the Heart of Gold to remain in Magrathea and for the two missiles to transform into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias. The whale briefly engages in philosophical thought concerning its own existence as it falls to the surface and dies. It’s fall opens a passage underground on its impact. The petunias also fall and think “oh no, not again.” As the ship lands Trillian’s pet mice, Frankie and Benjy, escape.

On the ground Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian enter the planet’s interior while leaving Arthur and Marvin the robot outside to stand guard. We learn that Zaphod has altered his own memories in such a way that he does not know what he is doing, or why, but he is cognizant of the fact that the things he attempts seem to work. He admits he would not trust himself with certain types of knowledge. Arthur is met outside by a man named Slartibartfast, who explains that the Magratheans have been asleep for the last five millions years waiting out an economic recession. He continues, saying that they have temporarily woken up to reconstruct a new version of Earth, commissioned by mice, who were the most intelligent species on Earth. Inside his office, Slartibartfast shows Arthur that in the distant past a race of “hyperintelligent, pan-dimensional beings” created a supercomputer named Deep Thought to determine the answer to the “Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything.” At that time, two philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, arrived and complained that the computer must be deactivated because if it is allowed to answer the question, then it will remove uncertainty and end their jobs. However, Deep Thought explained that it would take 7.5 million years to complete the calculations, adding that they could argue over what the computer’s answer will be for all of that time. However, 7.5 million years later, the philosophers’ descendants arrived and asked Deep Thought for the answer, which the super-computer says is the number 42. Deep Thought tells the philosophers that the answer makes no sense to them because they do not know what the “Ultimate Question” had been in the first place. Deep Thought suggests that hey design an even greater computer to determine what the Ultimate Question is. This computer is actually the planet Earth, which was constructed by the Magratheans. We learn that the earth was five minutes away from finishing its task and figuring out the Ultimate Question when the Vogons destroyed it. The hyperintelligent superbeings participated in the earth program, as mice, performing experiments on humans while pretending all the while to be experimented on themselves.

After these revelations, Slartibartfast takes Arthur to see his friends, who are at a feast hosted by Trillian’s pet mice. The mice, who are hyperintelligent super-beings, reject the idea of building a new Earth to start the process over. Instead, they offer to buy Arthur’s brain, believing it might contain the question. Arthur does not want to relinquish his brain and a fight ensues. Just then, police from the planet Blagulon Kappa arrive to arrest Zaphod for stealing The Heart of Gold. The mice decide to pretend that the Ultimate Question is “How many roads must a man walk down?” Meanwhile, the police shoot at Zaphod until they abruptly die because their life-support systems short-circuit. Ford learns on the surface that Marvin the depressed robot plugged himself into the ship of the policemen, explained his view of the universe, causing their ship to commit suicide. Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, Trillian, and Marvin leave Magrathea and set out for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

MY REVIEW:

This is a short, clever, and funny satire of science fiction, philosophy, and religion. Stephen Fry’s narration is excellent.

It seems to be a requirement that in a science fiction comedy there be a little bit of lampooning of civil bureaucracy. This story is no exception as we get to experience the irony of Arthur losing his house, for those reasons, and the fact that this is all meaningless because the earth is being demolished for the same reasons as his house. The Vogon irritation that humans are upset and surprised, when the notice had been placed light years away, is all too reminiscent of “notice by publication” shenanigans we see in earthling private property rights litigation.

The novel also provides a biting description of the purpose of politicians, namely that they exist to distract the populace from the actual sources of power. Zaphod is said to be exceptionally good at his job, and the reader cannot help but equate him with real-world counter-parts who cannot help avoiding the news for one major public gaffe or another. The entire explanation is silly to the point of absurdity, but it also rings true.

“Silly to the point of absurdity, but it also rings true” is probably a fitting way to describe much of the novel.

Favorite bits:

  • I enjoyed the description of humanity’s efforts to make itself happy by handing, back and forth, small green pieces of paper.
  • I loved the description of fjords, by the planet-designer Slartibartfast, as having “little crinkly edges.”
  • The funniest moment in the novel, in my opinion, is the Vogon poetry-based torture of Arthur and Ford.
  • There is something really profound, in drawing attention away from the answer to the meaning of life (“42”) toward the question of the meaning of life. I also really laughed at the fact the mice just made up a question and called it good.
  • How many roads must a man walk down?” as a meaningless question that sounds more important than it really is also made me laugh out loud. Take that, Bob Dylan.

This book holds up well and I am happy to have revisited it.

9 thoughts on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Book Review)

  1. I just watched the movie version with Martin Freeman last weekend. Good times 😀
    Glad the book held up to a re-read. I think I’ve read this twice and wasn’t sure that I’d ever try for a third time. Maybe some day though?

    1. It probably helped my enjoyment of that book that I have not interacted with this franchise since the Freeman movie came out… which was about in 2005, I think? I remember once having the sense that this story was a little over-exposed.

      A lot of the humor did not land for me 20+ years ago, the last time I read this, in the way that it did this week. I suspect that has to do with more time lived alongside the things being satirized.

      1. Yeah, the movie flopped so they never tried to do any of the sequels. I was ok with that, as the humor didn’t translate super well to the screen.

        Gotcha.

  2. Like many people of my ilk I enjoy the Hitchhiker’s Guide, I found the limit of my fandom when I tried to read a book Neil Gaiman wrote about the Hitchhiker’s Guide. That was one level too far for me.

    1. Yeah. I enjoy the series but I never got as much into it as some of my nerd peers did. I used to know people who kind of wore their fandom of the franchise as part of their nerd identity, randomly exclaiming about the number 42 or forcing quotes from the dolphins “thanks for all the fish” into conversations. I’m a huge nerd but I never fully committed in that way.

      I never read the Gaiman book. That sounds kind of awful to me.