Sunday, June 21, 2009

I celebrate the 30th anniversary of "Hitchhiker's Guide" by actually reading it

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ****
By Douglas Adams

I get turned off by excessive hype about a book, so it took me 30 years to read Douglas Adams' sci-fi/satire. (Click the dolphins left to see the "Thanks For All the Fish" number from the movie, which was pretty terrible except for Sam Rockwell's hilarious Beeblebrox.)

The book defies summation to a large extent, but I can say that it's the story of a pedestrian Earthling, Arthur Dent, who is whisked off the planet just before its destruction by a race of intergalactic bureaucrats and who has subsequent adventures in outerspace while trying to come to terms with Life, the Universe and Everything.

But, really, who cares about the plot? People read this book for Adams' sly riffs on technology, the enduring success of mediocrity, and the essential cravenness of humans (and other higher life forms). I especially liked his hammy send-up of the pseudo-science that permeates more earnest sci-fi books, like this explanation of R-speed:
R is a velocity measure, defined as a reasonable speed of travel that is consistent with the health, mental well-being and not being more than, say, five minutes late. It is therefore clearly an almost infinitely variable figure according to circumstances, since the first two factors vary not only with speed taken as an absolute, but also with awareness of the third factor. Unless handled with tranquility, this equation can result in considerable stress, ulcers and even death.
Dent's picaresque adventures are punctuated with explanatory interruptions from a kind of avuncular Omnicience who isn't clearly identified. Sometimes he reads from the "Hitchhiker's Guide," which Arthur has to help him with his interstellar travels, and he just explains things to us. Like here:
Vogon poetry is, of course, the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grnthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning," four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. ... The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.
"Hitchhiker" is not laugh-out-loud funny as the book jackets and reviews promise; it's more like having a few beers with someone who is clever and amusing. Clearly an out-of-the-box thinker, Adams creates a fantasy context to explain Life As We Know It, thereby rendering it utterly ridiculous. For instance, it turns out that Earth was created as a lab experiment by white mice, one of whom, Frankie, offers what amounts to the thematic climax of the book:
... there comes a point, I'm afraid, where you begin to suspect that if there's any REAL truth, it's that the entire multidimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs. And if it comes to a choice between spending another 10 million years finding that out, and on the other hand, just taking the money and running, then I for one could do with the exercise.
Don't forget your towel. Don't panic.

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