For most of us, the past sometimes seems more attractive than our present or somehow less frightening than the undiscovered country of the future. It’s an illusion, really, but memory has a way of dulling all but the sharpest pains, the saddest memories, and the rest of all our yesterdays become a series of sepia-colored memories in which we take refuge from our 21st Century red state-blue state, conservative vs. liberal, war-on-terror, and bad news on CNN realities.
Most of us, too, indulge ourselves with trips to the past through many gateways. For some of us, certain foods or beverages will trigger off happy memories of days gone by: a slice of homemade pie, perhaps, or a distinctively-shaped bottle of chilled Coca-Cola, or a particular brand of chocolate.
But there are other gateways to the rose-colored days of the past we sometimes crave, as well. Music, of course, springs to mind; who among us doesn’t have a song that stops our hearts and makes us think Oh, I remember the first time I heard this…. or makes us misty eyed? Almost any medium…a movie, a television show, a magazine, or a book, particularly one that is well-loved, dog-eared, battered almost to the point of disintegration because it’s been read and re-read so many times.
For me, one of those books is the late Douglas Adams’ comical science fiction satire, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I first read it when I was 18, and for the past quarter century, this masterpiece of humorous wordplay has lightened my moods, brightened gloomy days, and taken me back in time to my own nostalgic utopia.
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
So the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches. – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
One of my favorite books to re-read has always been Douglas Adams’ wacky “sort-of adaptation” of
his scripts for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe hilarious BBC 1978 radio comedy. I bought my first copy of the Guide in 1981 after hearing some of the episodes on National Public Radio and laughing till my sides ached at the insane and inane misadventures of poor, befuddled Arthur Dent and the beings he meets when he’s whisked off the Earth a few moments before its destruction.
Because most of the characters and situations Adams created are so bizarre, he gets the reader to buy into the premise by making Arthur someone we can identify with. He’s not a heroic figure like Buck Rogers or Indiana Jones, but rather a very ordinary fellow,
about thirty…tall, dark-haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too – most of his friends worked in advertising.
Poor Arthur. To understand what he goes through in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, imagine yourself waking up one Thursday, looking blearily out your window, seeing a bulldozer, going on about your morning routine, then having the word “yellow” pop into your head with something to connect with. Wander about. Do more morning stuff. Look out your window. Yep, the bulldozer is still there. HmÃ¢Â?Â¦is that a hangover you have? Yep. Were you at a bar, perhaps? Mad about that expressway the city commission approved several months before and now your house is to be demolished? Oh, and you drank way too much, too. Better rehydrate. What? Where are you going? Are you crazy? Lying down on the mud in front of a bulldozer is NOT going to save the houseÃ¢Â?Â¦..
That his house is going to be knocked down by a crew of workmen led by a direct descendant of Genghis Khan is actually the least of Arthur Dent’s worries, for unfortunately the world is, in fact, going to meet the same fate but in a vaster scale: the Vogon Constructor Fleet has arrived; its big, ugly ships – yellow, of course – primed to demolish the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.
Fortunately for Arthur, his friend Ford Prefect has managed to flag down a ride off the Earth with the Dentrassi, the happy-go-lucky cooks of the Vogon fleet, allowing the very unprepared Englishman – still clad in his bathrobe – to survive his home planet’s demise. Over the course of the novel, Arthur and Ford will survive being tossed out of a Vogon airlock, encounter the very trippy – and two-headed – Zaphod Beeblebrox (and his lovely girlfriend Trillian), endure the complaints of Marvin the Paranoid Android (“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”), discover the true nature of the Earth on the lost world of Magrathea, and start off on a new quest for the Ultimate Question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
On Adams’ Style:
First-time readers should be aware that this is not a conventional novel spiced up with “funny bits,” nor is it a funny-on-the-surface, seething-on-the-inside satirical look at a real place a la Carl Hiassen’s Skinny Dip. It’s more along the lines of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, poking fun at every science fiction storyline ever written and then some, taking gentle sideswipes at almost every aspect of modern life, ranging from local politics and planning boards to the global presence of McDonald’s hamburgers. As the book critic of The Atlantic stated, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is “lively, sharply satirical, brilliantly written….Ranks with the best set pieces in Mark Twain.”
Adams, who died a few years ago at the age of 49, was a master of gentle puns and sharp satire. He was fond, for instance, of exaggerating the ridiculous situations to get the reader to laugh. He’d take an idea and literally stretch the language for comic effect, sometimes subtly, and sometimes not. For example, he came up with a character who comes up with a bizarre explanation of what, exactly happens to ballpoint pens when they go missing:
There followed a long period of painstaking research during which he visited all the major points of ballpoint loss throughout the Galaxy and eventually came up with a quaint little theory which quite caught the public imagination at the time. Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, fishoids, walking treeoids and super intelligent shades of the color blue, there was a planet entirely given over to ballpoint life forms. And it was to this planet that unattended ballpoints would make their way, slipping away quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely ballpointed life-style, responding to highly ballpoint-oriented stimuli, and generally living the ballpoint equivalent of the good life.
Adams also was fond of one-liners, as in this exchange between Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect:
Ford stared at [Arthur] blankly in the darkness. He helped Arthur to some peanuts. ‘How do you feel?’ he asked him.
” Like a military academy,” said Arthur, “bits of me keep passing out.”
Interpersed throughout the main plot of Arthur’s misadventures with Ford, Zaphod and Trillian are the “reference entries” of the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself. Ford Prefect, after all, is a roving researcher for the Guide, which is one of the best-selling books in the known Galaxy, partly because it is slightly cheaper than the Encyclopedia Galactica, but mainly because its definitions are wickedly funny.