A human and an alien walk into a pub… and then the world ends. Alice Foulis recounts her exploration of Douglas Adams’ interstellar comedy adventure.


 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is an enigma of a story. As Adams himself says, “the history of [the guide] is now so complicated that every time I tell it I contradict myself”, making it clear that this is no ordinary tale.

Adams was travelling in Innsbruck, Austria in 1971 when he found himself lying down in a field, staring at the sky. He was a little bit drunk with the “mild inability to stand up” and, as we all know the best ideas come to us whilst a little bit intoxicated, his copy of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to Europe by Ken Walsh merged into a guide to the galaxy before his very eyes. He then forgot about this idea for the next six years whilst he attended Cambridge university and “took a number of baths”. However, the thought stuck with him and, in 1978, it became a radio series. The idea bred and later became a book, but also a TV series, records and a film – all with a slightly different storyline. Yet, although they are all of course brilliant, it is the 1979 novel that I am enthusing about today.

The story begins with a rather grumpy Arthur Dent, waking up to discover his house is being demolished. But that is not all that greets him on this miserable morning: his best friend, Ford Prefect – a wonderful alien mistake of a name – is soon on hand to inform him that his problems no longer matter due to the imminent problem of the Earth ceasing to exist. Oh, and Ford also happens to be an alien who has been conducting research for the Guide to the Galaxy for the past fifteen years while he waits for a lift home.

Before Arthur evens has time to process this news, along with the multiple pints Ford has convinced him to prepare himself with, the Earth has disappeared. As it happens, an alien race called the Vogons made an executive decision that the Earth was blocking their bypass and, with similar motivations to the council destroying Arthur’s property (albeit using methods of a more destructive nature), decided to simply remove it. However, what the Vogons were not expecting was the arrival of two uninvited passengers, and this is where Arthur and Ford’s adventures begin, starting with the tortuous recital of Vogon poetry.

From this point onwards, Adams takes the reader on a whirlwind of adventure spanning across the entirety of the galaxy. Featuring witty quips and descriptions, such as the declaration that Ford is a “frood who really knows where his towel is” which comes at the end of a page long explanation of the importance of having a towel with you if you mean to hitchhiker (it shows that you have purpose). Adams’ writing is entertaining, and the novel retains this fast pace throughout. Despite fundamentally being a science fiction novel, Arthur acts as an audience proxy, so everything is explained in accessible, and hilarious, detail.

On their travels, Arthur and Ford meet a sensational cast of characters. First on this list, in an extraordinary coincidence only possible due to the infinite improbability drive on the ship that she has recently started to reside on: Tricia Marie McMillan (or Trillian Astra as she likes to be known – it is more ‘space-like’), the human who Arthur unsuccessfully tried to chat up at a party before she went off with ‘Phil’. Tricia also happens to be the girlfriend of Ford’s cousin, otherwise known as the President of the Galaxy: Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has two heads and three arms but very little actual power. Beeblebrox knows neither the question nor the answer he seeks, but decides to steal the brand new ship he was supposed to be unveiling, the Heart of Gold, and travel across the universe. Accompanying these two on the ship is Marvin, the emotive depressed robot who is incapable of finding either happiness or a task big enough to occupy his enormous brain.

Together, the crew consisting of two humans, two aliens, and a robot, explore the galaxy: encountering fellow aliens and a number of tight scrapes. They find intelligent mice wearing suits, fight to create the perfect cup of tea, and discover the crucial significance of the answer 42. This book may be short, but it provides endless entertainment, amusement, and satisfaction. Not only is the tale of the Guide a classic, but it also has potential to be timeless, or indeed welcome across the whole galaxy. I would describe this novel, without hesitation, as being virtually perfect, and would recommend it to everyone – whether you are a science fiction fan or not, this book will take you to another world!

 

Alice Foulis