Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

So here's the thing. I'd kind of built up The Hitchhiker's Guide in my mind as this be-all, end-all of geeky hilarity. And I get the feeling that if I'd read it in middle school like everyone else, it would have been. But reading it for the first time now, I can't say I was blown away. I may have chuckled aloud once, but I can't be sure. It was amusing, yes, but just not what I was expecting.

Since everyone else but me has already read this, I'm not going to do a full run-down, nor am I going to keep from spoiling any major plot points. So, y'know, fair warning (on the off chance there's actually someone else out there who also managed to remain out of the Hitchhiker loop).

The book starts out in England, and we're introduced to Arthur Dent. And I have to say, from the very beginning, Arthur's voice in my head sounded exactly like Ricky Gervais. (He would've been a good pick to play that part in the movie, I think.) It didn't take long for me to start feeling like Douglas Adams is just kind of trying too hard. I mean, it's funny, but everything seems a little over the top. He's got characters named Zaphod Beezlebrox, Slartibartfast and Veet Voojagig (which, as Tom pointed out were probably more amusing said aloud on the original radio broadcasts). I will admit to being amused by the introduction of the first alien character, who had "skimped a bit on his preparatory research. The information he had gathered led him to choose the name 'Ford Prefect' as being nicely inconspicuous." But this wasn't as funny as it might have been were it not such a dated reference (I assumed Ford Prefect was the name of a car, but it's not one I'd heard of, specifically. No great surprise, as it was manufactured in Britain in the 1950s. I was perhaps more amused after the fact to learn that the name was changed in the French version of the book to "Ford Escort." Because apparently the French didn't get the joke, either.)

Adams destroys the Earth in the first 35 pages, under the premise of making room for an interstellar superhighway, drawing a parallel to the destruction of Arthur Dent's home to make room for an expressway. Yeah, there was another little chuckle-worthy moment ("All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now...What do you mean, you've never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven's sake, mankind, it's only four light-years away, you know." This after Arthur Dent said, of the rather more local demolition plans that were supposedly on display at the city planning office, "It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'") but it still felt rather...I don't know, lacking in any finesse. The rest of the book kind of seemed to be trying to continually one-up itself in absurdity. Vogon poetry is physically painful to listen to! Arthur and Ford are jettisoned into the vacuum of space only to be rescued one second before certain death! This robot has feelings, but they're feelings of cynicism and depression! Inhabitants of this planet custom build other planets! ZOMG, the Earth was commissioned for a 10 million year experiment run by an alien race who made their appearance on said planet as mice! Mice are the smartest creatures on the Earth! (Or were, until it was destroyed by the Vogons.) And lo, it was destroyed a mere 5 minutes before the completion of the grand experiment! Seriously, Doug Adams, stop shouting, already.

I'm not sure why the whole thing felt more clunky than, say, Christopher Moore or Carl Hiassen, who are also of the absurdly outrageous/outrageously absurd school of humor, but it did. Maybe it's that I spent most of the time feeling like I was supposed to be blown away by the hilarity, so I never managed to be genuinely surprised by any of it. Maybe I'm a humorless snob. ;) In any event, I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, but I can't say I'm going to trip over myself hurrying to read the rest of the series.



ml said...

i tried reading it in middle or high school, and couldn't finish it then =).

Tom said...

You see, Susan, this kind of reaction is exactly why I try not to take recommendations or consume media that are too highly regarded ;)

susan said...

ML - Well, there goes my theory that it's funnier to a younger audience ;)

Tom - I call shenanigans on this claim that you try not to take recommendations. How does anyone hear about anything if not by (at least tacit) recommendation? You just stubbornly refuse to consider anything if it's recommended to you more than once or maaaaybe twice. ;) The flaw in your logic is that there's no way you're always going to hate what many other people like, just by virtue of their liking it. I mean, turns out you actually did like The Matrix, doesn't it? ;)

MC Squared said...


The first book is pretty hard to read, and yes it's basically hard to read because they're adapting it from the BBC broadcast, which is actually funny.

The other books are, I would say, slightly better. I was still very disappointed with the way it all gets wrapped up at the end.

At the very least, you'll know why you should always bring a towel.

Do listen to the BBC broadcasts if you can find them. I use to have them on MP3, but I'm not sure I still do. If I ever find them, I'll email them your way.