Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
I've had an aversion to the work of Douglas Adams roughly since I discovered the internet and the disproportionately gushing praise with which his legacy is regularly hosed down. I've seen this particular title turning up in predictably cantankerous lists of the fifty most important science-fiction novels of all time, and I've partaken in bulletin boards upon which more than half of the subscribers are named after Douglas Adams characters, more or less guaranteeing constant repetition of jokes which were admittedly very funny when I saw them on telly back in 1981. Nevertheless, the sheer effort of finding oneself loathing something for crimes of popularity can become wearisome and is at least as stupid as grounding one's love of some cultural phenomenon on how many other people think it's great, so I like to take a bite out of my own bullshit from time to time, just to see how it tastes.

The last time I suggested the guy was maybe not the greatest writer who ever lived, the response I got was hate for Douglas Adams - incredible, with a presumed incredulous shake of the head. We were actually on the mean streets of the South Bronx - the Caucasian Doctor Who webzine editor and I - so the faux-ebonic inference that I be hatin' on Douglas Adams like some trick-ass bitch was entirely in context, because how can you not love Douglas Adams unless you just be hating on him just 'cause you mad-doggin', yeah? Sheee-it, blood, you be flossin' like a motherfucker.

My first encounter with Hitchhikers was the television series, closely followed by a stage production put on by drama students at Warwick University in November 1981. I thought it was brilliant - which is the actual word I used to describe it in my diary - and so I bought the books as they came out. I thought they were brilliant too, because they faithfully reproduced the experience of watching something on telly, and that's what mattered to me when I was sixteen. Oddly though, I found the third book less brilliant than the first two, and I didn't enjoy So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish at all. It seemed ponderous and conspicuously lacking in jokes, and even as a fairly stupid nineteen-year old I could tell that the exploration of Arthur Dent's existential disassociation was a complete fucking waste of time. This was therefore a revelation for me, having previously held that where one brilliant thing can be identified by a logo promising the recurrence of characters and situations, then the recurrence of those characters and situations will therefore always be of equivalent brilliance; which is why all Doctor Who was brilliant, and all things with Doctor Who written on the cover were also brilliant, and anything to the contrary was impossible.

Eventually I grew up, at last taking on board the essential punk rock truism that all of your heroes are usually just lucky arseholes, and that, as Jimmy suggests, you should question everything:

Could you tell a wise man by the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important than the stories that he tells?

Eventually I grew up, as I already said, or at least I changed - which is surely what you're supposed to do when you grow up. I still read kid's comics, and pretty much anything I want to read, but at the same time I've often found myself in opposition to a general tendency which reminds me painfully of my dumbfuck nineteen-year old self, and seemingly amounts to this thing featured in my childhood and must therefore be considered brilliant. It would be understandable were all those shows - because it's usually television we're talking about - of quality equivalent to, off the top of my head, Carnival of Monsters, but they never are and some bewilderingly average material has been getting itself reclassified as classic prior to sacred cowification because a fifty-something was able to remember it and hasn't really bothered to take an interest in anything outside whatever he experienced before the age of twenty. It's not so much that I worry about the fetishisation of Blake's fucking Seven crowding out anything more worthwhile, or at least slightly less generic; and it's not that I worry about the possibly inevitable end result of culture circle jerking itself into a formless mush of recycled commodity nostalgia; it's simply that I'm mystified as to how people can be satisfied with culture which simply isn't that good. I don't even mean stuff that's actually crap; I mean that which may indeed have done its job well enough thirty years ago, but probably shouldn't be held aloft as a beacon of excellence in the twenty-first century.

Douglas Adams was one of only two people outside of the usual six to write material for Monty Python's Flying Circus, and that was his background. He was a talented writer of comedy sketches performed on either stage, screen, or radio, and those were the fields in which he excelled, assuming for the sake of argument that you enjoy Adam's particular variation on Cambridge Footlights humour - Monty Python by way of Illuminatus! - seeing as I've now read the thing and can't help but notice its influence in more or less everything written since. As a novel, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reads like a series of sketches strung together with thematic linking material woven back and forth so as to present an impression of narrative progress which never quite finds its feet. The problems result in part from too many magic wands waved in welding disparate elements together, and too much reliance on details which only really exist for the sake of the jokes. The infinite improbability drive, for example, is funny, but not that funny, and it's really the only thing connecting the joke about blowing up the Earth to the one about the two-headed dude and the giant computer.

None of this would matter were Adams a bit handier with his biro, but the prose reads too much like a script for a series of sketches padded out by someone who has never written a book but feels sure that it can't be too difficult; and the thing is, whilst this stuff may well have been pure spun gold in real time, nailed down to a page of text it reveals its weaknesses, how little is actually there, and how repetitive it is; and it's very, very repetitive - over and over, the indignant surprise of an otherwise polite English clergyman confronted by the improbable, surreal, or outrageous; and an otherwise polite English clergyman who uses the word rather in every fucking sentence.

'Ah,' said Arthur, 'er...' He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman's husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.

Oh my sides. The references are characteristically middle-class and comically understated, the sort of thing you might reasonably expect from someone who hasn't really experienced much beyond the walls of the jolly old Uni, and who still regards the notion of students attending parties and getting drunk as essentially side-splitting. There are some decent theoretical physics gags, but nothing quite strong enough to dispel the faint aroma of dormitory japes, somewhat underscored by the presence of just a single female character in the entire book - and she's Zaphod's bird, someone whom Arthur might have jolly well bonked were it not for jolly old slings and arrows of outrageous jolly old misfortune. I wouldn't ordinarily give two shits about equal representation or points scored on the Bechdel test, but here it seems aggravatingly symptomatic of all that's wrong with this novelisation.

The thing is, none of this is inherently terrible, but if you're still pissing your pants at the idea of forty-two as the answer to life, the universe, and everything in 2016, then I'd say you really need to broaden your horizons. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was a great radio show and television programme, but it makes for an underwhelming and clunky book of a kind which Terry Pratchett wrote about a million times better. As a novel, its stature would seem to rest on brand loyalty and what else you haven't read. It's readable, and Douglas Adams was not without talent, but The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy falls a long, long way short of being Asimov wearing a red nose and big yellow shoes.

Unfortunately, I was really hoping to be wrong about this one; and as for anyone reading the above while insisting that I am wrong, be happy in the knowledge that every other stupid fucker in the known universe agrees with you.


  1. "None of this would matter were Adams a bit handier with his biro, but the prose reads too much like a script for a series of sketches"

    But then, that's what it is, isn't it? And as a radio series, I think it works best (Radio 4 is repeating it at the moment). I seem to recall seeing somewhere that Adams had no idea what the plot, beyond the first episode of the radio series, would be. I haven't reread the book in years, so I'll take your word for how it stands up.

    But what makes people laugh in this book is interesting. I don't think I ever found 42, or the infinite improbability drive all that funny, for instance - even when I was ten - but Arthur's protracted conversation with the drinks machine, or the line "[I]t is a bypass. You've got to build bypasses." (though I note this falls flat in the TV version) still make me laugh.

    Thinking about it a bit more, '42' works as an answer in the context of the scene, but I don't think the idea is inherently hilarious - it's in the build-up ("you won't like it", etc.)

    1. ... And because I'm not very good at this...

      I otherwise think your review is pretty spot on - from what I can remember. It is smug, Oxbridge, and yes, shockingly lacking in women (and for that matter, does Trillian actually do anything at any point in the series?).

      The other thing that occurs to me is that someone (Stephen Fry?) compared Adams' prose to Wodehouse. When it comes to ear for dialogue, that may be true, but that section of description you quoted is dire. And actually, feels more like a weak imitation of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (which seems to have come out as a record in the same year as HHG first aired on radio, though Stanshall had done a series of shorts for John Peel in 1975 on the same theme.)


    2. Yes, a few have mentioned Wodehouse to me since I wrote this - not read him which is why I guess it never occurred to me, although it seems kind of obvious now that I think about it. Well spotted with Sir Henry too - that hadn't occurred to me either, although I was once very familiar with both Peel shorts and album - I seem to recall them looming quite large at the time (in concert with Ivor Cutler), although I'm not sure if that was just due to who I was hanging around with or part of some more general trend. To be fair, bits of HHGttG still raise a chuckle, just not the bits I've heard repeated by others over and over (42 etc.).

  2. I have fond memories of Hitchhikers but no desire to reread it. The 'problem' is that most of the jokes are ideas based and so indelibly burned into my consciousness from reading / watching it as a teenager that there's none of the surprise that's required to make this stuff funny.
    It's the same reason I don't find most of the famous Monty Python sketches remotely amusing any more (aside from some of Cleese's physical comedy) but I'm always surprised by how great much of the unfamiliar stuff, (like the Greece - Germany football match which I saw recently) still is.

    Personally I think Adams' best and most timeless book is 'Last Chance to see', a travelogue, (written with Mark Caradine) about his trips to see various animals that were on the verge of extinction that's basically a literary version of Gary Larson