November 11, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The novel picks up a few hours before the end of the world. Our hero, Arthur, wakes up hung over only to be reminded by the presence of bulldozers outside his house that he found out the day before his house was to be demolished. The morning gets worse when his friend Ford (who’s actually from Betelgeuse) shows up and tells him that in addition to his house, the Earth is about to be demolished. Both are slated for demolition to make room for an interchange. Irony.

Ford saves himself and Arthur by hitching a ride on the demolition spaceship. This makes Arthur the sole remaining Earthling in the galaxy. Their reprieve is short lived because the aliens who run the demo ship are mean, nasty guys who like make hitchhikers listen to really bad poetry and then eject them into deep space, which is exactly what happens.

According to the novel you can survive for up to 30 seconds in the vacuum of space if you take a nice deep breath first. (I’m going to choose not to question the novel here, but it still makes my brain hurt.)

Meanwhile on the other side of the galaxy, the galactic president, Zaphod, and his girlfriend, Trillian, are stealing a new ship with an Infinite Improbability drive. Apparently the ship travels via improbable coincidences or some such, which is never fully explained.

Clearly, this means that the ship itself picks up our intrepid hitchhikers 29 seconds into their stay in deep space, saving them from certain death. Obviously.

The ship takes them to the mythic planet Magrathea, which is best known for the manufacture of custom planets. It turns out that the planet is just now coming out of mothballs because they have a special order to create a new planet Earth. Earth wasn’t just any old planet; it was a giant computer running a 10 million year program to come up with the question to go with the answer to the meaning of life. The race that commissioned the planet had built a computer that came up with the answer to the question of the meaning of life, which is 42, but the computer couldn’t tell them what question went with the answer. The Earth was unfortunately destroyed five minutes before the completion of the program.

And what species, you ask, commissioned the Earth? Mice. Clearly. And as it turns out the only other Earthling to survive the destruction is Trillian, who left the planet a short while before its destruction with Zaphod and two pet mice. The mice are the ones who are having the Earth rebuilt. That is, until they realize that the answer to their program might be in Arthur’s brain somewhere because he was on the Earth until seconds before its destruction. They offer to buy the question off of him, except it requires removing his brain, so Arthur declines.

A mad dash and an encounter with galactic police later and the heroes are headed off planet. The mice decide that it’s easier to make up a question than to build another planet to run another 10 million year computer program.

The end.

Other Thoughts

  • Now, I cut my teeth reading sci-fi/fantasy novels. There’s a lot of Anne McCaffrey, Piers Anthony, and Robert Jordan in my past. I even tried reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide years ago, but just couldn’t get into it. It might be a classic, but it’s still weird. There’s just no other way to say it.
  •  This was written in the late 1970s, so it’s interesting to read it and imagine how different it might have been if it were written now. For example, the opening talks about the advent of digital watches.
  • What my synopsis is missing is all the existential randomness that’s included in this book, which is part of what makes it kind of weird. For example, the foreman who is destroying Arthur’s house at the beginning is a direct descendent of Genghis Kahn and there are several times when the narrator comments on how this guy likes fur hats and imagines savages on horses rampaging when he’s under stress. Somehow his ancient ancestor is trying to tell him something. Or something. Though really, I think it’s the ending of the book that sums it up best. Arthur reads the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and learns that all civilizations have three phases, “What am I going to eat?,” “Why do I eat?,” and “What restaurant do you want to go to?” This is immediately followed by Zaphod announcing what restaurant they’re stopping at for lunch. And that is the actual end of the book. The Earth is destroyed, no one knows the question that goes with the answer to the meaning of life, they’re in a stolen space ship, and they’re going to lunch. How random is that?
  • I can say that it’s an amusing enough read. And it’s short! So much shorter than anything I’ve read in months.
Next up is Brideshead Revisited, about which I know nothing. It'll be a surprise!

1 comment:

  1. Classic SciFi or not, you're a braver person than I. Trying to get through the first two pages, years ago when the book was highly sought after at the local public library was as painful an experience as a visit to the dentist when I last had a toothache. An experience I'd rather pass on.


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