The Absolutely Best Book in the Galaxy
Reviewed by Danny Zeff
May 5, 2008
This humorous science fiction novel may be one of the best ever written. The adventures of Arthur Dent and his alien companions are completely absurd, which makes the story very enjoyable to read. It is a true laugh-out-loud adventure.
There are a number of books that have been written quite brilliantly and sophisticatedly because of their well thought-out plots, characters, themes, and writing style.
This is not one of those books.
Yet The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is definitely one of the greatest books that I have read in a long time. Without giving away too much of the plot, it is a story about Arthur Dent who escapes Earth before it is destroyed. He and his alien friend, Ford Prefect, get picked up by the two-headed ex-hippie president of the galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox and his girlfriend Trillian. These four characters, along with a chronically depressed robot named Marvin, travel across the galaxy in search for… well read the book to find out. The entire story is centered around a certain book that Ford Prefect has been revising which is called, believe it or not, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s one of the most popular guide books in the galaxy because “first, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words don’t panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
What I love about this book is that it is a true example of British humour, which I purposely spell with the extra U. Everything in the story is absolutely absurd: from the torturous Vogon poetry to the ultimate answer of life, the universe, and everything to the dolphin song “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” to the fact that the protagonist spends the entire story in his bathrobe. Some parts were so funny that I actually laughed out loud, something I rarely do when reading a book. Probably the most absurd scene occurs when a sperm whale is suddenly called into existence, although it would be too complicated to explain why that happens without revealing more of the story. As the whale is falling from space onto the surface of a planet, the narrator shares the explicit details of the whale’s thought process. It first tries to figure out what it is, then starts naming things around him, and last notices something big coming towards him until he comes to painful death. There are a number of these types of absurd scenes in the book that do not advance the story in any way, yet without them this book would not be the masterpiece that it is.
This book contains the typical elements of a science fiction novel; there are aliens, spaceships, robots, and computers with personalities. It also plays on the concept that aliens are much more advanced than the humans on Earth, an idea that can be seen in many sci-fi adventures including Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the Star Trek franchise, and the movie Dating Habits of the Earthbound Human. And even though this book considers humans as primitive and Earth as “mostly harmless,” the irony is that the alien races have the same problems that humans do. For example, a Vogon guard reveals to Arthur that he only took the job as a guard because his aunt said it was a good career. The dialogue between the aliens (and even the computers with personalities) sounds completely human, which further adds to the absurdity of the book.
Hitchhiker’s Guide is not the type of book that you really need to look for themes and symbolism, but an obvious theme is the concept of coincidence and improbability. The narrator discusses several examples of coincidences, including the coincidence that France is both the name of a country on Earth and an island on Damogran. But when the spaceship that contains the Infinite Improbability Drive is introduced, one realizes that many things are not coincidences. Rather, they are just quite improbable. In fact, the only reason that Arthur Dent is still alive enough to eat at the restaurant at the end of the universe by the end of the novel is because of a number of improbable factors.
I really loved reading this book for all the reasons I explained above. But another reason I loved the book is because it was easy to understand. Many science fiction novels, including pretty much every Heinlein book, are confusing and are probably only fully understandable to a physics engineer or an astrologer. Douglas Adams’s satirical style of writing makes the story simple to read and yet provoke a lot of thought. I hope I can find time to read the book’s four sequels, the titles of which I have hidden throughout this review (see if you can pick them out).
I confess that I saw the 2005 movie adaptation of the story a few years ago, so I already had some sort of idea what to expect from this book. But I discovered that the movie had added a whole action-packed subplot. For those expecting to read the movie, this is not the book for you. For those who want to a series of absurd and improbable events, go to your bookstore and get a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy immediately. Perhaps you should grab a towel and a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster while you’re at it. But whatever you do, don’t panic.
For another opinion on this book, check out Rachel’s review.