Spoilers for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio and book series). That said, if you are worried about spoilers, it came out in the ’70s! Get your act together!
A very short time ago, a very short way from here – in astronomical terms – an author from an unfashionable clump of islands at the fashionable end of a small but beautifully en-fjorded continent lay on the grass looking up at the stars and thought, ‘Well, that certainly put things in perspective’. He then went on to write a series of radio broadcasts which led to a television deal, at least one existential crisis and then, to everyone’s disappointment, not least his own, died prematurely, leaving behind a trilogy of five books and a horde of the sort of adoring fans which effectively presaged the memetic nature of certain cake-obsessed computers before memes were even a thing. And this was a shame because, had he lived, he might have been able to write something pertinent about all those people who seem to think that the pinnacle of humour and individual expression is quoting dated material to an audience of dedicated fans.
Adams’ multiply abbreviated magnum opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (h2g2, THHGTTG, et al.) gained a cult following rapidly after its initial broadcast and, after existing primarily as a book and in camp, hammy BBC form for many years was eventually made into a feature-length film and released in 2005. Although the different versions diverge somewhat, generally speaking, the plot follows the last earthlings in the universe as they become embroiled in increasingly absurd, but also increasingly depressing, plots in the wake of Earth’s demolition. The first two parts, THHGTTG and The Restaurant and the End of the Universe are generally considered the best, and their self-contained story works well without continuing through the rest of the series, whose sombre tone reflects Adams’ own mental state. Nevertheless, the entire series is worth time and effort. What makes it so compelling, and what led to the Guide’s enduring popularity?
A Heart of Gold
At first glance, Adams’ universe is full of imaginative, zany antics. Anything could happen and quite often does, and Adams’ distinctive style allows for rambling, whimsical discourses which, without warning, come to an abrupt and comedic stop.
In truth, however, much like Stranger Things, the galaxy through which the reader is guided is less imaginative than it appears: Adams’ genius is not so much in the creation of the world but the execution of the story. Moreover, as in The Mikado, the extremely foreign/alien setting is simply a device with which to lambast the familiar. This difference in aim makes the shallow yet overblown world-building fundamentally unlike Warhammer 40,000.
This is the hub around which Adams’ omnibus revolves: beings from incredibly advanced societies – trans-dimensional or even metaphysical beings with the ability to exploit and manipulate the fabric of the universe on a scale so far removed from us that it beggars belief – are portrayed with all of the preoccupations and neuroses with which humanity is so well acquainted. Slartibartfast wants job-satisfaction; Majikthise and Vroomfondel want job-security but will settle for a television deal; Trillian wants excitement and to be appreciated; Marvin just wants to feel better. Even the antagonists, for all their daft names, are straightforwardly familiar: Arthur’s life is ruined by terrestrial council bureaucrats and then by extra-terrestrial bureaucrats; Arthur’s infuriating interactions with the Magratheans will be all-too-familiar to anyone who has ever had to sit through a pointless meeting; Arthur’s antagonistic relationship with Zaphod has undertones of bullying, political corruption, and the feeling of resentment we all experience when we see good things being given to those who we feel are undeserving. Adams creates overblown characters to draw comedy out of the familiar and even the less familiar.
Adams was interested in the human condition as well as science and religion and how all three relate to one another, themes which he often covered in the Guide’s ramblings, perhaps most famously and, I would argue, archetypally, through the Babel fish. In a brief discourse, Adams manages to poke fun at philosophers, scientists, theologians, believers, and atheists, and he does so, crucially, without resorting to offense or rudeness. I am far from the first person to note that many people who think they are witty have simply confused a mean comment for a clever one. Adams was a self-described radical atheist, but although that philosophy informed his work, it was not, chiefly, the topic of the books, and so he was able to see the comedic potential in his own ideas, not unlike Pratchett.
The concepts themselves are also satirized, along with those who promote them. The SEP Field is a swipe at our tendency to refrain from empathy when it suits us; the Infinite Improbability Drive is one of many references to our tendency to mistake the map for the territory; Earth’s function as a giant supercomputer and its subsequent replaceability is designed to puncture the collective narcissism which Adams believed we had. In fact, only cricket is portrayed with any semblance of verisimilitude.
The End of the Universe
Comedy is both inherently experimental and closely tied to the culture in which it exists. Comedy which ages and/or travels well does so because it is not tied so tightly to a specific range of cultural experiences.
The British sitcom All Gas and Gaiters has not aged well because it relies upon a set of preconceptions about Anglican clergy which no longer exist amongst most Britons and have probably never existed abroad. By contrast, Yes, Minister is still very funny because the viewer’s experience of politics can still be directly applicable. Any Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration becomes more amusing by learning about the world in which they lived and their alleged habit of inviting the individuals whom they were satirizing to sit in the front row on opening night. The impact is no doubt different, perhaps less, than it would have been for their contemporaries, but it survives. The same applies to Shakespeare and Chaucer. Mr Bean will probably be timeless because it conveys, without words, the experience of a child-like mind in a grown body. Unless our society transforms beyond recognition, we will always have children to remind us of childhood naïveté, fixation, and petty malice.
Because the universe of THHGTTG is simply Adams’ world in a daft rubber suit making ‘beep-beep’ noises, as the ’70s fade into memory, his legacy will cease to be as amusing as it once was. The strength of disciplinary, rather than topical, satire and the humanity/Vogonity of its characters will ensure that it never becomes entirely irrelevant, thank goodness, but without the extensive world-building of, say, Dune, it relies upon a set of experiences which are tied to cultural context. Adams likely would not have minded; he did not write to build a world so much as to remind us that life is about something more than endless book deals and media coverage. He wanted us to build up our own world, to laugh at its foibles and find ways to fix them; to come up with new ideas and relish the little things which keep us going.