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hitchhiker's

Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is as fresh a read as it was when I first read it some 17-20 years ago. In some ways, it is even fresher because none of the things I have read in the meantime come close to it in terms of wacky, idiosyncratic originality. [1]

Another thing I couldn’t have known then was just how much its humour and language style are those of a smart, funny college student. Adams’s claim that the book was conceived as he stared at the night sky, lying drunk in a field in Europe during a hitchhiking trip only adds to this sense of youthful fooling around. The success of other smart, funny Oxbridge students (Pythons, Fry and Laurie) has shown us how their brand of wit peppered with absurdity can entertain across cultures and decades, and Adams easily belongs to that class.

Arthur Dent, who is our main protagonist through the series, is rescued off Earth by Ford Prefect (a man from Betelguese, who names himself after the car, mistakenly thinking of cars as a living species) before the planet is destroyed to build a Galactic express route. After that it is a gleeful romp through the universe, taking in the Vogons and their awful poetry (they are third worst poets of the universe, the worst being some poet from England, of course), Zaphod Beeblebrox with his two heads, Trillian (who he has rescued rescued from Earth), the Babel fish that can translate to and from any language, Marvin the android, and most importantly, dolphins and mice.

The main myth of the series is so well known that the number 42 gets used in jokes everywhere. It goes something like this. A powerful computer was commissioned to compute the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything, and came up with the Ultimate Answer of 42 after seven and a half million years of computation. At this point it was realised that it was in the fact the Ultimate Question that needed to be computed, to which 42 would be the answer. Earth, before being destroyed, was a giant computer run by mice, trying to compute this Ultimate Question. The work was supposed to take ten million years, and, naturally, Earth’s destruction occurred five minutes before it was done.

Other writers have come up with fantastic stories about the genesis of the Universe and of Earth, but few are so tongue-in-cheek or delivered with such an evident twinkle in the eyes. In any case, the genius of the book lies not in this myth, but in the many dozens of throwaway observations, comments and incidents that Adams treats us to. A favourite incident is when Arthur and Ford start praising the atrocious Vogon poetry being inflicted on them in hopes of not getting chucked out of the spaceship, but get thrown out anyway. Trillian’s analysis of Zaphod’s stupidity is brilliant,[2] as is the final twist when Marvin’s depressing conversation with the “enemy” computer causes it to commit suicide, thus inadvertently saving our protagonists.

Other observations that are memorable tend to have a magic realist whiff about them. Slartibartfast’s comments about how his design of the coast of Norway won him awards and how they are reconstructing Earth starting with dinosaur fossils make us reevaluate what we know. But the most significant inversion of reality that Adams gets us to buy in to is explaining how the dolphins and mice smarter than humans — we are too dumb to understand what the former are trying to tell us, always interpreting their actions as intelligent play, and we think we are conducting experiments on the latter which is a subterfuge on their part to hide the fact that things are actually the other way around.

I can’t say for sure, but I probably enjoyed the book more this time around than I did all those years ago. I don’t spend a lot of time rereading books, except perhaps rereading the odd old classic, and that too is rare. Rereading Hitchhiker’s makes it clear why the book has itself become such a classic. It satisfies the primary requirement of that category in that it is equally enjoyable on repetition, if not more so, than it is the first time.

[1] Neil Gaiman is a contender, based on the first 60-odd pages of American Gods.
[2] “One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid.”

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