The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Introduction
In a Nutshell
What if the world ended tomorrow—where would you get your favorite drink?
That's the situation faced by Arthur Dent, totally normal English guy (favorite drink: tea). Arthur isn't a hero—he's actually pretty boring—but after Earth is destroyed, Arthur is thrust into a series of crazy adventures that he's totally unprepared for. That might sound like a tragedy (after all, Earth is where our favorite food is made), but take it from us: it's totally a comedy. Lots of comedies begin with the destruction of Earth, right?
To understand The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, we have to understand something about Douglas Adams: he was very tall. Also, he was British, so his role models were British sketch comedy writers like Monty Python alum John Cleese—who, at 6'5", was also very tall. So if you want to sit down and read a serious book about aliens destroying Earth, may we recommend H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds? Because The Hitchhiker's Guide is hilarious. It laughs in the face of death and destruction.
Of course, even if you laugh in the face of death and destruction, that doesn't solve anything: you can laugh, but people are still going to die. This sets the dark and comic tone for Hitchhiker's Guide. It gives it a gallows humor that tries to always look on the bright side of life—comparatively speaking, that is. Even when Adams's characters face certain death, they always have enough time to point out how ridiculous and absurd the situation is.
What you also need to know about The Hitchhiker's Guide is that it didn't start its life as a novel. First, it started as a tadpole. (We're sorry for that terrible joke and we'll confess that nothing we write here will be as funny as what Douglas Adams wrote.) Then it became
- a BBC radio show in 1978;
- a book version in 1979;
- a play staged in 1979 and 1980;
- a TV series made in 1981;
- a computer game version in 1984;
- and finally, a movie version in 2005.
So if someone asks you if you like Hitchhiker's Guide, you have our permission to ask them "Which one?" and then list all the different versions to show that you are way smarter than they are.
Certain aspects of Hitchhiker's Guide get tweaked from version to version, but in all the versions, Arthur's adventures in space are with lots of crazy digressions and anecdotes on the side. That's a large part of what makes this book what it is—the many asides and digressions. For instance, while Arthur is trying to survive in space, we also get digressions about philosophers arguing with computers about the existence of God; an alcoholic drink that feels like having "your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick" (2.3); super-intelligent dolphins telling humans "So long and thanks for all the fish" before leaving the Earth; a man who believes all lost ballpoint pens live on a ballpoint planet; and many more.
Even though it was very digressive and weird (or maybe because it was very weird), Hitchhiker's Guide became a huge hit in almost all versions. (Okay, maybe not the movie version.) The first book was recently rated number four in a list of British people's favorite books, and it has sold a huge amount of copies. We've seen "14 million" tossed around, and we know for sure that it sold 250,000 copies in its first three months (Source), which was a lot back in the 1970s, when people still used pigeons to send books around Britain.
Hitchhiker's Guide was so popular that Douglas Adams kept returning to the series, publishing four more books: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). There's even a fifth book in the series, written by another author after Douglas Adams passed away in 2001.
Adams did produce other work: he was a writer and story editor for the British science fiction show Doctor Who in 1979-1980 (see our discussion on "Genre"); he wrote another series about a weird detective named Dirk Gently who kept getting involved with time travel and Norse gods; and he wrote nonfiction like Last Chance to See (1990) about endangered species—usually endangered because of human folly and absurdity. (So even when Adams was working on different genres, his themes remain mostly the same.) But the Hitchhiker's Guide series is probably his best known work—and his just plain best work.
Lots of people have read this book, and in-jokes from it have seeped into culture and daily life. Not to make you paranoid, but they're around you right now. For example, Altavista's first translation service was named Babel Fish, after the Babel fish in this book; the band Radiohead named a song "Paranoid Android" after Marvin; and the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after Arthur Dent (Source). And have you ever typed "What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?" into Google?
(If you want to read more about the history of Hitchhiker's Guide, check out our website collection; or the excellent entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia; or Neil Gaiman's nonfiction Don't Panic.)
Why Should I Care?
If you ever talk about why a funny book is also smart, someone will probably say, "No, it's just funny, you're overthinking it." That person is wrong—funny books can also be smart. And—wait for it—we think that Hitchhiker's Guide is just such a book.
Hitchhiker's Guide starts with a normal-seeming person—he's not a hero, he's not a powerful politician, he's not a space marine from Halo or other video games. And then the book puts this regular guy in new, weird, gigantic situations. When a construction crew comes to knock down your house, you may know what to do; but what do you do when an alien construction crew comes to knock down your planet? What Arthur Dent learns from all this is that he lives in an absurd universe that doesn't really care what happens to him. But Hitchhiker's Guide also shows us how to deal with an absurd universe that doesn't care about us (also known as high school): no matter how bad things get, you can always laugh.
That's the connection between the smarts of this book and the funniness of it: Arthur Dent is a small guy dealing with gigantically big issues that he really can't solve. (Pop quiz: in a battle between a hitchhiker and the universe, who do you think will win? Hint: it's the universe.) But at the very least, he can laugh about it.
Which is super-good for us since we get one of the funniest, most quotable science fiction comedies ever written. Once you read this book, not only will you start to repeat some of these quotes, but you'll start to see them all over, as if these quotes were hunting you: "So long and thanks for all the fish," "Mostly harmless," "Life! Don't talk to me about life," and the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything is… "42."
(And we would like a million points for avoiding saying something real cheesy like, "Aren't we all just hitchhikers trying to make our way through the world, man?" It might be true, but golly-gee-gosh, that's just too cheesy even for us. And Adams would've hated it.)