Here is the best memorial service you will ever see. It's Monty Python's tribute to Graham Chapman. (We can get away with this since Douglas Adams worked with the Pythons at some point; Adams actually worked with Chapman for a failed TV show called "Out of the Trees".)
Notice how John Cleese takes a terribly sad moment and makes it funny by saying some terrible things about Chapman. That's dark. And although he's saying some silly things, he never smiles or laughs. That's dry. That's a pretty good definition of gallows humor: the dark humor you use to lighten a serious and sad moment without going out of your way to point at yourself and say "I'm making a joke here."
A gallows by the way, is a place where people are hanged. Humor is a man slipping on a banana peel.
And that's pretty much the tone of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's terrible, like a gallows: Arthur loses his house and his planet, gets threatened with asphyxiation and nuclear missiles—and then some mice want to dice up his brain. That's a rough week.
But Adams doesn't want us to feel bad for Arthur. He doesn't let us cry over the loss of Earth, because that wouldn't be funny. The way that Arthur deals with his loss is a pretty good example of turning a sad, serious moment into a funny one.
Warning: long, dark, funny quote:
There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket before and felt a sudden stab—the supermarket was gone, everything in it was gone. Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson's Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind—his mind, stuck here in this dank smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.
England no longer existed. He'd got that—somehow he'd got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald's, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger.
He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother. (6.29-31)
Check that out. No, really, go on. We'll wait. Even though the narrator is giving us a play-by-play account of Arthur's feelings, we don't get sucked in to despair, though that would be a normal reaction to losing your planet. The narrator starts off by making it humorous instead: Arthur can't even react to losing his parents, but he starts to get the idea when he thinks about his local supermarket. The narrator also drops in a joke or two along the way—Nelson's Column is gone but nobody is going to protest that now, and Arthur never really believed in New York anyway.
And then we get the final punch line to this horrible, terrible, no-good situation. Sure, Arthur's parents are dead, but what really knocks him down is the idea that there's not a single McDonald's left. That makes a weird sort of sense: Arthur only has one mom and dad, but there are thousands of McDonald's, so you know something is serious when all of them are gone.
Arthur does cry for his mother at the end, of course, and that might seem serious and make you sad. But here's the narrator's trick: it is a sad situation, but after two whole paragraphs joking about the end of the world, we only get one line about Arthur's sadness. That's enough to make him seem like he's not a monster, but not so much that we start crying with him. In that way, we're kind of kept at a distance from serious feelings, and that allows us to enjoy the dark humor of the situation.
Depending on which you want to emphasize, you could call Hitchhiker's a comic science fiction story or a science fiction comedy.
The science fiction part of Hitchhiker's Guide is pretty clear: this is a book about aliens and space travel and a planet that builds other planets to sell to rich people. (Currently, that is all science fiction. But soon…) We do think it helps to have some background in science fiction to get some of the jokes. For instance, as we note in our Shout-Out section, there's some joking about Star Trek; and as we note in Ford's character page, his entire character seems like a joke riffing on Doctor Who.
There's a lot of stuff in Hitchhiker's Guide that makes us laugh. Some of the funnies come from Adams's tone and style. One thing we should note, though, is that a lot of the comedy here is kind of sad.
Comedies traditionally end with some happy event that makes everyone feel better—like a marriage. If you consider that something that will make you feel better, that is. Hitchhiker's comedy, though, is kind of dark: Earth is destroyed and never fixed, and not only does Arthur not find much enlightenment or happiness, he also has to face the idea that his life has been a total lie (he's not a human being—he's just part of a computer that a pair of mice bought). And at the end of the book, it's not like our heroes are not going on some great quest to fix the galaxy. They're just going off to get a bite to eat. This is comedy, but it's dark.
Now, you might find people on the interwebs describing Hitchhiker's Guide as a parody, as if it's funny because it's making fun of other science fiction works. We disagree. Sure, it makes a few jokes about Star Trek and Doctor Who, but most of the humor comes from the absurd situations that the characters find themselves in.
In a parody, you have to know something about the original to get the joke. For instance, Weird Al's "Fat" is only funny if you know Michael Jackson's "Bad". In Hitchhiker's Guide, most of the jokes only rely on an ability to notice that things don't fit together: brainiac mice, depressed robots, a fjord-maker, and so on. So even if there are a few parodic moments in the book, the book as a whole isn't really a parody.
Before Lifetime movies and afterschool specials told us that hitchhiking was dangerous, a lot of people got around by sticking their thumbs out. Seriously, just watch old movies: people used to hitchhike all the time in back in, like, the 1930s, and it wasn't likely to end with a serial killing. So it's not totally surprising that there really were travel guides aimed at cheap travel that were titled, for instance, The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe, first published in 1971.
(Another book in that genre of cheap travel guides was Europe on Five Dollars a Day; but as Adams notes in an introduction in the Ultimate Hitchhiker's collection, he didn't have that book in the '70s since he wasn't in the five dollars-a-day tax bracket.)
Adams is clearly playing on the idea that you can travel around the galaxy cheaply, on "less than 30 Altairan dollars a day" (1.66), which is funny, because we usually think of space travel as something that costs a huge amount of money, the kind of thing that governments had to spend years and billions of dollars doing. Of course, this was in the 1970s, when billions of dollars was a lot of money; nowadays, every billionaire seems to want to get into space to mine asteroids just for fun. But we digress.
So by combining two thoughts that don't usually go together—hitchhiking and the galaxy—Adams is signaling that this book is going to be a little different from what we'd expect: it's going to take a serious issue (space, the meaning of life) and give it a comedic tweak. The title is a perfect signal of this book's mixed genre: comedy and science fiction. It's truth in advertising. How amazing is that?
Also, we have to add one more thing: note that "hitchhiker's" is singular—this is a guide for one hitchhiker. We guess that makes sense, since hitchhikers don't often travel in packs. So this is a guide for a single person alone in a wide, uncaring universe—and yet, let's note that the characters here are rarely alone. Arthur has Ford, Zaphod has Trillian, Benjy mouse has Frankie mouse, and so on. So the book's title promises one hitchhiker—but it's a big lie. So much for truth in advertising, unless the point is that it's hard to hitchhike totally alone, because, you know, if there's no hike to hitch, you're not going to get very far, and all that.
(Note: We grew up on the traditional American spelling of the title: "Hitchhiker's." But you will also find "Hitch-Hiker's" and "Hitch Hiker's." We pray we never see "Hitch-hiker's.")
(Subnote: If you look online, you will find some people refer to it as "H2G2"—that's two H's for "Hitch Hikers" and two G's for "Guide" and "Galaxy." But we only use that in emails and text messages—never in papers.)
The Hitchhiker's Guide ends by tying up several plots, but leaves us with a pretty clear impression that something else is coming.
First, let's tie up those plots: in Chapters 32 to 34, Arthur, Zaphod, and the others escape from the groups that are hunting them and leave Magrathea forever. So Zaphod escapes from the cops, and Arthur escapes from the mice, and Ford escapes from having to explain things to Arthur very slowly. That part of the ending ties up some of the plots that were started earlier, like the whole "Earth is a computer and Arthur's brain may hold the secret to the universe" plot.
But, hey, thinks Douglas Adams, let's sell some sequels. In Chapter 35, we get the obvious set-up for the next book, where the gang goes off to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We know this because it's a clear set-up—Zaphod says they should go get a bite to eat at this place. But did we mention that the next book in the series is titled The Restaurant at the End of the Universe?
Actually, the plan to go to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe comes up right after Arthur Dent has been reading an entry on Galactic Civilization, which asks the question "Where shall we have lunch?" (35.4). Now that, folks, is an absurd coincidence, the kind you wouldn't want in a realistic, serious book, but because Adams is writing comedy, he can get away with that kind of thing—just like he can get away with missiles turning into a poor, sweet whale and a bowl of petunias.
We don't want to spoil the fun of the next book, but if you think about a "Restaurant at the End of the Universe," it seems like a pretty absurd thing—just like The Hitchhiker's Guide itself. After all, the universe is going to end, and there's nothing we can do to stop it, so… we might as well enjoy it, right? Arthur might laugh in the face of danger, but Zaphod has a different idea: to go and eat in the face of danger.
Now, if you listened to the radio series (which, as you may remember from our "In a Nutshell" section, was the first version of this story), you know that the first radio series was six episodes long, and that the last two episodes included the Restaurant at the End of the Universe sequence. So why did Douglas Adams only base this book on the first four episodes?
Well, well, do we have news for you: the short version of the story is that when Adams was writing his radio script, he also got a job working for Doctor Who, and so he was suddenly very busy. He decided to co-write the final two episodes of the Hitchhiker's Guide radio show with someone else (John Lloyd). But when it came time to write the book, Adams wanted to do it by himself; he saved the Restaurant section for the second book, since he thought it would require more revision. For a full description of this mess, check out Neil Gaiman's Don't Panic guide to The Hitchhiker's Guide.
(Trivia: Like many of us, Douglas Adams was a huge procrastinator, always missing deadlines and working up to the last minute. And there's actually a story that his publisher sent someone around to his house to pick up the manuscript of the book, which is why it ends somewhat abruptly. True or false? You decide.)
Okay, we're not going to lie: there are some things in Hitchhiker's Guide that scream 1970s. For instance, digital watches are cool in this book, which makes it sound like it was written in the Dark Ages. (Seriously, when was the last time someone said, "Check out my bodacious digital watch"?) But even though some part of the books are dated, Adams never specifies in what year the story is taking place, and that makes the action in the book seem a lot more now-ish than it might otherwise. After all, people's houses are still getting knocked down for dumb reasons every day... It's likely that Adams didn't specify any date precisely because he wanted the book to seem fresh and relevant years on down the line.
In classic sci-fi style, Adams starts out with a world that seems completely normal before it starts getting weird. Hitchhiker's Guide opens in the West Country of England, which is pretty much normal, Everywheresville UK. Not a lot of time in the book is spent on Earth because, as the introduction makes clear, Earth isn't very important to most of the rest of the galaxy. In fact, it's "an utterly insignificant little blue green planet." The sun itself is a "small unregarded" star, and this whole part of the galaxy is (oh dear) "unfashionable" (Introduction.1-2). In other words, we might think we're pretty hot, but no one else cares about us—we're legends in our own mind, but only there.
Sorry, Earthlings. The aliens are just telling it like it is.
However, by the end of the book, we learn this truth: while no one in our galaxy cares about Earth, it's very important to the pandimensional, hyperintelligent mice. Everything we thought we knew about Earth proves to be wrong: it's a computer built by aliens who buried fake dinosaur bones in it. Also: Norway's fjords are an award-winning project, not just a cold place to spend the winter.
So, let's review. The book starts in what seems to be a normal place, but this place gets weird pretty quickly. By the end of the book, though, we realize something: our home has always been weird, and we've just never thought about it. That's one reason we care about this book: it makes us reconsider the things around us. And most things, when you get right down to it, are pretty weird.
In contrast to the Earth (which turns out to be secretly weird, unlike our weird uncle who is openly weird), these alien planets turn out to have a lot of ordinary things.
For instance, when Zaphod is on Damogran, we hear about the amazing technology and aliens involved. For instance, the Heart of Gold was created by lots of scientists, including "a few reptiloid atomineers, two or three green slyph-like maximegalacticans, an octopoid physucturalist or two and a Hooloovoo (a Hooloovoo is a super-intelligent shade of the color blue)" (4.22).
We love how that list of alien scientists includes lots of weird words that seem to make sense—"atomineers" looks like a combination of "atoms" and "engineers." But then the sentence ends in the really strange example of an alien who is a color, which is easy to say but hard to imagine.
And yet, even though that's really alien and weird, the similarities between Damogran and Earth are clearly marked: Zaphod is the president and everyone wants to watch him or meet him. Even though these scientists have done something amazing, "still the greatest excitement of all seemed to be to meet a man with an orange sash round his neck," which is a reference to the president (4.23). Even though the cameras on Damogran are robot cameras, they're all watching the president, just as they would be here on Earth, hoping for some great quote—or for some fun gaffe for them to make into a big story. Even Damogran probably has annoying 24-hour news networks.
The other planets we see might be strange in some ways, but in other ways we can see elements of Earth in them—and that's one more way that Adams reminds how truly weird Earth itself is.
We don't see a lot of space directly, which is good, because too much direct exposure to space would kill us. But space is where everything else is, so it's worth looking at. As the Hitchhiker's Guide (the book inside the book) tells us, space "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is" (8.3). In fact, it's so big that it's hard to imagine. No, scratch that—it's impossible to imagine for us: "The simple truth is that interstellar distances will not fit into the human imagination" (8.6). The Hitchhiker's Guide (the book by Adams) just comes out and tells us this stuff in pretty plain language. But why?
Perhaps because the truth of space is pretty meaningful here. Space is huge, and we are just a tiny part of it. So all of our ideas about life and the universe (and everything) may be absurd because we tend to think in human terms while the universe is much bigger than our concerns. Right now, we're worried about our Rock Band score; but if we compare Rock Band to, like, the entire universe, we have to just fess up and say that our issue seem totally small and unimportant.
Why is such a funny book so hard? We've broken down the reasons:
(1) It's British. No, seriously. If you have a British edition (for some reason) and are not British (for some reason), then you will need to deal with British spelling, like "colour" instead of "color." Because of the overabundance of vowels, Brits like to use an extra "u" in some words. Even if you have an American version, there's a certain "tone" that might be hard to get into. That's the dry British humor.
(2) It's old. Sure, 1979 wasn't so long ago (we tell ourselves, while we sit in our rocking-chairs), but it's not yesterday. So when Adams makes a couple of jokes about how cool digital watches are, it might seem like a weird joke to make, but here's the key: the first digital watch was only made in the 1970s and was hideously expensive, so they are still pretty new in 1979. Also, there's no internet, the Cold War with Russia is still on, and no one has ever played Angry Birds.
(3) Adams sometimes writes long, multi-phrase sentences. For instance: "On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent's house for what was to be the last time" (1.3). That sentence could easily be broken up into a few sentences. It's not exactly a run-on sentence, but it's getting a little runny.
Adams could have written, "On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily. The lane was wet and muddy. But the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent's house. It was to be the last time." But by writing all of that in one sentence, he makes us rush on to the final joke in the sentence: sure, the world is going on as if everything is normal—Wednesday, Thursday, rain, mud, sun—but the end is about to come, for the house at least. The joke here is that the most important information—that Arthur's house is about to be demolished—is the last thing that we hear. He wants us to really get that final, shocking joke. Which brings us to…
(4) It's totally weird. If you were reading a normal, non-funny book, sentences would start normally and end up in normal places. But Adams's sentences often surprise because they don't start and end normally. One of our favorite examples: "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't" (3.65). We'll say more about that in the "Writing Style" section, but for now, let's just notice that it's weird to end a sentence by describing that something isn't like the way something else isn't.
Douglas Adams, you are hard sometimes, but we still love you.
Here's our rule of thumb: if you're reading a sentence by Douglas Adams and it seems pretty simple, then watch out, because he's probably going to twist it in some way. The classic example of this is Adams's description of the Vogon ships: "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't" (3.65). We love that sentence because (a) it calls up an image of bricks floating in the sky, which helps us picture the Vogon ships even without describing them; and (b) the sentence describing the Vogon ships ends in a way we wouldn't expect. We might expect there to be some majestic description of flying space ships. But instead, Adams compares them to something that's really just one level above dirt in terms of how interesting it is.
Adams loves these little twists, especially if they are anti-climaxes. He builds us up so we might expect something great, and then he lets us down—and he lets us down hard. For instance, when Arthur meets Zaphod, he declares that he already knows him and even names him: "We've met, haven't we Zaphod Beeblebrox—or should I say ... Phil?" (13.43). Now, the name "Phil" is a little bit of a letdown when we're just getting used to Zaphod's crazy name. In addition, we might expect Arthur to know Zaphod from some crazy event, but it was just from some party that they happened to both go to.
This love of anti-climactic twists works both at the sentence level and at the larger plot level for the story. For instance, we might expect the destruction of Earth to be the result of some giant war, when it's really just a bureaucratic construction crew. We might expect the last survivor of Earth to be a hero—but it's just a guy who happened to befriend an alien.
Another move Adams sometimes makes is to rework a cliché. For instance, when we say "I'd trust him to the end of the Earth," we usually mean that we trust this person completely. But when Ford uses this phrase to describe Prosser in Chapter 1, he means something else: he would trust Prosser for "About twelve minutes" (1.161), since Ford knows that's about when Earth will be destroyed.
For another example, when Arthur saves the Heart of Gold from nuclear missiles, Zaphod tells him how wonderful he was to get the Heart of Gold out of danger, and Arthur responds, "well, it was nothing really…" (18.15). "It was nothing" is usually just a polite thing people say so to avoid bragging. But Zaphod doesn't recognize it as a form of politeness—he takes it seriously and tells Arthur to forget it if it was just nothing.
Now, those sort of reworked clichés are funny to us. It's especially fun when a character in the book takes a cliché seriously; it brings attention to the fact that a lot of what we say is actually kind of funny. It's also kind of hilarious when the reworked cliché, taken seriously, actually tells the truth about a situation—like when Ford correctly states that he'll trust Prosser for the twelve minutes left until the end of world.
As a rule of thumb—or as the British say, a rule of big toe—if some object is in the title, we should ask what the big significance of that thing is. We're not talking about the title of Adams's book here; we're talking about the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy within The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—you know, the book Arthur keeps consulting to help him figure what on earth—if earth still existed—is going on. Where does the Hitchhiker's Guide show up in the book and what meaning might it have? The Guide is kind of a big deal here, so let's take it apart piece by piece (and try to remember how to put it together again).
First, let's talk about the object itself. The Guide is an electronic book, so it has a huge amount of memory, but it's not unlimited. Even if this electronic book has a giant amount of memory, a giant memory is no match for the giant, giant, giant universe (see "Setting"). So the fact that this book only describes Earth as "Harmless" (original) or "Mostly harmless" (expanded entry) helps drive home the idea that Earth is not all that important to most of the species in the galaxy.
We should mention that in the late 1970s, when Adams was writing the radio show that would become the book, the idea of an electronic book would seem a lot more science fictional than it does in the 21st century. Adams also wouldn't have had iPads and Kindles to look at, so that's one reason why the Guide resembles "a largish electronic calculator" (3.3) rather than a suave, shiny tablet.
The Guide functions in the same way for the characters in the book as it does for us. Like Ford Prefect (and later Slartibartfast), the Guide is a useful and convenient way to get info, such as the story of the Babel fish (Chapter 6) to Arthur and to readers. The Guide also provides material for the narrator's digressions and funny stories, like the story of Veet Voojagig, the guy who thinks that ballpoints are alive and have a planet of their own (Chapter 21). Now, if you think "tells us useful information" doesn't fit with "goes off on random digressions," you might be right—and that tells us something about the meaning of the book, which is…
So what does the Guide symbolize? What's so important about it? Yeah, it's got a chill title, and yeah, Ford is supposed to be a searcher for it, but let's be real: you could rewrite this book and leave the Guide out completely if you wanted to. Just think what would happen if Ford were an alien who came to visit and explain everything. It would totally work. So what's so meaningful about this book? Why put it in at all?
One thing that makes the Guide notable is that it's not always correct, and we're of the opinion that that's kind of a problem for a reference work. This is a book that's really more about truthiness than about truth. The narrator comes out and tells us, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a very unevenly edited book and contains many passages that simply seemed to its editors like a good idea at the time" (21.3). Now, that makes the Guide sound a lot like Wikipedia, with giant entries on Marvel Comics and tiny entries on real wars in Africa.
In fact, sometimes this Guide is less a guide and more like a snarky but misinformed friend. For instance, instead of giving information about what alcohol is in a scientific sense, the Guide gives a recipe for a very powerful drink (2.2.). And when the issue is the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the Guide is rather free in its opinion that they are "a bunch of mindless jerks who'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes" (11.57). That wouldn't even fly on Wikipedia.
This all makes it seem like it's really hard for people (er, aliens) to come up with accurate and useful information about the galaxy. There may be useful information in the Guide, but it's just as likely to give you a digression on Antarean parakeet glands when you don't need it, (Do you ever need it?) If the Guide has become "the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom" (Introduction.14), then it sounds like we don't have enough knowledge and wisdom. And we could certainly see the Guide as symbolic of our defeat: the universe will always be bigger and more complex than we can understand. This is especially true when our commitment to the truth is mixed up with our desire to save some money and drink alcohol.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Heart of Gold is the spaceship that Zaphod steals, including the engine that drives the spaceship—also known as the Infinite Improbability Drive. It's crucial to the plot since it allows Zaphod and crew to find Magrathea. It also sends some police after Zaphod. But that's not why we're including it here as a symbol.
We're including the Heart of Gold mostly because of its name: a "heart of gold" usually means someone who is nice. As in: "Zaphod Beeblebrox has a heart of gold—he would pick up hitchhikers even when he's running from the police." That would mean that Zaphod is an all-around nice guy who genuinely cares about other people.
But that sample sentence is pretty much totally wrong in this book. Zaphod does have the Heart of Gold starship, but he really doesn't have a heart of gold. When the ship rescues Arthur and Ford, Zaphod half-heartedly approves of the rescue. He says he wouldn't have been happy if the hitchhikers had died, "Not as such, but…" (11.11). Friends, let's call a spade a spade. "Not as such, but…" means: "I totally wouldn't mind if other people died if the other option is me being inconvenienced." Zaphod doesn't have a heart of gold at all.
Now, sometimes we use "heart of gold" to indicate that someone is nice even though we don't expect them to be nice. For instance, we could say "that disgusting Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz has a secret heart of gold—just listen to his poetry and you'll learn what a nice guy he secretly is." But that's totally wrong here also. When Arthur and Ford lie and tell him that he writes poetry to express his inner heart of gold, Jeltz corrects them. He doesn't write poetry to show his love: "I just write poetry to throw my mean callous heartless exterior into sharp relief" (7.35). In other words, he's got a mean exterior that hides… a mean interior. His heart of gold is totally fake.
So "Heart of Gold" is a funny name for a ship that can travel all over the galaxy, especially since the galaxy seems pretty lacking in truly kind-hearted people. It sure is pretty full of people pretending to be all kinds of things for their own benefit, though.
There's a lot of edible stuff in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: beer, tea, Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters, and Vegan Rhino cutlet, to name a few. We're not including whale (oh, poor, sweet whale) or petunias, though some people around here might like to eat that in cake form. Because there are lots of foods and drink in this book (though not as much as in the sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the World), we can't say that all the food symbolizes one thing. However, we have broken this group down into two categories:
Janx Spirit, Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters, and Vegan Rhino cutlet may sound disgusting to us, but they serve pretty regular roles in galactic life. In this book, things out in space happen pretty much the way they do here. Janx Spirit is basically alcohol, and people drink it in space for the same reason they drink it on Earth. There's even a party game in the book involving Janx Spirit, but frankly, we're not going to think about it too much, since—our apologies—it involves Ford's body (1.94-101).
The Vegan Rhino (unfortunately, no, not a rhinoceros following a strict vegan diet) is served during a big party that the mice throw for Arthur and his friends. As Zaphod notes, the mice "have been gassing us and zapping our minds and being generally weird and have now given us a rather nice meal to make it up to us" (31.16). So this meal could be seen as a peace offering or as a gift. However (and this is something that Zaphod misses at first), this is also a pretty typical business lunch where the mice want to lay out their offer. So, really, this gift of Vegan Rhino is double-edged. It's just something to soften up Arthur and his friends, making it all the more appropriate that in the end, Vegan Rhino is really just an "evil smelling meat" (31.16).
If our first category is "alien food used in regular Earth-style situations," our second category is all about reversing that: Earth food used in alien situations. For instance, when Ford takes Arthur to the pub, he gives him beer. Because he wants to be Arthur's friend, you ask? Not so much. Ford gives Arthur beer to use as "muscle relaxant" (2.43). Peanuts, to Ford, aren't a little snack to be eaten at a baseball game; they are a replacement supplement for the "salt and protein" that Arthur probably lost. These are pretty alien understandings of common foods.
As for tea, well, instead of drinking it in space, aliens use it to power their improbability machines: "The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say, a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood…" (10.4).
Notice how Adams starts off with lots of important-sounding scientific-type words—principle, logic circuits, sub-meson, atomic vector, plotter, Brownian motion—and then hits us with something super common, especially to British people: tea. So sometimes we find regular food stuff where we least expect it. It's sort of like Adams is showing us how weird our foods and habits are by putting them in an unusual, alien context.
We almost wish there was a new word to describe the point of view for The Hitchhiker's Guide, something like talky-omniscient (because the narrator tells us so much) or joke-niscient (because the narrator tells us so many funny stories).
Usually, an omniscient narrator can jump into people's heads and tell us what people are feeling, and we get a lot of that here. Even minor characters like Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz gets this treatment; so, for instance, instead of the narrator telling us that Jeltz looks mad, we get this: "He always felt vaguely irritable after demolishing populated planets" (5.38). This narrator will dip into everyone's head (even both of Zaphod's) to tell us what they are thinking and feeling.
Omniscience is useful because it can show us all these feelings and tell us other things that we need to know to understand the story. For instance, the omniscient narrator in Uncle Tom's Cabin can tell us about slavery, and the omniscient narrator in Moby-Dick can tell us about whale hunting. In the same way, the omniscient narrator here can interrupt the action to tell us about the Infinite Improbability Drive (10), or about the Magrathea entry in the Guide (15), or about how Arthur's comment about "lifestyle" sparked a war (31.2).
Now, only two of those three stories actually affect the action in this novel. The third story relies on something Arthur says, but it never affects what happens in this book. The narrator seems to include this story just because it's a funny story he wanted to tell us. The narrator is almost a character himself, in a way, since he's not just telling the story and getting all up in the other characters' heads; he's also having a good time joking around with us.