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‘Mostly Harmless’: Douglas Adams’ comic universal ‘travelogue’ and its impact

The seminal message of Douglas Adams
The seminal message of Douglas Adams

By Vikas Datta,

No other book has gone so far. Last month, Canadian American entrepreneur Elon Musk sent a copy of this science fiction classic into deep space aboard his Roadster, with one of its seminal messages painted on the dashboard. Then another phrase from this book was, according to a leading writer of the genre, the best advice that could be given to the human race.

But that is not the only significance of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” — the only literary trilogy of five books (and now six). A particularly influential example of comic science fiction (or cosmic comedy, if you prefer), it is also the best possible demonstration of storytelling’s prowess across media. Starting as a show on BBC Radio in March 1978 before becoming a widely popular series of novels (selling 150 million copies and being translated into 30 languages), it was also adapted as stage shows, comic books, a TV series, video games, and a full-length film.

Not bad for something that was the outcome of inspiration that struck Adams, then a struggling writer, as he lay in a field somewhere in Europe gazing into the night sky and wondering if the universe also needed a version of “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to Europe” lying beside him.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (1979), also the first novel of the series, was directly adapted from the radio show. It begins one Thursday in a sleepy English village where Arthur Dent is trying to stop his house being demolished for a new bypass when his best friend, Ford Prefect, drags him to the pub for something important.

Little does Dent suspect his strangely-named friend (a misspelling of what Ford thought was the dominant species on the earth) is actually a human-like alien roving researcher for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” who knows the Earth is going to be demolished within minutes for a new interstellar bypass and wants to help him escape.

Interstellar mayhem ensues as the duo jump from the frying pan into the fire, listen to the universe’s worst poetry, are rescued by the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy, his human girlfriend Trillian (taken off Earth earlier), meet many eccentric characters and face unique situations — including finding out the real purpose of Earth and the significance of the number 42.

“The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” (1980), is more of a second part than sequel. Based on the radio show with additions, it sees the characters facing more challenging situations and visiting the titular establishment — and the end of time, not space. Zaphod and Trillian meanwhile try to find who really runs the universe, and Ford and Arthur end up somehow on the prehistoric earth where they learn the shocking origin of the human race — it involves telephone sanitisers, car salesmen, hairdressers, TV producers, etc.

“Life, the Universe, and Everything” (1982) is the first “original” story, though coming from Adams’ attempt at a Dr Who radio serial that didn’t take off. The most hardcore adventure, it sees Dent and Ford being rescued from their prehistoric peregrinations to foil the irredeemably warlike race of Krikkitmen’s plans to utterly destroy all creation. As seems evident, the sport plays a major role.

“So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” (1984) sees Dent back on Earth which has been saved by some aquatic mammals. While he finds some romance and goes to meet Wonko the Sane in California to understand what had happened, Ford returns and drags him to space again to read God’s final message to creation.

Much more bleak is Adams’ final installment “Mostly Harmless” (1992), which begins with Dent losing his love and culminating in Earth being destroyed in all versions across all realities. The author, who was going through a tough time himself, admitted that this came to be reflected in the book and promised to write another installment but never got around to it before his death in 2001. Eoin “Artemis Fowl” Colfer did the honours with “And Another Thing…” (2009).

The story is not only about a disparate bunch of characters roaming through time and space, but another example of typical British humour and satirical insights into the human condition. A key source for this is the “Hitchhikers’ Guide” (product) entries quoted throughout the text, offering background or sarcastic commentary. Of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation products, it says: “It is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of them by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all.”

And also advice: If you find yourself “underneath a giant boulder you can’t move, with no hope of rescue”, it suggests you “consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won’t be troubling you much longer.”

More useful is what the guide’s cover proclaims: “Don’t Panic.” You can’t go much wrong with this.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )


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