Friday, 30 July 2021

#CBR13 Book 26: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

Page count: 208 pages
Audio book length: 5 hrs 51 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Machinery (space ships, the guide, Marvin - a lot of examples)

Arthur Dent wakes up one morning to discover his house is about to be bulldozed. He's very upset about it and goes to lie down in front of one of the bulldozers, so it can't knock down his house, but is interrupted by his friend Ford Prefect, who has some very important things to tell him, and very little time left to do so.

It turns out Ford Prefect is an alien who's been stuck on Earth for much longer than planned, but he's just gotten news that a large fleet of spaceships are coming to destroy the planet, and he plans to hitch a ride with one of the ships. Would Arthur like to come along? If he stays, certain death is guaranteed. Soon, a very befuddled Arthur is on board a Vogon ship, learning about aliens, Babelfish, why you should always travel with a towel, as well as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a small electronic record of everything cool and important there is to know about the universe.

Through a very strange coincidence, Ford and Arthur later find themselves onboard the most expensive ship in the galaxy, stolen by the charming, ne'er-do-well and current president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, accompanied by the lovely Trillian (born Tricia McMillan and someone Arthur once tried to pick up at a party). The ship is run by a probability engine and onboard is also Marvin, a paranoid and very depressed (and depressing) android. How did all these people come to be aboard the same ship, and why did Zaphod steal it in the first place?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was published in 1979 and is therefore only a few months younger than I am. It coincidentally means it (and I, who will probably have to do some sort of book-themed birthday party) turns 42 this year, which is pretty significant to anyone who has read the book. Frankly, because of the internet, I suspect a lot of people who have never encountered any version of this story (there's been an radio comedy, this novel, a BBC TV series, a stage show, a comic book, a computer game and the incredibly disappointing movie adaptation starring Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel and Yasiin Bey) know that 42 is the answer to "life, the Universe and everything", without really knowing why exactly that is. 

This was one of the selections for the most recent CBR Book Clubs, Young at Heart. I can't actually remember how old I was when I first discovered Hitchhiker's, but I am pretty sure it was some time in secondary school, most likely 9th grade - so I was probably about 14, but may have been as young as 13. I don't really think I was all that proficient in reading in English before that (I was one of these strange children who never had to be told by a teacher or otherwise knowledgable grown-up that it's good to read in a foreign language when you're trying to improve your skills and vocabulary, I just nerdily figured it out for myself). Off I went to our local library and to begin with, I read children's books I'd already read in Norwegian (like Roald Dahl and the like), before graduating to more advanced book. FYI, Agatha Christie, whose books I devoured as a tween and teen, are terrible "learner's books" in English. She did not simplify her language one jot. 

I think it was one of the boys in my class who saw that I read a lot of fantasy who asked if I'd ever read Douglas Adams. I had not, but sought out the books (the first Norwegian translation of the book is AWFUL, I believe there is a much better one now that captures the wit and cleverness of the original) and was quickly won over. While thinking back to my early reading, in Norwegian and Swedish, and later English, I can think of so many different books and series that can be classified as fantasy, but I really think Douglas Adams' strange, creative, and very funny series (which sadly diminishes in quality sharply after book 3) was among the first sci-fi books I read. 

Having read the books, I later also watched the TV series and listened to the radio show. My husband still maintains that the audio show is the best, I can't remember enough details to confirm or deny. Nevertheless, when I first read these books, I loved them, and they were unlike anything I'd ever read before. Now, revisiting the first book at least 25 years later, it doesn't really impress me as much. Although the audio version I listened to was excellently narrated by Stephen Fry, I kept getting distracted by how often Adams uses adjectives like 'mind-boggling' and while the book will have been very revolutionary in 1979, we now basically all carry devices way more powerful and useful than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in our pockets (as far as I could tell from the novel, the guide can't be used as a camera, music player, GPS or all-round entertainment device). Although, true story, for at least some of my early Nokia phones, when they had start-up screen messages, mine said "Don't Panic". So Adams' influence is strong. 

I'm glad I discovered and read the book in the early 1990s. I'm not sure it would impress a teenager reading it for the first time today as much. 

Judging a book by its cover: Obviously, a book that's been out for over forty years has had a large variety of covers. The one that accompanied my audio version was very similar to the one I have on my own bookshelf, which is in an omnibus edition collecting all five Douglas novels (I know there was a sixth novel post-humously completed by Eion Colfer, I choose to ignore that). I like the bubble letters and the grinning green alien. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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