I love the British. For oh-so-very many reasons. They gave us ruff collars, the Black Plague, Doctor Who, an assortment of foods which are both bland and disgusting, right-hand drive cars, Australia, the Rolling Stones, Eddie Izzard, a weird appreciation for giant black umbrellas, The Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, rugby, cricket, Alan Moore, Alan Rickman, Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, David Beckham, Hugh Laurie, and (probably most importantly) the original group of Puritanical zealots who came over and systematically eradicated the indigenous population of this continent upon which we bastardized democracy and built this great nation. Or something. Although actually I’m pretty sure that most of those people were Dutch. History schmistory.
So why do I bring up the Brits? It rather goes without saying that they’re literary badasses. And, bonus, no translator needed. But after reading a hundred million books by English speakers of all flavors I’ve got to confess that the Brits are still my favorite. (Of the modern authors. Let’s leave all that boring, period, Jane Austen crap out of this.) Because they’re just so…British. They’re polite and self-deprecating with a fucked-up sense of humor and an inimitable dry wit. (I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “inimitable” in earnest before. Hmm.)
See? If I just start out with the ridiculous rant you guys don’t have to read all the way to the end.
Ok, ok. But still. Point is…I really really really want to gush about my very favorite book and I needed an in. Alright? You’ve outed me as a hack with no good opening paragraph. Happy?
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is truly a masterpiece of scifi. And I say that not only as a completely biased Adams fan, but also as something of a self-made connoisseur of scifi. So, if you haven’t read it, here’s a little Hitchhiker’s Guide 101: Normal dude (Arthur Dent) gets caught up in some crazy galaxy-hopping adventures after the Earth gets demolished to make room for a bypass and he finds out that his best friend is an alien. It’s “weird shit happening to normal people” on a cosmic scale. With tons of fun aliens (two-headed alcoholic President of the Galaxy being probably the least interesting) and spaceships (unpredictable space/time/reality hopper that can read your mind but can’t make a cup of tea – comes with depressed robot for all your moody butler needs) and planets (up to and including a planet that’s a replica of Earth but also really a computer run by mice in order to find out the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. How awesome is that?). Of course that’s just the first book. It’s been called a “trilogy” since the beginning, but there are five books in the series. Six, if you count the Eoin Colfer epilogue that came out in 2009 (it’s awful, don’t even bother). Also there are a few related snippets in Adams’ posthumous collection, but I don’t know if those are necessarily considered canonical.
I suppose it may be one of those “you had to be there” sorts of things that’s hard to talk about to people who haven’t read it, but easy to blab about with people who have. Fun, but maybe a little pointless. When I talk about it I frequently find myself preaching to the choir. Which is unfortunate. The awesomeness of this book is just mind-blowing. There’s a scifi convention in which we suspend all disbelief and get transported completely (pardon the pun) to another world. There’s usually very little that’s relatable, you know? Few books that have a toe in our world, in our reality, as we know it (that’s what makes it scifi and not just fi). And Hitchhiker’s Guide is all about upsetting that convention. Sort of. Turning it around on us, maybe, is more accurate. Arthur Dent is the last survivor from our planet, so he embodies everything we love about it and becomes the only thing we have to cling to. Walking nostalgia, this guy. (Did you know that “nostalgia” means “agony for the home”? There’s something really beautiful about that.) So Dent makes us appreciate the human experience. It’s the “us vs. them” thing, but he’s the only “us.” Like the opposite of Stranger in a Strange Land. And I appreciate that, as someone who’s never really felt at home anywhere. There’s still comfort in knowing that we all have our place in the universe. That we can find one, even if it’s not the obvious or the expected one.
I guess I have a really big, important soft spot in my heart for these books because they are so different. And so fucking funny. “Laugh out loud funny” is one of the things that, if I see it on a book jacket, will make me put the book back on the shelf. Seriously. I’m kind of a blurb snob. But in this case it’s true. That unreasonably wry British kind of hilarity. I think part of the reason it’s so funny is because it started out its weird little life as a radio play. The banter was actually banter at one point. I don’t know. The dialogue just reads differently than other dialogue. When I first read the series (in high school, maybe? Or college? I’m not sure) I don’t think that I’d ever laughed out loud while reading. Seriously. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it? For me, at least, it’s rare that a book will make me laugh so hard I have to keep it down so I don’t wake up my housemates. I chuckle. I smile. But I hardly ever laugh. Maybe that’s just because I read so many books about heavy scifi stuff – galactic takeovers and government conspiracies and epic laser battles. Not a lot of giggles there. Hitchhiker’s Guide is so terribly funny that even now when I reread it (which I do about once a year), knowing full well what’s coming, I still have to put the book down and laugh and laugh and laugh. The only other author that makes me laugh like that is Terry Pratchett, but I still find myself comparing his books to Adams’ books. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, I guess.
Besides writing my all-time favorite scifi series, he wrote some other great stuff. The Dirk Gently books are an awesome send-up/homage to pulp detective fiction. He was a rabid, old-school Whovian and wrote a bunch of episodes during the Tom Baker years. He did a lot of environmental conservation stuff in the UK. Check out his book Last Chance to See, about the trip he took around the world to try to find endangered species. After Adams died, the BBC also made a documentary series about it with his buddy Stephen Fry (as a point of interest, does it seem like Stephen Fry knows bloody everyone? He pops up in the strangest social circles).
Adams was an interesting guy. I wish he hadn’t died at such a young age. Heart attacks are like that, though. At least he got to make us all laugh before he went. And I’m consistently baffled by the way he tied absolutely everything together. Each time I read it I find a new connection. Everything, every little detail, it all means something. Everything’s a part of a system. We are all cogs in a machine. That’s astounding, isn’t it? To know that you’re a piece of something, tiny but not insignificant. It’s a great way to look at life. And laugh.