A reread of Douglas Adams’ The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is the perfect remedy when you’re feeling down. That is, of course, if his humor appeals to you. For me, reading Adams is easy; writing a review of his work is hard. His work is so focused on comedy that some would not even classify it as science fiction, and comedy is so subjective that it is very difficult to argue whether it is in any way “good” as literature. The funniest thing of all is to read 1-star reviews on Amazon of people who found it boring and stupid, or couldn’t follow the plot.
Having said that, I think his brand of comedy is brilliant. He has a similar style to Terry Pratchett’s, but may be even more talented in playing with the English language to produce the unexpected, brain-tingling sentence. Between the lines, Adams takes playful stabs at things he finds silly, such as bureaucrats, philosophers and digital watches.
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
It is not just Adams’ way with words that is admirable; the story of Arthur Dent and his journey through the stars is very inventive. This opening novel to the series has a very strong start, with Dent’s house being demolished and his flight with Ford Prefect aboard the Vogon ship. Then onwards on board the Heart of Gold with Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin. The invention of the Hitch Hiker’s Guidebook we may take for granted now but it is a stroke of genius. It allows Adams to insert endless silly jokes and at the same time build his universe and push the story along. Many of Adams’ famous quotes come from this first novel: about towels, about the babel fish, about space itself.
The story moves fast, there’s never a dull moment and is tantalizingly unpredictable. The unpredictability is what keeps it interesting, not the plot. The movie covers about the same territory as this first novel. All in all, a great comedic success. 9.5/10
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)
The second novel starts a bit weak, but gets progressively better and better as it goes along. At first, it is the Zaphod Beeblebrox show, and not all of it is as engaging as the first novel. Zaphod jumps from one scene to the next, some of it a bit too silly and some conversations dragged a bit, but it has one highlight in the Total Perspective Vortex. I missed Arthur and Ford.
The plot has lost its momentum now. In the first novel there was at least the matter of Earth’s destruction, but now Arthur wants a cup of tea and Zaphod wants to eat. It’s a real jumble. At first, it also seems as if Adams ditched the Hitch Hiker guide entries. The second half of the novel is much better, though. Arthur and Marvin are back, the Guide is back, and the jokes are hitting harder. The book stumbled but got back on its feet to hit a home run. 9/10
Life, the Universe and Everything (1982)
The third novel makes a valiant effort to get a plot running, but isn’t all that memorable. Compared to the previous books, this one is not so much hilarious as just odd. It starts with odd things happening on a cricket field, and then Slartibartfast takes Arthur and Ford on an odd mission, which takes Slart half the book to explain. Meanwhile, Zaphod is depressed and Trillian still has no character.
The clever passages have given way to general weirdness and confusion. Highlights still include Marvin talking to a living mattress, Wowbagger the immortal alien and a party that never ends. 8/10
So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish (1984)
Quite a departure from the other novels, Arthur is back on Earth and falls in love, and that’s most of the novel. Adams tried to turn Arthur into an actual character and basically ignores the rest of the series. Not the content many people were hoping for, but at the same time a certain enthusiasm is back in Adams’ writing. At least at the start. It’s quite a funny tale in and of itself, but after reading the first three novels it feels like an abandonment of the series.
Easier to appreciate in a reread. I suppose it is written very much for British people so they can feel very British about themselves. 8/10
Mostly Harmless (1992)
I was going to say that this one is the odd one out, but the fourth book was also the odd one out, so this one is even odder. Written eight years after the previous entry and at a time when Adams was increasingly struggling with depression, it is very different in tone. Occasionally funny, but also increasingly cynical. The good ending of book four is gone.
One big mistake is that Trillian, Arthur and Ford all have separate adventures and on their own they are just not as funny as when they’re interacting. Ford’s is frantic, but not funny, and Arthur’s is occasionally humorous but relentlessly depressing. 7/10
Phew. This reread was an eye opener. It wasn’t as funny as I remembered, the second time around. The best parts are the first novel and the second half of the second one. The rest of the series steadily declined in hilarity and quality. After each novel, it is best to ask yourself whether you want to continue.
Douglas Adams has often commented that he finds it hard to actually write. Now, when he is inspired, he is brilliant, but when he isn’t, it’s immediately noticeable. It means that he is forcing it, line by line, or too influenced by his moods. Publishing the series in a single omnibus edition didn’t really did justice to the parts that are genuinely brilliant.