Sunday, 6 January 2013

Week One - Jeanette

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Recommended by Gary

In the autumn of 2000, I visited a four-person house in Crookes, Sheffield for the first time. Gary lived there. He once put the housemates in order of geekishness: he, modestly, ranked himself second.

During my frequent weekend stopovers, we watched Charmed and Alias, and played computer quiz games such as You Don’t Know Jack, while the housemates tried to explain things like ‘NaN (not a number)’ to me. Gary and I also forged a pop alliance that continues to this day. He had a Freeview box, something of a delicacy in the early century, and I’d sit in his room: we’d flick between music channels The Hits and TMF, cursing when the adverts coincided and we were denied seeing the t.A.T.u. video for the millionth time.

Gary has told me on numerous occasions that he ‘doesn’t read’, but I still asked for a book recommendation, offering him a get-out clause if he didn’t fancy it. But he did. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is his favourite book and, I’ve since discovered, a text held in huge affection by numerous other friends.

The initial concept of H2G2 is strong: Earth is demolished because it is an inconvenience to the rest of the Universe. The Visigoth-ish race, the Vogons, make a perfunctory announcement and the deed is done. This propels the human Arthur Dent, and the undercover alien Ford Prefect (who is ‘from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he usually claimed’) hitch-hiking through the Galaxy. They meet various life forms and have several near-death experiences; they even discover the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything.

The overall plot becomes increasingly irrelevant as the book progresses, with the wacky adventures aggressively taking the foreground. This is my only real complaint with H2G2: I could tell that Adams initially wrote it as a series of radio plays, and the transition to a cohesive novel was not completely successful.

H2G2 deserves its reputation as an extremely funny book. It snuggles neatly between Pythonesque gentle surrealism, and the sharper edges of 1980s alternative comedy. This kind of intelligent British wit was absolutely wonderful when done well, as it is in H2G2. Yet humourous as the book is, one can easily get this kind of thing elsewhere; if that’s all H2G2 had going for it, it would simply have been a pleasant time-waster. But I found the book satisfying on a deeper level. Time and again, Adams evokes an absolute sympathy for the human condition. In the preamble, he writes:

This planet [Earth] has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

Adams expresses this humane pity brilliantly through Marvin The Paranoid Android. Marvin is lovingly described; yes, sometimes he’s played for laughs, but usually he invokes a touching frustration in the reader. He’s lonely and those he talks to despair of him. He’s self-aware enough to know this, and it makes him even lonelier. Adams nails a description of how depression manifests itself in speech:

            ‘Alright,’ said Marvin, like the tolling of a great cracked bell.

I was interested enough in Marvin to investigate how he’d been portrayed onscreen, in both the 1981 BBC TV series and in the 2005 Hollywood film. Sadly, the clips I’ve seen don’t award him the same complexity that he has in the book. However, it seems the TV character was very popular; he even cut a record, which is actually quite good, even if it rather undermines the book’s take on Marvin’s despondency.

My other favourite character in the book is the little Babel Fish. When inserted into the ear, the Babel Fish reacts with brainwaves and automatically translates languages for its host. It’s a genius plot device to ensure Arthur Dent understands numerous alien dialects, but Adams goes far further with it, playing around with the cultural implications of such a creature. For one thing, the Babel Fish leads to more wars, because all barriers to communication between races are removed. And, because the Babel Fish is so phenomenally useful and it is difficult to believe that it evolved by chance, it sparks off a philosophical debate on divine existence (summarised in the best-selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God).

H2G2 was a perfect starting point for this project. Short and easy-to-read, it nevertheless surprised me how cleverly and pithily Adams writes. Without Gary’s recommendation, I doubt I would ever have read H2G2, and that would have been a huge shame. Because…

‘My father eventually died of shame, which is still a terminal disease in some parts of the Galaxy.’