On the face of it, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series appears to be all fun and games. Crazy things continually happen, particularly to Arthur, who can only muddle through, never sure of what will come next. A more complex reading reveals that what lies at the heart of the series is something not touched upon often in either young adult or mainstream fiction: the randomness of life and the ability to deal with whatever is put in one’s path by it. Arthur Dent as representative human is thrust into a world not of his making—a world, in fact, actively hostile to his existence. That he survives as long as he does is testament both to chance and to his friends, who also must live with the uncertainty of existence. Central to this idea is the fact that even knowing the answer to life is not in itself an answer because both the question and answer can never be known.
The last two novels of the series teach the most important lessons for young adults, although their tone is less exuberant than the first three and the plots are more straightforward. The destruction of the Earth and the debate about humankind’s supposed superiority in the web of life give much to ponder, as does the eventual destruction of all that is. While such issues are handled in an amusing way, astute young adults will find concepts that they will confront in one form or another for the rest of their lives.
The series was not originally intended specifically for young adults, and younger readers will most likely not see these ideas in the stories. For them, the sense of play upon which the novels are structured will keep them entertained and returning repeatedly to Arthur’s universe. Older readers will see in Arthur a much-needed role model in a complex world—he never fully understands all that is around him, but he never gives up. Regardless of this lack of total comprehension, or perhaps precisely because of it, the series can provide an fascinating road map for what lies ahead in life for everyone. Its seriocomic handling of important concerns allows young adult readers to begin to confront the world around them and their own place in it.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is a seminal work precisely because of its irrepressible irreverence. Originally a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio show in the 1970’s that was made into a BBC television production in the early 1980’s, the series has also appeared as radio transcripts (in 1985) as well as in an illustrated version of the first novel (in 1994). While the series has received much acclaim, two other comic novels by Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988), have not received much fan support despite critical attention. In whole or part, this reaction can be attributed to the almost addictive pleasure of reading his other works. The latter books also contain interesting ideas to ponder, but in a more fantastic, supernatural setting. At their best, Adams’ novels are insightful reading for children of all ages and levels of maturity.