The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is a unique trilogy, as it originally was called, in that by 1992 it consisted of five novels and a short story and still had yet to be concluded definitively. It began as a radio series broadcast by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) beginning in 1978 and ending in 1980. Many fans of the story became acquainted with it through recordings of the old radio shows, the scripts of which were published as The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts. A television version of the series was broadcast by the BBC in 1981. There are, therefore, three versions of the Guide: radio, television, and print. Although all were written by Douglas Adams, these versions are not altogether consistent with one another. What follows is a summary of the five novels and the short story.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with Arthur Dent, an ordinary young Englishman, waking to find that his home has been scheduled for demolition to allow construction of a new motorway bypass. In protest, Arthur lies prostrate between the bulldozer and his house. Arthur’s friend, Ford Prefect, talks Arthur into giving up his protest (at least temporarily) and going to the local pub. There, Ford completely perplexes Arthur by claiming to be an alien and telling Arthur that they must leave Earth immediately because it is about to be demolished to make way for an intergalactic bypass.
Thus begins Arthur’s...
(The entire section is 1101 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
By the time The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was published in 1979, many people had tired of the American and Soviet race for dominance in space. Twenty years earlier, there had been excitement and anticipation in the United States, spurred on by fear that the Soviet Union would be the first country to conquer space.
The first evidence of real progress in the exploration of space was witnessed in 1957, when the citizens of the world woke up one day to find that the Soviets had put an artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit. In many parts of the world people could step outside and, looking into the sky, watch the satellite pass by. America, which was the only other country of comparable military might to the Soviet Union, entered into a competition meant to preserve national pride, as well as to prevent the Soviets from gaining superior missile technology.
Through the 1950s the lead in the space race shifted back and forth. The Russians put a living being, a dog, into space in 1957. The U. S. Congress established The National Aeronautics and Space Agency in 1958. The first human to go into space was a Russian, in 1961; the first American went into space the following month. During the 1960s, Russia fell behind and...
(The entire section is 591 words.)
Though initially set in England, the majority of the story takes place in space, either in spaceships or on the planet Magrathea. With Adams creating his own worlds, cultures, creatures, and vocabularies, his satire fillets science fiction cliches and the human condition.
Dent and Prefect find themselves in two ships very unlike the usual spare and futuristic spaceship of science fiction genre. Just as the earth is vaporized, they use a "transformational beam" to board the spaceship of a Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz. In the ship's galley, Dent first sees dirty dishes and dirty alien underwear scattered about. Sitting on mattresses that have been grown and dried from the Sqornshellous Zeta swamps, Dent is not comforted by Prefect's reassurance that "very few have ever come to life again."
The Heart of Gold is the second ship to pick up the pair. In Adams's world, this ultimate space-age transportation is shaped like a running shoe and has its own sales brochure. Giving it an Improbability Drive, which powers the ship through every point in the universe, Adams creates scenes within the ship which combine elements of an Andy Warhol painting with Walt Disney's "Fantasia."
Finding Magrathea had been a high priority of many previous space explorations. When the characters accidently discover it, Prefect ranks its drab and desolate exterior somewhere below "cat litter." They learn its interior is three million miles across and that...
(The entire section is 240 words.)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a parody of traditional science fiction adventure stories. A parody is a work that takes the conventions and rules of one form and uses them for comic effect. It is distinguished from a satire in that satire usually tries to point out human folly and vices in order to reform them, while the subject of parody is the style of writing itself.
Traditional science fiction takes the reader, often through the adventures of a common person like Arthur Dent, into a world where the universal laws of physics as we know them have been stretched beyond current capacities. Space travel is often associated with science fiction because introducing beings from other planets allows writers to account for the fact that they are able to manipulate reality in ways that are currently unheard of; time travel is often an important element for the same reason. Most good science fiction uses the different physical rules it presents to explore constants in behavior, while most bad science fiction introduces bizarre elements for their own sake, just to show off the author's active imagination. This book derives its humor from reversing the usual results that readers have come to expect.
For example, readers might expect the Earth to be destroyed in a war, so its destruction is presented here as a result of petty bureaucracy; the President of the Galaxy is not a fearsome sovereign but a joy-riding...
(The entire section is 782 words.)
Adams's satire is not bitter. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is mostly about fun—fun with words, fun with genre, fun with television, and fun with human nature.
A great deal of Adams's humor depends on the unexpected. The coveted Heart of Gold spaceship is shaped like a running shoe. Nuclear warheads, attacking the space ship, unexpectedly turn into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale. Adams's satire pokes fun at Scripture as well as the notion that monkeys left with a typewriter will eventually pound out a Shakespeare play.
Adams frequently employs the technique of flashback. As Arthur knows nothing of events in space, filling him in on past events provides the reader with similar information. Adams accomplishes this with a variety of vehicles, including footnotes and narration. Entries in the electronic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tell Arthur about Magrathea, and Slartibartfast explains the creation of Deep Thought and its mission to arrive at Life's Ultimate Answer.
(The entire section is 161 words.)
Adams's satire skewers several sacred icons of society: science, poetry, philosophy, and government. As Dent and Prefect romp through space, the various other characters and events act as vehicles for Adams's social commentary.
His technological wonders include the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic, the Paralyso-Matic bomb, the Babel fish translator, and Kill-OZap gun. With names sounding like something out of a comic book, they make it impossible to take the technology of his world seriously.
Adams takes to task society's fascination and dependence on computers. The computer on the Heart of Gold and on Marvin the robot should solve problems with unwavering, impersonal logic. Instead the spaceship's computer whines and breaks into song. Marvin is emotion on wheels. Two of the funniest sections in the book satirize poets and philosophers. The recitation of the poem "Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" causes members of the audience to die of internal hemorrhaging. One listener survives by gnawing off his own leg. Captured by a Vogon, Arthur and Ford are strapped into Poetry Appreciation chairs, attached to "imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers," and then forced to listen to Vogon poetry. Only Adams's view of philosophers and philosophy is more scathing. His philosophers are part of the "Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1979: Iranian leader Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlevi fled the country. Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, returning from fifteen years' exile, took de facto control of Iran. In November, workers at the American embassy were taken hostage by terrorists with state backing. Throughout the 444 days they were held, American morale dropped.
Today: Having played a key role in the 1991 international military action against Iran's neighbor Iraq, the United States government is less hesitant to become involved in international conflicts.
1979: Disco, a musical trend popular in urban areas throughout the mid-seventies, was at its peak. Big hair, big collars, and platform shoes were popular across the country.
Today: Because of the changing nature of fashion, today's trends are destined to look ridiculous to people twenty years from now.
1979: Comedy was very popular: Monty Python's Flying Circus, a British show from the early 1970s, was finishing its first run on American television; the young unknowns who starred on Saturday Night Live were making movies; and comedians like Richard Pryor and Steve Martin were playing to capacity crowds at stadiums.
Today: The proliferation of comedy shows on cable television and of franchised comedy...
(The entire section is 266 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. Why does this book continue to be popular, especially among college students and adolescents?
2. Adams's humor has been described as both sophomoric and as brilliant. Decide which term best describes Adams's work and justify your opinion.
3. How effective is Adams's use of the technique of flashback in the novel?
4. What unresolved questions or conflicts in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy makes probable its sequel?
5. Compare and contrast Adams's portrayal of space alien creatures in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to those found in science fiction genre.
6. What science fiction cliches does Adams's satire target?
7. How does Adams sustain his generally upbeat and buoyant tone through the book?
8. What foibles of human nature does Adams take issue with in his book?
9. The space-age technology in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy may have seemed far-fetched and bizarre in 1980. Which of the inventions that Adams includes have appeared in society two decades later? How do you explain this seemingly prophetic materialization?
10. Some critics find the characters in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy interesting because of the way they react to challenging circumstances. Discuss each character's response to the attack by Magrathea's missiles.
(The entire section is 193 words.)
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Much of the technology described in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as being science fiction is now part of our daily lives. Pick one of these three inventions—digital watches, hydroboats (vehicles which hover above water without touching it), and virtual reality games—and research the development of it.
2. Adams has described his main character, Arthur Dent, as a semi-autobiographical character. Research the real life accomplishments of Adams and discover the similarities between the author and Arthur.
3. Just about the only action Arthur Dent ever initiates takes place in the first chapter when he lies down in front of the bulldozer. Research at least one person who advocated initiated passive resistance in modern history. Relate the circumstances which inspired it, and discuss the results of the disobedience.
4. Ford Prefect's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was published on a "sub meson electronic component." Investigate electronic publishing today, including the contemporary Rocketbook, and the arguments for and against this form of publishing.
5. Carl Sagan was a controversial scientist. Compare his views of the origin of the universe to those given in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
6. For inventing the Infinite Improbability Drive a student scientist is awarded the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness. Pick a Nobel Prize winner in one of the...
(The entire section is 352 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Make up a work order for the Magratheans, explaining the kind of world you would like them to build. Be specific about the kinds of geographical features and animals you would like to see, and explain why.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy summarizes the whole Earth with only two words: "mostly harmless." Write up an extended entry for a guidebook that will explain your town in detail to people from other planets.
Write a poem that you think might have been written by Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, whose work is identified in the novel as the worst in the universe. Explain the elements of your poem that you think make it so terrifyingly awful.
Suppose that the novel is right in saying that humans are not in control of Earth, but wrong in believing that either mice or dolphins are the most intelligent animals on the planet. Which animals do you think might actually be an intelligent species from another world, controlling human behavior wordlessly? Why do you think so?
(The entire section is 175 words.)
Adams five books in the "Hitchhiker" series sends his quartet of characters forward and backward in time after The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. By programing the second largest computer in history to deliberate seven and one-half million years, they learn in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that the Ultimate Answer is 42. The problem they pursue through subsequent books is finding the Ultimate Question for the Ultimate Answer. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, they discover the true reason for Earth's existence. In Life, the Universe and Everything, their mission is to save the entire universe from Krikkit white killer robots. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish recounts how Arthur finds true love, while In Mostly Harmless, Arthur searches for home and discovers his estranged daughter who herself is searching for the planet of her ancestors.
(The entire section is 142 words.)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Video-cassette. Six-episode British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) Television series. BBC Video/CBS Fox, 1981.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Audio cassette. Read by Stephen Moore. Ontario: Music for Pleasure Ltd., 1981.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Audio cassette. Read by Stephen Moore. Ontario: Music for Pleasure Ltd., 1983.
Life, the Universe and Everything. Audio cassette. Read by Stephen Moore. Ontario: Music for Pleasure Ltd., 1984.
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Audio-cassette. Read by Douglas Adams. Beverly Hills, CA: Dove Audio Books, 1992.
Mostly Harmless. Audiocassette. Read by Douglas Adams. Beverly Hills, CA: Dove Audio Books, 1993.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Complete Audio Books. Set of four compact discs. Beverly Hills, CA: Dove Audio Books, 1998.
(The entire section is 123 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
This book is just the first in a series about Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and the colorful characters that they encounter in their travels through space and time. Fans have followed them through a series of five novels, including this one, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992).
For fans who have trouble keeping a handle on the characters and events in the Hitchhiker books, Pocket Books published a guide in 1981 that covers the original trilogy, called Don't Panic: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion.
Mark Leyner's novels have been compared to Adams's for their unpredictability and sense of fun. His most recent, 1997's The Tetherballs of Bouganville, bounces through a cultural landscape strewn with markers of our time, such as scholarship awards, lethal injection, screenplay writers, supermodels and videos.
The fiction of Kurt Vonnegut has always been admired for its ability to present a comically unreal world in a slightly plausible way. One of his early books, Cat's Cradle (1963), is a darkly funny story about the end of the world.
The standard for this type of story, in which a normal person is thrown into...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
For Further Reference
"Adams, Douglas." In Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, vol. 64. Detroit: Gale, 1998. A bibliobiograpical essay, including summaries of Adams's books with both positive and negative critical remarks.
Adams, Michael. "Douglas (Noel) Adams" In Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983. Detroit: Gale, 1984. Michael Adams summarizes both the life and works of Douglas Adams in a mostly positive critique.
Conly, Marc. "Douglas (Noel) Adams Criticism." Bloomsbury Review (May-June, 1989): 16-17. Interview with Adams.
Critchton, Jennifer. Review of The Hitchhiker's Trilogy. Publishers Weekly (January 14, 1983): 47-50. An in-depth interview with Adams including a publishing history of his book from radio script to trilogy.
"Douglas (Noel) Adams." Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 27. Detroit: Gale, 1984. After a short biographical sketch, fourteen reviewers critique Adams's books.
Langway, Lynn, Linda R. Prout and Edward Behr "Turn Left at the Nebula." Newsweek (November 15,1982): 119. Adams's life and career is summarized. The reviewers like the "lunatic fringe" of Adams's writing.
Review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York Times Book Reviews, (January 25,1981): 24-25. Adams is praised for writing science fiction that appeals to readers outside the genre enthusiasts.
(The entire section is 175 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Richard Brown, "Posh-School SF," The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4147, September 24, 1982, p. 1032.
M. K. Chelton, in Voya, Vol. 3, February, 1981.
John Clute, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 62, No. 2, February, 1982, pp. 34-5.
Rosemary Herbert, in Library Journal, September 15, 1980.
Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1981, pp. 24-5.
Lisa Tuttle, "As Other Worlds Turn," Book World—The Washington Post, November 23, 1980, p. 6.
For Further Study
Douglas Adams, The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, edited by Geoffrey Perkins, Harmony Books, 1985.
This book contains the scripts for the original radio show on which the novel was based; an introduction in which Adams talks about his writing; another introduction by the producer of the show, Geoffrey Perkins; and many notes about the script.
Brian W. Aldiss, introduction to Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975, pp. 1-5.
Aldiss discusses the effect that the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima had on science fiction and science fiction writers.
Thomas M. Disch,...
(The entire section is 399 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Gaiman, Neil. Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” New York: Titan Books, 2005.
Hanlon, Michael. The Science of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” New York: Macmillan, 2005.
Simpson, M. J. Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams. Boston: Justin Charles, 2003.
Simpson, M. J. The Pocket Essential Hitch Hiker’s Guide. 2d ed. Chicago: Trafalgar Square, 2005.
Webb, Nick. Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Yeffeth, Glenn, ed. The Anthology at the End of the Universe. Dallas, Tex.: BenBella Books, 2004.
(The entire section is 92 words.)