(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Humor is the keystone of Douglas Adams’s fiction. His sense of humor is decidedly understated, influenced by the deadpan Monty Python school of laughs. He has a knack for distilling something as impossibly complicated as the Ultimate Answer to the Universe into a two-digit number. He can take something as simple as a bath towel and instill it with such cosmic significance that readers may want to meditate on their linen closets. His style of humor relies on unexpected narrative turns delivered by means of witty twists of the English language. His linguistic deftness and narrative adroitness enable Adams to make readers regularly laugh out loud.

His innovative views of the universe allow readers to step back from the status quo and look at things from a different perspective. Both reader and protagonist are provoked into viewing life afresh on virtually every page of his novels through delightfully unnerving story lines that tend to make readers smile and the protagonist scratch his head wondering where he can find a good cup of tea.

Adams pokes fun at virtually everyone. He satirizes governments, bureaucracy, business, technology, philosophers, dictionaries, airports, politicians, bad poets, queues—anything in which he can place his cosmic comic barbs. He is an equal-opportunity satirizer, pointing out the flaws of almost everything while simultaneously dramatizing its unrealized potential.

Adams’s fiction is replete with imagined technology—technology that pretends to improve life while actually complicating it. Characters in this fiction may find themselves battling some computer program or automated coffee maker to complete a simple task. Adams was a fan of cutting-edge technology who saw that newfangled gadgets could make life more difficult. The familiarity of that disillusionment may be why readers can easily relate to the many absurd situations that Adams’s characters experience.

Religious disbelief shows up frequently in Adams’s works in the form of philosophical questions. Characters constantly search for the meaning of life, always unsuccessfully. The nihilistic Adams depicts humankind’s utter insignificance in the vast realms of the universe. His whimsical evidence for the existence of God tends to make the possibility of the divine disappear altogether. He negates not only God and humanity but the universe itself, describing the destruction of the cosmos as the “gnab gib,” the opposite (and reverse spelling) of the “big bang,” in which the universe was created.

Adams’s novels tend to be episodic, following colorful characters around the universe as they battle illogic, gravity, and deadlines. His picturesque and picaresque characters grandly traverse time and space in interstellar slapstick adventures. He often features an Everyman character with whom readers can readily relate, a normal human being from Earth. This unlikely hero is thrust into extreme circumstances, forced to deal with crises ranging from zero gravity to galactic protocol to depressed robots. These Everyman heroes are not extremely intelligent, not particularly good-looking, not even skilled with automatic firearms; the typical Adams protagonist experiences his biggest thrill when walking to his mailbox.

Adams places his characters in outlandish plots. For example, the mailbox might explode at the moment the protagonist goes to open it or a character might find himself unsuspectingly teleported into a passing spaceship and a cascade of increasingly improbable events that render him confused and vulnerable. The predicaments of these characters make readers realize that they are not the only ones in the cosmos who are overwhelmed; readers share awkward moments with Adams’s protagonists, who are subjected to situations that test their abilities to adapt.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

First published: 1979

Type of work: Novel

Arthur Dent, with his towel and his alien friend Ford Prefect, begins an intergalactic journey by hitchhiking off the soon-to-be-demolished planet Earth.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the first book of the five-volume series (which Adams humorously called a “trilogy”) based on Adams’s successful radio series of the same name. An immediate best seller, it has remained popular for more than a quarter century.

In a quiet suburb of London, Arthur Dent is minding his own business when his morning is interrupted by bulldozers and wrecking machines coming to destroy his house. The home, which blocks the path of a new bypass, is slated to be torn down. Things go from bad to worse when Arthur’s friend, Ford Prefect, who has drunk too much at the nearest bar, enlightens Arthur about the imminent destruction of Earth. Ships from the Vogon Constructor Fleet surround the planet, commissioned to destroy it to make way for the new hyperspace express bypass, whose path Earth is blocking. Soon Arthur’s house, along with the rest of the planet, is drifting through space in tiny particles of recently vaporized matter.

Fortunately for Arthur, Ford turns out to be an experienced intergalactic hitchhiker who manages to smuggle the two of them aboard a Vogon craft moments before the end of the Earth. As punishment for their hitchhiking, the Vogons submit the stowaways to the torture of listening to poetry—Vogon poetry is widely regarded as the universe’s worst. When the hitchhikers miraculously survive this death sentence, the Vogons eject them into outer space to a more certain death by asphyxiation.

During the painful poetry reading, Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the Imperial Galactic Government, steals a remarkable spacecraft powered by the new Infinite Improbability Drive. As he pilots the craft, the Heart of Gold, away from the intergalactic police, he improbably picks up Arthur and Ford exactly one second before their inevitable deaths, the first of many improbable things that regularly occur in the vicinity of the spaceship.

The hitchhikers are greeted by Zaphod and two other travelers, Marvin and Trillian. Trillian, formerly known as Tricia McMillan, met Arthur at a London party a few years before; Marvin is a chronically depressed robot. The group determine to band together to aid Zaphod’s flight from...

(The entire section is 2595 words.)