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 intergalactic police.
They travel to Magrathea, where customized planets are produced. Long ago, Magratheans constructed a massive computer planet in a quest to find the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything. The Ultimate Answer had already been discovered to be forty-two. That computer planet, the travelers realize, is none other than Arthur’s own Earth. Unfortunately, the vast computer with its intricate organic program was destroyed by the bureaucratic blundering of the Vogons precisely five minutes before completing its ten-million-year calculation.
Arthur and Trillian carry enough of Earth within them to complete the crucial calculation. They are less than happy to contribute to that cause, however, as the calculation will damage their brains and make them unusable. After a near-fatal stay on Magrathea, the travelers escape the planet, heading off into the sunset toward the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Adams’s uniquely humorous style contains creative descriptions of the universe and even such unlikely insights as glimpses into the thought processes of a sperm whale. The story is persistently interrupted and enriched by entries from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describing phenomena the characters have recently encountered or are about to experience. Readers learn about Vogons, poetry, towels, and much else. At first glance, it appears that these entries have little to do with the plot’s development, but Adams manages to tie seemingly random and insignificant trivia into the story line.
The book sets itself up marvelously for a sequel, and Adams wrote four more novels in which Arthur, the commonplace English protagonist—still wearing his bathrobe, carrying his trusty towel, and driven by his unquenchable thirst for tea—quests for his lost planet through hilarious cosmic adventures.