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 adventure. He and Ford, a researcher for and proud owner of the encyclopedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, manage to get on board a ship of the Volgon fleet, which has just demolished Earth. They are captured by the Volgons and expelled into the void of space. Fortunately, they are picked up by Ford’s two-headed cousin, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and his companions, Trillian, an Earth woman Zaphod recently picked up, and Marvin, a chronically depressed robot. Zaphod’s stolen ship, the Heart of Gold, is equipped with the prototype of an improbability drive, which is what enabled them to rescue Arthur and Ford.
Zaphod is en route to Magrathea, a legendary planet that once was in the business of producing custom-made planets to order. After a brush with two deadly missiles, the travelers land on Magrathea. The planet seems to be shut down but is not. A new project is under way: the reconstruction of Earth.
As it turns out, Earth actually was a massive computer designed by advanced aliens from another dimension who took the form of laboratory mice on Earth. Its purpose was to determine the ultimate question of “life, the universe, and everything”. The ultimate answer, the number forty-two, already had been derived by Deep Thought, Earth’s cybernetic predecessor, but the Volgons destroyed Earth five minutes before Deep Thought’s main program was to be completed and the question delivered.
Upon discovering that Arthur is human, the mice cancel the order for another Earth, believing that they can get the answer they seek from an examination of Arthur’s brain. Zaphod’s pursuers arrive and are about to blast him and his companions when Marvin, the depressed robot, accidentally saves them all. The novel comes to a conclusion with the group back on the Heart of Gold, heading for the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
The subsequent novels do not take this narrative forward systematically, although they occasionally present new variations on the theme. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe begins with the travelers being pursued by a Volgon fleet. The Volgons have been hired by Zaphod’s psychoanalyst, who, it is revealed, arranged to have Earth destroyed. The answer to the riddle of life, the universe, and everything, he feared, would put psychoanalysts out of business, or at least drastically reduce their income.
With the help of one of Zaphod’s long-dead ancestors, the travelers escape, but Zaphod disappears from the Heart of Gold . He finds himself drawn to a character named Zarniwoop, first experiencing the...
(The entire section is 4,352 words.)