Fiction Reviews

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

(1979/2009) Douglas Adams, Pan Macmillan, £7.99, Can$14.99, Aus$22.99, pbk, 200pp, ISBN 978-0-330-50853-7

(1979/2016) Douglas Adams, Pan Macmillan, £8.99, pbk, 208pp, ISBN 978-1-509-80831-1


Pan Macmillan re-released all five of the original Hitch-hiker's trilogy in 2009 the 30th anniversary year of the first's publication which itself came out a year after BBC Radio 4 first broadcast of what was to become a minor national phenomenon that was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Since then over 15 million copies of the English language edition (British Isles, Australasia and N. America) have been sold and it has been a big hit in Germany among some other nations. Now, in 2016, we have another new set with new covers and an introduction by Russel T. Davies.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is SF comedy at its best and as such sits well with the humorous work of Stanislaw Lem (as opposed to his serious stuff), Robert Rankin and (on the fantasy front) Terry Pratchett.

In theory at least The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (in five – soon to be six – parts) should need no introduction, but for those outside of the English-speaking SF community it would be remiss of me not to let you in on what has become a modern classic and a comedy SF classic at that.

The main protagonist is one Arthur Dent, a normal guy living a normal life on Earth. Then one day his house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a new by-pass highway. Nobody had informed him that this was going to happen and he only found out at the last minute of the plans. As the workmen are lined up in front of his house, Arthur is side tracked by a friend – Ford Prefect – who drags him away and tells him that he (Ford) is not human but an alien from outer space who is researching the Earth for a book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. However there is a big problem. The Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. They must escape…

And so begins one of the Galaxy's wildest adventures. Along the way they find out many things including that the answer to life the universe and everything is '42'. (The thing is that now knowing the answer to life the Universe and everything you need to find out what the question was.) They meet many people including Marvin who is a really depressed robot with the brain the size of a planet. They encounter many cultures including that of the Vogons, whose poetry is so bad that one Vogon poet died when his own major intestine – in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization – leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain. They enjoy many of the Galaxy's culinary delights including the drink the pan galactic gargle blaster, which is so strong it is like being hit by a gold brick wrapped around a slice of lemon. All the while they are aided by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The guide includes all the information a self-respecting hitchhiker needs to know about the Galaxy. For example the entry on Earth reads: 'Harmless.' Well, the Galaxy is big and there is only so much space in the guide; which is why Ford Prefect went to Earth to update it for the next edition. The entry for Earth now reads: 'Mostly harmless.'

Now it may be that you have come across The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) Hollywood film. Please, please, please note that this film is at best a reasonable homage to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and is not at all faithful to the story. If you want the story at its best then you are better off getting an audio recording of the original 6-part (30 minutes each) Radio 4 series that is simply mind-blowingly brilliant. Here get the first series and perhaps also the 'Christmas edition', which is sometimes presented as the first episode of the second series. (Beware of getting the record (audio DVD) unless it clearly states it is the original BBC broadcast version and not 'based on' the same – as there was a condensed spin-off vinyl cut to the radio series as the series was that popular.)

This book covers much of the ground appearing in the first half of the first radio series and so for my money is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at its best: after the first series, though good The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy never reclaimed the dizzy heights of its start. This is no doubt because Douglas Adams was a painfully slow writer and the success of the first series, and first two books, meant that the pressure was on to deliver more and something had to give. Such is life.

You also need to know that the books vary a little from the radio series although the overall plot is the same, as are nearly all the jokes.

The 30th anniversary edition re-release came as part of a themed set though stickers are provided with the first for you to design your own cover. Each volume also had an introduction and in this first volume the intro' is by Dr Who' scriptwriter Russell T. Davies. Each volume also has a few pages at the back with photocopies of script excerpts, memos and letters from the Douglas Adam's archives (give me more of these than the inane stickers any day). The only thing not provided is a towel.

This is an absolute SF classic in the truest sense of the word. If by chance you have not yet read it then you have a daringly delicious distillation of delight to deluge your delectation in store. Whatever you do do, don't panic!

Jonathan Cowie

The series continues with The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life the Universe and Everything.

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