Sunday, 8 December 2013

Books to Read Again: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Do you know where your towel is? If you've read and enjoyed this book I'm sure you will remember it is vitally important to carry a towel with you at all times. It really is the most massively useful travel accessory, except perhaps for your copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor.

The only trouble for me is that I've read this book so often I know great swathes of the text off by heart and I hear lots of it out loud in my head with the voices of the actors from the radio show speaking the words. So I haven't been able to read it for years.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started life as a BBC Radio 4 programme in 1978. It was such a success it was repeated twice in '78 and rapidly turned into a book and a record. In those far off times it was a double LP (on vinyl) available from Megadodo Publications for £7.25. There were several more radio series and four more books (I absolutely refuse to read the other alleged sequel which wasn't even written by Douglas Adams) which were sort of based on the radio shows. Or only a bit. Or indeed, not at all. And of course there was a BBC TV show and in due course a film. And some computer games. And a commemorative towel. And there's a whole website too which is not really the same thing but you can find it here

I remember going to bed early to listen to the radio on my own, so I wouldn't be interrupted in the middle of the programme. No Listen Again features in those days, no downloading a podcast.  You had to listen when you could. And along with many other people I was bowled over by this strange and downright weird story, and I couldn't get enough of it. And the theme tune was brilliant too: Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles from their 1975 album One of These Nights. Check it out on iTunes or somewhere but remember the movie version of this tune is all wrong (OK, for purists like me the movie version is all wrong).

If you think you don't like Science Fiction (and my question to you is: why not?) give it a try anyway. Because it is more than Science Fiction, funnier than most for a start. It's a funny, clever adventure that just happens to be set out in the wilds of the galaxy.

Our copy of the book is a little battered
It's the story of Arthur Dent who lives a quiet life in the west country until one day he is rescued from the sudden destruction of the Earth by his friend Ford Prefect (not his real name). Suddenly it turns out that Ford comes not from Guildford as he had previously claimed, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. For those of you who don't look up at the sky much, Betelgeuse is in the constellation of Orion. Ford is a roving reporter for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the book within the book) who got stuck on a backwater planet (the Earth) for 15 years and is thrilled to be getting back into space.

Imagine my surprise when I started reading this book after so long; I found the Hitchhiker's Guide is a sort of smartphone. Or mini iPad. Well, it's a handheld device with about 100 buttons and a screen 4" x 4" and is crammed full of all the information you need to travel across the galaxy. Sounds a bit limiting doesn't it? What about the rest of the universe? And you can't even check anything on imdb or update your facebook status!

But how prescient Douglas Adams was. He's invented the smartphone years before we all had our own computer, before the great pc or mac debate (Adams was a massive and vocal Apple fan), well before anyone had to worry which smartphone to buy. The Guide itself sounds a lot more fun than some of the po-faced travel info you find online these days. And why don't smartphones have the words Don't Panic printed on them in large friendly letters? I think a lot of people might find it helpful.

Ford whisks Arthur off to a Vogon spaceship but they are rapidly ejected into space (they fail poetry appreciation) to face certain death. Luckily they are rescued at the last second by the improbably improbable brand new starship Heart of Gold recently stolen by galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Ford's semi-cousin) and his girlfriend Trillian (who Arthur once failed to get off with at a party in Islington). And together with a depressed robot called Marvin they embark on a pan-galactic adventure. Although in Arthur's case, his quest is more for a proper cup of tea.

Also featured are Frankie Mouse and Benjy Mouse. But if you haven't read the book I'm not about to spoil it by telling you why.

The crew arrive at the legendary planet of Magrathea and I'm not going to tell you any more about that either because it would spoil the plot. However, I will say that the answer is 42, and the question may or may not be how many roads must a man walk down?

Go on. If you haven't tried it yet, give it a go. It really is worth reading this truly brilliant book. And if you like it these are the sequels (sort of):

  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
  • Life, the Universe and Everything
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
  • Mostly Harmless.

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