It’s October 12th, 1979. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is released. It’s Douglas Adams’s prose adaptation of his successful radio play of the same name. It’s about a British man named Arthur Dent who wakes up to discover his house is about to be bulldozed down on the basis of a bureaucratic cock-up; this turns out to be the least of his worries when his friend Ford Prefect shows up, informs him that the Earth is about to be destroyed by intergalactic bulldozers due to a bureaucratic cock-up, and rescues him using an electronic device that allows them to hitch a ride on one of the bulldozers. When Arthur understandably panics, Ford hands him a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, an electronic encyclopedia that Ford writes for which is designed to inform its readers of every aspect of the universe. From then on, the story alternates between excerpts from the Guide and Arthur and Ford as they go on adventures across the universe.
This is the second time this story has been ported to another medium, depending if you count the LP of the radio show (to which it’s almost word-for-word identical). It retains the core plot, characters, and ideas of the radio play while substantially changing many individual scenes and much of the structure; for example, in the original play, Arthur is the one to convince the bulldozer supervisor to lay in the mud instead of him while he and Ford get a beer together, whereas the novel changed this to Ford. It was partly the fact that the novels are the most accessible form of the story and partly changes like this that would make the novels the closest to a definitive text for the Hitchhiker’s story. Arthur would be defined as a hapless Fool completely out of his depth in the universe and only occasionally saving the day through either ruthless quick thinking, application of ‘common sense’ thinking to an absurd situation, or, more often, dumb luck. Conversely, Ford is the seen-it-all cynic who would more likely come up with the absurd reasoning that gets that supervisor in the mud.
It’s sometime in August, 2005. I am fourteen years old, and I am laid up in a hospital bed waiting surgery due to appendicitis. My mother and father are out of state due to my paternal grandfather’s funeral. My extended family (all of whom were, on my mother’s side of the family, born in England – with the sole exception of my mother) has sent me books, DVDs, and a portable DVD player. One of my aunts has give me an encyclopedia of cinema from 1889-2005 that a cute trainee nurse barely older than I am has happily and loudly read through with me; I ascertain that this is less due to my personal qualities and more because she loves talking, and I wonder halfway through the book whether she has actual work she’s supposed to be doing. One of my other aunts has given me a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, as well as DVDs of the television show, on the basis of me enjoying the film adaptation a few months earlier at the cinema. I choose to read the book first of the two.
It blows my tiny fourteen-year-old mind. I recognise the style as similar to the English science fiction novels I loved when I was very young – Jules Verne, HG Wells – but pushing it to absurd and hilarious places. His paragraphs have the logic of a joke, using sentence after sentence to lead you down a garden path with a style right out of your Funk & Wagnall’s before suddenly and violently tripping you up at the very end with the stupidest language you’ve ever read to underline an absurd reveal. Adams has a vision of the world as a place which works on a set of rules that you will never fully grasp or understand, and what you do understand operates under an absurd, internally consistent logic of its own. You will be humiliated at every turn by people who seem to know a lot more than you and are certainly much more powerful, and you can trust neither the people around you nor your own common sense. I find this very funny and very easy to relate to.
It’s some time in 1979. Douglas Adams, as usual, has gone past his deadline (“I love deadlines. I love the wooshing sound they make as they go by.”). He resolves his anxiety by taking unusually long baths that are pleasant in themselves as a sensory experience and cut out all distractions, giving him time to let his mind wander. When the water goes cold, he will empty the tub and fill it with more hot water. Exactly how much this dries out his skin is not reported. He will throw on rock records and listen to them incessantly, although he is completely unable to write when he’s doing this. At some point his editor, exasperated by his lack of productivity, will tell him to just send in what he’s already got and they’ll publish that. This creates a pleasing cliffhanger effect, as the characters decide to visit the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.
It’s sometime in 2008. I am seventeen years old. Overwhelmed by the pressure of college and with neither the emotional tools to deal with it nor the knowledge of where I can get said tools, I escape to the college library. As well as discovering the works of Terry Pratchett, I find a copy of The Salmon Of Doubt, a collection of essays written by Adams (usually, stored on his computer with no intent of publicly sharing them) and published after his death, with what remains of the book he was beginning to write. I am delighted that, like me, he was a fan of the Beatles and could express the joy he found in them so easily. I am most moved by his essay on jokes, in which he is so disgusted by a comedian making a bad joke from a place of ignorance – the “why don’t scientists just make the whole plane out of black box material?” gag – that his faith in the concept of comedy is shaken entirely. How many jokes has he told that came from a place of smug ignorance? I nod knowingly. The truth is an essential component of a joke.
It’s the 14th of September, 1984. The video game The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is released in North America, four months before it is released to European markets. It’s a text adventure game written by Adams himself. Famously, it’s tremendously difficult; one takes the role of Arthur, going through the motions of the story with some additional changes (including Arthur going into the pasts of his friends), and it’s possible to die almost immediately unless you figure out how to get out of your house before the bulldozers pass through. The opening puzzle is realising that you are desperately hungover and need to take a headache tablet to even function; this requires figuring out the game’s particular quirky take on traditional text adventure gameplay, in which you select the right verb and the right noun to move forward. As you might expect, H2G2 (the affectionate nickname fans have for the franchise as a whole) favours comedy over real-world logic, and it successfully puts you in the head of its antihero as he stumbles through the universe.
Adams is an aficionado of the adventure game genre, and would go on to write many of them. His most famous aside from H2G2 is Starship Titanic, a comedy game in which the player is called upon to repair a spaceship; it is notable both for the stacked cast drawn mainly from Monty Python and the amount of work put in to make the player’s conversations with the characters as fluid as possible. Adams would also knock up a text adventure game called Bureaucracy, in which the player must navigate an awful bureaucratic nightmare simply trying to note a change of address. I have never played this, but I’m intrigued by its existence, because it is the one that most loudly articulates a recurring theme in Adams’s fiction: that bureaucracy is ungainly, incoherent, inconvenient, and utterly impossible to defeat.
It is September, 2016. I am twenty-five. Finally feeling confident to go for my driver’s license, I discover to my great annoyance that my name is not legally Tristan Jay Nankervis, as I had assumed for my entire life. I was born Tristan Jay Phillips, and when my mother married my father (technically my stepfather, though I find it abhorrent to think of him that way), she was told that formally changing my name was unnecessary and she could simply start referring to me as ‘Tristan Jay Nankervis’ in documents; this turned out to be incorrect. I am forced to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops to combine what few forms of legal ID I have into something resembling a legal identity worthy of a name change (later, I would use the name change itself as identification). I distinctly remember being served by an older woman with grey-and-black checkered hair who confirms that my legal name has been changed and prints the document I can use to confirm it. Later, I tell my cousin this story and discover she went through exactly the same problem for exactly the same reason. Much later, Mum tells me that Dad was deeply moved that I would work so hard to retain his name. Not once did I consider my father’s feelings, or indeed any motivation for what I was doing; it was simply that Nankervis is my name and Phillips isn’t.
It is 11th of May, 1980. Simon Jones is lying in the mud in front of a house. He is acting in the pilot for the H2G2 television show, reprising his role from the radio play. He is perfectly cast as Arthur, mainly because Adams specifically wrote the role for him; Arthur is uptight, shrill, often outsmarted by the people around him, and almost always in the right to be outraged. The way he turns, mid-rant, to yell “What the hell’s that?!” at the incoming Vogon ships has become my personal gold standard for delivering that phrase; the subtext of the line is “Oh great, this on top of everything else!”. Arthur is fundamentally a middle-class Englishman; someone who believes the world ought to be ordered and sensible; someone who considers what we owe each other and is constantly frustrated that you will not extend him the courtesy he would extend you (his antithesis would be this clerk). The fact that he is constantly humiliated by the world makes him no less beloved or necessary; self-deprecation at one’s need to make sense of the world is as necessary to the middle-class Englishman’s psyche as the need itself.
It is May, 2005. I am fourteen years old. I attend high school – which, in Australia, specifically refers to grades 7 through 10, with me currently being in grade 9. I am deeply disillusioned by formal education at this point. My primary school years (kindergarten through grade 6) were very rewarding, but I am deeply frustrated by my peers in high school – few of them are interested in being there, of course, but I’m baffled as to why they keep being disruptive. Aside from the fact that they’re taking a twenty-minute task and stretching it out to be twice as long through whining, fighting, and pranks, I find most of their behaviour needlessly cruel to the point of being animalistic. I do not understand why they’re cruel to me when it wouldn’t occur to me to be cruel to them.
Time unknown, date unknown. Douglas Adams is hitchhiking across Europe. He is drunk in the woods. He collapses on the ground, looks up at the stars, and wonders what a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy would look like. He would later admit he doesn’t actually remember this happening, but he does remember telling the story.