“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
– HP Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
Like many works of great literature, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was inspired by booze. In 1971, Douglas Adams was drunk in a field in Austria with a book called Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Europe, staring at the stars, and wondered how nice it would be for someone to write a similar book about outer space. He adapted this idea with a radio script he was writing featuring the recurring destruction of the Earth, until he found the Guide and its alien author the most compelling part and placed them at the center of the story.
The original radio show was broadcast in 1978, and the overall series became a lot like jazz. There’s the basic premise the music needs to follow, but each adaptation is allowed to improvise and swerve. The trilogy is ultimately five novels/radio series, following each other closely but not exactly, and spins off into TV shows, movies, video games, comic books, stage shows,
We open on Arthur Dent, the most average of everymen, protesting the impending destruction of his house to make way for a highway. He’s soon whisked away by his friend Ford Prefect to a pub, where alien ships appear to announce the impending destruction of their planet for an intergalactic superhighway. Ford hitchhikes their way onto the destructor fleet, setting off their adventures throughout the galaxy alongside Zaphod Beeblebrox (President of the Galaxy), Trillian (the last living human with Arthur), and Marvin the Paranoid Android (programmed to be as depressed as possible).
Structurally, HHGTTG has perhaps the most anti-dramatic plot device ever – the Infinite Improbability Drive. Like a warp drive on LSD, the starship Heart of Gold travels through all points of the universe simultaneously, allowing even the most unlikely of events to occur. For Adams, this gave him a massive narrative cheat: any coincidence needed to further the adventures is possible because the drive makes the impossible probable.
This freedom allowed Adams to cram gag after gag into his works. The laugh was always the most important part. Wordplay, slapstick, satire – anything to make a joke work. One-off scenes return books later for the punchline. The kitchen-sink hijinks was Adams’s trademark – he wrote three Doctor Who serials, including the Fourth Doctor’s “City of Death”, which has become a classic of the original run of the show (the arc involves a time-travelling alien art thief). He’s also one of only two people to receive a writing credit for Monty Python’s Flying Circus that wasn’t a member of the troupe and appeared as a doctor in one sketch.
The adventures the crew has a right out of pulp magazine, only inverted to lovingly parody the genre. Instead of an intrepid captain, the human protagonist is adrift in his bathrobe. The giant space empire doesn’t really function, and the true Ruler of a Universe is a madman alone on a single planet. They find a planet that builds other planets, meet the Ruler of the Universe, fight omnicidal sports robots, and learn the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Underneath all the adventures, however, is a deep-rooted bleakness and fatalism. The universe is a giant, unfeeling, uncaring place. No one is in charge. Random things happen. People aren’t just killed; they are blinked out of existence as though they were never alive in the first place.
Three events in the series highlight the nihilism in the works. First is Prak, a character encountered who was a key witness in an intergalactic trial. Accidentally overdosed on truth serum, he is asked to tell, “the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.” He then tells the entire truth about everything and dies from laughter. The truth is nothing more than a joke, and it will kill you.
Second is the Total Perspective Vortex. Built by a scientist for his wife, who nagged he “needed some perspective,” it shows the individual in relation to the entirety of creation, which has the result of destroying their brain. The only known individual to have survived it also experienced it in a pocket universe designed specifically for him, meaning the world did literally revolve around him, thus confirming how he already felt about himself. Otherwise, the epiphany of one’s place and utter irrelevancy drives the victims mad.
And third, in my favorite joke in the whole series, Arthur and his lover Fenchurch take Marvin to see God’s Final Message to His Creation. After an arduous pilgrimage, they read the message: “WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” Marvin, for the first time in his life, is happy, and he dies. Either the actual message is unavailable, and what we see is a cosmic placeholder, or the inconvenience is life itself, and God is sorry for creating everything in the first place. Either way, God doesn’t tell us much.
The unrelenting nihilism in these books is a funhouse reflection of HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft created his monsters as embodiments of the horrors of something beyond comprehension, an invasion of outsiders that disturb your complacent life (something something immigrants). Adams had his humans suffer the same mental dislodgement, only he views it all as a joke that’s been played on us. Sometimes going crazy is necessary to distract from the crushing bleakness – Ford advises at one point, “That there is no point in driving yourself mad trying to stop yourself going mad. You might just as well give in and save your sanity for later.” It’s a matter of when, not if, that anyone self-aware enough will succumb.
The final book in the series is a howl of pain, admittedly written when Adams was suffering from depression, and the ending is a moment of brutal catharsis and recognition: Arthur realizes that he is about to die and therefore rid of the terror of being a nomad in a chaotic universe: “A tremendous feeling of peace came over him. He knew that at last, for once and for ever, it was now all, finally, over.”
(The radio adaptation of Mostly Harmless has them escape and reunite for more adventures. While it’s a happier ending, the original ending works better with the weight of that last word.)
Despite the bleak worldview, so many of Adam’s characters still have a passion for life. They celebrate and indulge themselves, attending flying eternal parties, dining with intergalactic rock stars and cavorting with the most famous women in the universe. Adams himself seemed to enjoy life – he was an outdoorsman who advocated for conservation and endangered animals (once climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit).
Adams died in 2001 at 49 years old. His friend Richard Dawkins delivered the eulogy and recounted Adams’s answer to why he was so excited about science: “The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome.” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is also full of the wonders of the universe. Adams was very engaged with life – he loved new ideas and seeing where they led. For all the darkness that surrounds in an indifferent existence, he gave us two words of advice to guide us: don’t panic.