Don’t Panic, it’s 42…uh, what was the question…?

Douglas Adams (courtesy Wikimedia)

I am no fan of science fiction. When I was in college I had a band mate who loved the stuff – he pushed Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Herbert’s Dune on me. I waded though all this stuff diligently (one of my neuroses is that once I begin a book I have to finish it – as best I remember, the only two times I have consciously decided not to do so were with Dickens’ Bleak House – which I completed the second time I took it on – and John Grisham’s The Firm – which I will never complete, because I just don’t like the guy’s writing). I have read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I’ve not felt compelled to read anything else by Gibson. Due diligence performed, thank you and good night.

My taste when I’ve read sci-fi voluntarily (a short period in junior high was the peak) has tended towards classic stuff like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, creaky old literati compared to the bloated, techno-geek omni-volumes of more recent vintage. The two writers I mention when people begin talking about their favorite sci-fi authors, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, get me, usually, “those guys aren’t real sci-fi writers” looks. I once read a Donald Wandrei story (part of an anthology my mom had and gave me when I was a kid edited by Dashiell Hammett) and at least one book by Phillip K. Dick (you can guess which one based on the brilliant Ridley Scott film created from it). I met the science fiction author Samuel R. Delany when I was in grad school – but when I tried to read his work I found it asininedly over-complex for my taste. I know little or nothing of some of the current lions of the genre such as Neal Stephenson. I’ve put in my time wading through Pynchon and De Lillo – I don’t owe the Post Moderns and their gimmicks another moment of my time.

In fact, just to tick off lots of people I know (and some I don’t), I’ll apply that critique of S.R. Delany’s work to pretty much all the science fiction I’ve mentioned above except for those authors I have specifically stated I admire: it’s all too asininedly complex for my taste. Some of it reads (to me) like tech manuals. Where’s the fun in that?

So there’s some guilt in what I’ll be saying next. Bear with me. This is about the next book on my 2013 reading list, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A science fiction work. A work I took on despite my lack of affection for the genre because of – well, because of multiple layers of guilt.

First level of guilt: my sons Josh and Trevor gave me an omnibus edition of the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide series for my birthday some years ago. How many, you ask? Enough many that Adams was still living when I received the gift. Both boys raved about the books;  they’d read the entire series and told me I’d love them despite my protestations of indifference, even dislike, of sci-fi. My son Josh, a writer himself, said, “Dad, you’ll love these books. Douglas Adams’ books are ‘Monty Python does science fiction.'”  (As it turns out, Adams co-wrote a skit for Monty Python and appeared in it, too.)

I smiled and nodded. And a few weeks after my birthday dutifully started the book.  Maybe 10-15 pages in, I laid it aside, fully intending to continue. I made no conscious decision not to finish the book as I did with those mentioned above. I just didn’t get back to it. I somehow wandered off to other books.

Probably 15 years worth of books. My bad. There’s the second level of guilt.

So as I was making up the 2013 reading list, that big old volume of Hitchhiker books peered out at me from the bookcase and, in a moment of contrition, I added it to the list.

And now I’ve read it. And I loved it.

The major characters – Arthur Dent, the accidental galactic hitchhiker, Ford Prefect, his friend who turns out to be an alien from a planet near Betelgeuse and who saves Arthur from destruction, Zaphod Beeblebrox, playboy-outaw (and galaxy president), his girlfriend (stolen from Arthur) Trillian – are characters from Monty Python skits. And several of the scenes in the novel – the Vogon poetry fest, the argument over the answer to the question “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” (which features a pair of philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, who do a dead-on riff on Python’s Spanish Inquisition bit), and the meeting with the mice who are the super intelligent masters of the galaxy (and whose sense of ethics rivals that of Goldman Sachs management) – are more like Python skits than the stuff of sci-fi novels.  And that’s a very good thing for this reader.

But it’s this kind of stuff that makes the novel laugh out loud funny – and the best science fiction I’ve ever read. From the introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide (the fake book that gives its name to the real one): “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space….”

Kurt Vonnegut once described his writing process as writing a joke, then rewriting and rewriting it until he’d got it just right – then writing another joke…and another…and eventually getting a book out of the procedure.

Vonnegut was half-kidding in his explanation of his process, of course. But one gets the sense while reading his work that Douglas Adams saw Vonnegut’s explanation and decided to apply it as diligently as possible to his own writing process – writing joke after joke after joke until he had a book.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just such a book. A book funny enough to kill you faster than the poetry of Grunthos the Flatulent.

Well, all this writing  has made me hungry. I’ll see you at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

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About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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