So... Not 42?

Life, the Universe and Everything

We're now three books into the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and I feel like the series has finally gotten to a point that actually works. Don't get me wrong, the first time I read the whole series I devoured it, cover to cover. It's very funny for a first time read, that's for sure, but going back and reading these books again I've struggled to enjoy them as much. The weird, rambling, episodic nature of the early books didn't hook me the way they had before, and I had to admit that for books that are considered "classics" of comedic sci-fi, I was starting to think maybe I'd missed something. Was there something I was misremembering? Why did I enjoy these novels?

Life, the Universe and Everything

It's the first book in particular, the original (well, original novel) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that I found the least interesting, and I have blamed that on the fact that it's an adaptation of the radio shows that came before, and there have been even more adaptations of that novel since. It's probably the least fresh, most worked over, of any of Adams's novels. Sequel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was better, and while this too was based on the radio shows, Adams admitted that he took a lot more creative leeway with the novel (going so far as to rearrange the various sections in the transition from radio show to novel). Here, though, in the first wholly original novel of the set, the series comes into its own properly.

Life, the Universe and Everything (although lacking a proper Oxford comma) picks up five years after the end of the second book. Arthur and Ford had crashed on Earth thousands of years before the rise of human society, only to realize that the people they'd crashed with, a ship populated by a bunch of real dullards, were the actual colonists that would form humanity. This left both of them quite depressed and, eventually, they went their separate ways to life out their lives on Earth. Ford went mad, Arthur moved into a cave and was well on his way towards going mad, but eventually they do find each other again, and then they both take a ride on a sofa to the future (well, the present, a couple of days before the Earth will end) because... reasons.

In actuality, time is bending so random sofas will occasionally appear and people can ride them. These are one of the many time remnants that are being caused because someone is mucking about in time. Specifically there are white robots, drones created by the evil Krikkit home-world, that are trying to collect five parts of a key that will unlock the time-displaced home-world and unleash the Krikkiters. This would be bad because all the citizens of Krikkit want to destroy the rest of the universe. Arthur and Ford get dragged into a mission to save the universe by Slartibartfast who, having left the company that made custom worlds, now works for a group that wants to protect the time stream. It's save the world from Krikkit or good by everything.

While the previous two books did have something of a through-line -- Zaphod Beeblbrox, President of the Galaxy, wants to find the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything -- the books themselves meandered because, frankly, Zaphod didn't have a clue what he was doing and, worse, is an absolute shit of a character. Thankfully, after two books, as much of that answer that could be revealed was revealed and a new mission was put together. This gives the third book a lot of energy, a proper, rollicking space adventure with new ideas, new locales, and a lot of the usual weirdness. Oh, and Zaphod is barely in this book, which is also an improvement.

Just having a heroic adventure helps this book so much. The previous books were motivated by ego; Zaphod wanted to go on the adventure because he wanted to be the one to figure out the mystery. It was selfish and dumb, but that's Zaphod and, despite Arthur technically being the protagonist of these stories, the main plot of the first two books really was all about Zaphod. Here, however, the guys get to level up. They grow, they change, they learn, and most importantly, they go on a quest to do something important. The book has a story, and drive, and actual plot, and I relish it dearly.

Adams also managed to craft a villain that was actually interesting. The Krikkiters are, admittedly, a "tell don't show" kind of villain; we hear more about them and the evil they perpetrated billions of years ago than actually see them in action. Their robots, though, are very active and we get a fair bit of carnage from this. This actually puts a bit of motivation and momentum into the book and that helps us to care more about what's going on. It's not just people wandering the universe for the sake of it, but there's a real quest that needs doing. That helps the book out so much.

Plus, of course, there's Adams's usual weirdness. He introduces a new ship, one powered by "Bistro Mathematics" that's somehow weirder and sillier than the Heart of Gold from the first two books. It's frankly amazing he was able to pull that off as the Heart of Gold was a pretty dumb ship in the best possible way, but this new ship is literally an Italian restaurant that flies through space and all the math is done on a robot waiter's receipt book. It's stupid and silly but it works so well. I loved that a lot.

Of course, the biggest addition to this canon comes in this book: how to fly. This is such a great idea and the book benefits greatly since it gives something new and special to Arthur. Essentially, the fly, a human has to throw themself at the ground and, key point, miss. The first part is easy, the second part is hard, but Arthur somehow manages to master it. I love the idea of reducing flight down to such a "simple" idea, but then it gives Arthur a special ability no one else has and it allows him to grow and change and become someone more interesting. Character growth is great, and Arthur, as the protagonist, finally gets his due.

That's not to say that everything in this book works perfectly, mind you. It does still meander a great deal, such as a long side adventure where Arthur comes across someone that he's accidentally killed, over and over, for years (reincarnation is a bitch), and while this concept is funny it doesn't actually lead to anything after. And while the concept of the Krikkiters is interesting, they aren't really defeated so much as their story just kind of peters out and the heroes move on. I'm not sure, frankly, if Adams really thought in terms of "beginning, middle, and end" as, so far, each of these books has just kind of wandered until it felt like the author got bored and said, "good enough."

Still, despite this, I do think this book is the strongest yet of the set. It's fun, its weird, it has a lot of amusing ideas in it and it presents it all in a largely cohesive package. It's a very Adams book, and it fits will in the Hitchhiker's canon, but more certainly it's the book that really showed the series could tell a single, meaningful tale (more or less) directly and properly. A solid evolution for the series, to be sure.