A Return to the Earth for Arthur Dent
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
And now we come to the first and many endings for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This fourth novel, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, was the first the stretch the idea of a "trilogy" of novels for the series (not that they didn't keep jokingly calling it a "trilogy" despite all the evidence), but it also was the one that felt like the most complete ending for the series. The previous books had gone on until the characters reached a natural stopping point within a predetermined number of pages, but it was hard to say that the books really ended... it was more like they simply ran out of steam. Knowing how Douglas Adams wrote (which he admitted), and that he has the be chased down to finish a novel (or even start it) and get a certain number of pages committed on paper, this seems like an entirely accurate summation of the first three books in the trilogy.
Now, though, we come to what feels like Adams's intended conclusion for the series. Although he would go on to write a fifth book, eventually, this book gave readers everything they wanted, with characters finding some kind of closure and at least some kind of answer for "Life, the Universe, and Everything" having been found. Hell, even Marvin, the Paranoid Android, finds a modicum of peace by the end of the novel, and if that doesn't describe the perfect ending for the series its hard to think of what would.
When we last saw Arthur Dent (at the end of Life, the Universe and Everything, he'd decided to live on his own, finding a quiet planet to settle down upon and enjoy not being a space tourist anymore. He eventually gets bored with it, though, and elects to head home, to Earth, to see what'd left of the planet that was destroyed. What he discovers, though, is that for whatever reason the Earth is back. Everyone on Earth seems to remember the giant yellow space ships, and there was some kind of disturbance, but then... life just went on. No explosion, no poof, nothing. Everyone blamed it on a CIA experiment and moved on with their lives.
Confused, but somehow okay with it, Arthur settles back into his life. That's about when he meets (and then meets again, and meets again) a strange and wonderful woman: Fenchurch. She takes a shine to him and, when he finally tracks her down and gets to know her, the two of them hit it off. It helps that he reveals he knows how to fly and she reveals that her feet, for whatever reason, don't touch the ground (quite literally). They use their conditions to go flying together, and then the decide to learn the great mysteries: why is the Earth back, what happened to the dolphins (as they're now missing), and what really was God's final message to his creation? It's one big, whirlwind adventure for Arthur with the woman he loves.
This book is different from the previous novels in a number of ways. First and foremost, Arthur is no longer trailing after Trillian like a lost puppy. In the previous books it was pretty obvious that Arthur was something of a wet blanket and even though he liked Trillian she had little interest in him (choose the idiotic Zaphod instead, time and again, because Zaphod was more fun). Trillian is entirely out of the picture this time and, instead, we have fenchurch, a woman that actually seems to genuinely like Arthur as he is and, also, brings out a better light from within our hero.
That leads us to our next big difference: instead of a random series of adventures around the galaxy, So Long... is a fairly ground love story... at least as much as a novel in this series can be grounded. There hasn't been much (or really) any romance in the series up until now, but what's surprising is that Adams was actually pretty good at writing it. There's chemistry between the two characters, a playful romance that works within the confines of this novel. I could nit pick at it a bit -- Fenchurch could use a little more fleshing out, their romance does happen rather quickly -- but it works in this novel and that's what really matters.
Then there's the fact that this novel really doesn't have that cascading series of mishaps vibe that the previous novels played on. This is a story focused squarely on Arthur, his travails back on Earth now that it's returned, and what he does from there. There's no grand quest to save the world, no one chasing out heroes, no peril for them to avoid. This is a more sedate adventure for our hero, in a way, but also one that allows him to grow and evolve as a person. It's interesting, and different, and, again, it really works in this novel.
What I liked best, though, was that the series really did tie up it's last, great mystery, the thing that the books had been teasing at since the first first novel. Earth was designed, so it was said, to figure out the meaning of everything. And what the answer to the question of "Life, the Universe, and Everything" was 42, that's a meaningless answer without the question. We never do find out the question but we do get a satisfying answer all the same. The novel gives us the Creators last message to his creation: "We're sorry for the inconvenience." It's a perfect answer within the context of the book, and even outside of it that somehow feels ironically right. It's satisfying, in a very sly way.
The novel does feel like it was designed to tie up every loose end and finish the series with a bow. Marvin finds peace with the message from the Creator. Arthur finds Fenchurch and the two go off to live happily together. There's even mention of the fact that Trillian and Zaphod finally settled down and the two of them started raising kids. For all the major players in the books, aside from Ford Prefect, there was nowhere else for them to go; they were done. And while, yes, Ford did need an ending eventually, he also was owed a bunch of back pay from the Guide editorial team and could go off and get drunk as a skunk whenever he wanted. That's the kind of ending he would be happy with.
All that being said, this wouldn't end up being the last book in the series. Eight years after this book was published, a fifth book would come out, Mostly Harmless, and it would muck up the ending of this novel (and prove to be quite divisive among the fans). That book didn't even really have an ending, in a way, and would need a further book to finish the cycle (a novel Adams didn't write, as he died before it was written, and is also a novel that's quite divisive with the fans). So, everything that came after this fourth novel could be jettisoned, in a way, and no one would be sad (not even, as it turned out, Douglas Adams).
SO if you want, consider this the final novel. We will cover the next two books in the series, but if you want, you can join the dolphins and make your escape. As they say, "so long, and thanks for all the fish."