A Tiny Tale About a Giant Moron

Young Zaphod Plays It Safe

The complete "Hitchhiker's Guide" series is comprised of six novels, plus one short story. Of course, if you're a fan of Adams's work, you may take the opinion that the sixth book, And Another Thing..., is not an official part of the series as it wasn't written by Adams (instead having been written by Eoin Colfer after Adams's death). But then, there are ans that also think the fifth book, Mostly Harmless, shouldn't be part of the series as it's a darker, different kind of novel and even Adams had regrets about that book after its publication.

Young Zaphod Plays It Safe

And then there's the short story, "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe". Included in the omnibus collection of the "Guide" as far back as when there were only our novels, this is certainly an official part of the series. It's just that, in proper Adams fashion no two editions of the short story are the same. It was first included in the comedy anthology The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book, and then in another anthology The Wizard of Odd, and in the final Adams collection The Salmon of Doubt, and different versions have different details in them.

For the sake of this review, we've gone with what is probably the "most official" version of the story, the one from the omnibus collection. And, I have to admit, reading this story for this particular review, this was the first time I'd ever managed to make it through the story. It's really not that long, just a collection of fifteen pages or so, but, ugh, I've struggled every time to read this story. I'm positive it's because I just don't like Zaphod as a character (he's not meant to be liked, in fairness), so giving him a lead role in his own story irked me in a way.

The story, a prequel to everything that comes later, focuses on Zaphod (he of the two heads and three arms) in his former life as a salvage operator. He's contacted by a couple of suits from the galactic authority and takes them to a crashed and sunken ship, a ship that, mind you, was supposed to be uncrashable. The job is to make sure that everything on the ship is still "perfectly safe", not that the suits have (supposedly) any reason to doubt it because, naturally, the ship should never have any damage if it ever does crash, not that is should ever crash, even though it did.

What does the ship have on it that would worry the suits? "By-products." All of the materials are hideously dangerous and no person in their right mind would ever even dream of using them (even though someone did dream of making them, mind you), but naturally, even though it's crashed (instead of being driven into a black hole as intended) it's all "perfectly safe". But the suits are really there for one thing in particular, and if they find it's somehow not there anymore, then things really will have gone tits up.

Despite my misgivings, I have to admit that I did find myself eventually sucked into the story. Adams does have a way of writing and, when he was in his zone, could turn anything into a hilarious moment. The crashed ship, with its oodles of terrible cargoes, is a great example of this, and as the prose goes on, filling in all the things the ship stores and all the ways it could wipe out the universe, you find yourself laughing even as the dread begins to grow.

The issue I have with the story is that, in the end, it doesn't actually go anywhere. After fifteen pages, there's a big reveal about just what the suits were there for, and it feels like it's the start of a greater adventure just about the happen... and then nothing. Story over, move on to the next chapter of the omnibus. There's an implication that the scary thing could have ramifications for later stories, but that doesn't pan out. That or Adams was poking a finger in the eye at then-current politics (as is implied in the Salmon of Doubt version of the story), but if that's the case it doesn't really play in this era.

This story irritated me, then sucked me in, and then irritated me again. Right as it was getting good it ends and I was left wanting more. It could have actually been the opening salvo of a really good novella, but instead it's just this thing left hanging out there without a resolution. And considering this isn't a plot thread that is ever picked up in Mostly Harmless, it just exists to annoy.

SO I'm back where I started before I read this short story: never wanting to read this little snippet of a tale again. Sigh.