If you are wondering why I am writing this particular review while clutching a towel in my hand, read on and wonder no more. According to the titular Guide, with its inscription of “DON'T PANIC” in large, friendly letters on the cover, a towel is among the most useful items ever invented. A towel, while helpful in keeping yourself covered or drying yourself off with after you shower between a night of hard drinking and hitching a ride on a Vogon spaceship, is not necessary for the enjoyment of Douglas Adams’ first volume in the five-volume “trilogy,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—but it doesn’t hurt.
Arthur Dent and his friend Ford Prefect (who turns out to actually be an undercover researcher for the Guide who just happens to have gotten stranded on Earth) miraculously hitch a ride on a flying saucer just as the Earth gets blown up to make way from a Galactic Bypass. Every work by Douglas Adams has an absurdest element to it that would’ve made thinkers like Camus very proud, and the philosophical implications of having Earth be destroyed for a Bypass that was not even needed anyway let the reader question just how important we are in the universe, anyway. After escaping the terror of the destruction, they face a new terror on the Vogon ship they jumped on—a Vogon poetry reading.
In true absurdest fashion, the situation goes from bad to worse as the two meet up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, the criminally inept President of the Galaxy, and his assistant, the only other survivor from Earth, a young woman named Trillian, on the stolen spaceship, the S. S. Heart of Gold, which Zaphod has “liberated” from its proper owners and taken on a spin, for reasons even he doesn’t really understand. The ship’s robot, Marvin, is a high-tech, highly intelligent, and perpetually depressed, seeing little point in the meaningless tasks he’s set to perform.
The rest of the series focuses mainly on these five. The first book in a series is almost always the same—a quest gathering together the characters we will pass the time with for the next few books. As far as first offerings, this is actually quite brilliant. There are so many questions to be answered; once the answer comes, there are so many questions that could fit the answer. But never mind puzzling that sentence out, it’ll all make sense after a few pan-galactic gargle-blasters (the recipe for which is helpfully reprinted in the book. Enjoy!)
The Guide itself makes for one of the most interesting devices in literary history—it seems almost like a Kindle that stocks Wikipedia articles. As I read, I kept thinking that this book, written in the late 1970’s, radically prefigured many technologies that we take for granted now, while at the same time still managing to contain some laughably dated references to technology no longer in use. And A Hitchhiker’s Guide has left its imprint on the mainstream as well—there is an online translating service called “Bablefish,” for example, taking its name from a creature in Adams’ novel.
Readers of Pynchon and fans of Doctor Who alike will love the interconnected, chaotic, time-warping and consciousness-imploding adventures as our characters search for meaning, truth, beauty and a nice little place to have lunch.