Douglas Adams

 

Mostly Harmless

The fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ trilogy

 

Always a lovely read – Adams is very user friendly. He seems to almost have his own genre of which he and Pratchett are the leading exponents. I can’t say I laughed out loud too often (although the picture of a drunken Zaphod sticking a birdcage over his second head and badly pretending to be a pirate is hilarious), but it was a very pleasant ride – even if the conclusion is surprisingly bleak for what feels like a light comedy. Like Pratchett (and there are so many ‘like Pratchett’s, although that’s probably in the wrong comparative order) Adams throws in some agnostic themes with his humour, although here the ultimate meaninglessness of life is treated a little less whimsically.

 

It’s an interesting hotchpotch of action (and cutting between various cliff-hanger scenes), philosophy, stand-up comic perspectives of the everyday, domestic sit-com, satirical SF, and Douglas’ own pleasure in blithely hurling his characters through six impossible things before breakfast. The plot is surprisingly coherent although occasionally incidental.

 

I still would almost be surprised if Adams didn’t cite Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 as a thematic and stylistic influence. Here he lets his sensible and considerate astrologer state the theme that it doesn’t matter so much what you believe in (‘truth’ is irrelevant), but you need something as a structure, a lens, to enable you to live satisfactorily (Adams unsurprisingly explains this much better:)

I know that astrology isn’t a science … of course it isn’t. It’s just an arbitrary set of rules like chess or tennis … The rules just kind of got there. They don’t make any kind of sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It’s just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better. It’s like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that’s now been taken away and hidden. The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing the indentations. So you see, astrology’s nothing to do with astronomy. It’s just to do with people thinking about people.

 

‘Discuss’, huh.

 

Yet another author struggles to reconcile loss of faith in major, particularly religious, concepts of truth with the inner conviction that there are important, good and beautiful things all around – that it’s not all just meaningless.

 

And it is a struggle, as in the climax (spoiler warning) Trillian explains to her traumatised daughter who desperately wants to know who she is, where her home is, where she ‘fits’:

This is not your home … You don’t have one. We none of us have one. Hardly anyone has one anymore. The missing ship I was just talking about. The people of that ship don’t have a home. They don’t know where they are from. The don’t even have any memory of who they are or what they are for. The are very lost and very confused and very frightened.

 

Yeah, ha ha, good one Douglas – hardly Wodehouse light humour. Human condition anyone? I wonder if Adams and Pratchett self-consciously have wanted to be taken ‘seriously’? I could see that it could be frustrating for them to be dismissed as merely lightweight because they’re so popular. They often contain more articulate thought than works by more academic writers, and shouldn’t be seen as lesser merely because they happen to also be very good at amusing and entertaining (quite the opposite). That being said, their books should also come with a flyleaf caveat: “Warning – strong post-modern agenda permeates the following jokes”.

 

December 2003