The cover had the friendly words “Don’t Panic!” It made me smirk. Over a series of weeks, I’d walk into the Campus Bookstore, peruse the titles and I’d never fail to smirk. The buzz about the book was slight, and if just knowing about the buzz places me in the nerd category, so be it. Finally, I plunked down my money for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and read it that same night.
And I laughed my butt off.
Science fiction, up to that time, had had its dilettantes of humor, such as Lester del Rey, William Tenn and Isaac Asimov. But humor and science fiction don’t mesh well, as science fiction requires creating an artificial world and humor has its strongest basis in reality. We don’t care for contrived humor. And I personally believe that most fans of science fiction—writers and readers alike—are angry people, angry at the rejection they feel for being different and thus have very little sense of humor, unless it’s the cruel kind that belittles those they would consider inferior.
But Adams was just plain funny. His humor, based on some deranged Apocalyptic scenario that destroys Earth to make way for an intergalactic highway, has science fiction as its background, but human foibles and eccentricities as its forefront.
Take Marvin the Robot, seriously, seriously depressed for being incredibly superior to those around him but being seen and treated as nothing more than a glorified lump of metal. Yet all he does is act like a lump of metal. (Science fiction fans were both target and audience here.)
Or how about Zaphod Beeblebrox, a two-headed, three-armed egotistical mush-for-brains con man who somehow always gets his way? In an exaggerated way, we know people like that, who seem to live a charmed life despite obvious disadvantages in acumen. How pathetically funny is someone who utters and believes “I’m so hip I have trouble seeing over my pelvis”?
The Girl in The Story, as SF fans objectify the species, was Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend and all-around wishing-to-be-free spirit. She is disconcerting if not downright unfathomable, not only for the odd things she says, but for her choice of Zaphod (the creep) over Arthur (the nice guy.) Trillian is the only character with a level head, except that it works on some jarringly-parallel level.
It is in Arthur Dent, Earthman extraordinaire (poor slob) that Adams shines. Befuddled, bewildered, a babe in the woods and the woods are beyond weird. Arthur embodies the deep-seated feelings we have that the world is one big party and we’re not only not invited, but if we go, we’re the hired help. Arthur gives the madness a touch of the ordinary and the humor emerges from tweaked humanity, the kind that lets us laugh at and with each other.
But above all that, I owe Adams for hundreds of smiles and lightened moments when my patience and interest were strained beyond endurance, when the droning voice or insipid event dragged on and on towards infinity.
Two words: Vogon poetry. Those who’ve read the novel will know what I mean.