Two nights ago I was sitting on the couch with my son watching a popular television sitcom. About halfway through the episode, just as one of the main characters delivered yet another sarcastic one-liner, which was followed by the studio audience’s obligatory laughter, my son looked up at me with a curious, disappointed look that seemed to say, Is this it? Is this the best comedy has to offer? I remembered sitting as a lad of eight with my own father on a couch many years ago, watching The Benny Hill Show. I gave my dad the same look and said to him, “Is this all he does, Dad? Just boob jokes?” My dad shrugged and nodded, but then he had an idea. He went over to the bookshelf, and returned a moment later with a thin paperback. It was Puckoon by Spike Milligan. On the front was a crude sketch—more of a scribble really—of a ragged, drunk-looking chap. “Here you go, mate,” said Dad. “Try this.” Well, I spent the next three hours in hysterics. I couldn’t understand a word in the book (I was a terrible reader), but the cover art cracked me up. So when I recognised that look on my boy’s face, I turned to the trusty bookshelf. I handed him my copy of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My son took it to his room. Half an hour later, from down the hall I heard the innocent, squealing, unabashed laughter made only by children (and sometimes my aunty Glenda when she’s drunk). I looked into my son’s room and saw he had placed a slice of cheese in the middle of the book and was pretending it was a sandwich. That’s how you tell good humour: it’s funny on many levels.
Adams’s cult classic is a hilariously quirky romp through outer space; I imagine if Monty Python had done sci-fi it would have been something like this. The story follows Englishman Arthur Dent as he narrowly escapes the earth’s destruction by hitching a ride on an alien spaceship with his friend, Ford Prefect. Ford reveals himself to be, despite his human appearance, an alien with plenty of space-hitchhiking experience. He introduces Arthur to the everyday oddities of alien races and space travel, and to the book that can help him navigate it all: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur is immediately comforted by the words DON’T PANIC written on the cover. By a highly improbable piece of luck, Arthur and Ford soon find themselves aboard a state-of-the-art ship that has been stolen by the President of the Galaxy, Ford’s cousin, Zaphod Beeblebrox. While trying to outrun galactic law enforcement, Zaphod, Ford and Arthur, along with Zaphod’s partner, Trillion, and a manically depressed robot called Marvin, become involved in the search for the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. (Only the question is needed; the answer has already been calculated as forty-two.)
This story is a hoot from start to finish. Its ideas are wonderfully absurd and the writing is cleverly crafted. I found myself rushing through some passages to see what would happen next, and then creeping through others, savouring every delightful phrase before turning the page.
I enjoyed the book so much I felt a little cheated that I hadn’t read it earlier; someone should have told me about it years ago. To prevent others from suffering the same injustice, I think Adams’s book should be included in the high school reading curriculum. It may not be as dramatic, or historically informative, or classically written as The Great Gatsby or Macbeth, but it’s fun, and would have gripped me more in school than the tale of some rich American guy committing adultery and then getting shot in a pool, or some old Scottish fellow murdering his way to the throne in King James English.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable books I’ve read. If you have even a mild interest in sci-fi and silliness, read it. You’re welcome. 10/10
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