Monday, March 12, 2012

Tenacious Vogons, Time Travel and the Search for a Good Cup of Tea (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series)

Well it's been a while and this series is why. I'm going to warn you all now- this is going to be an immensely long review. There are 6 (or 5-we'll get to that later) books after all.

So a little background to start with. The Hitchhiker's series started out as a BBC radio show written by Douglas Adams. The broadcast was so popular that Pan Books commissioned Adams to create a book equivalent (published on the 12th of October, 1979), which immediately became a #1 best seller.

Through the years the media forms increased, through more books, tv series and a couple of films.

And for those wondering, the Hitchhiker's book was named after the 'Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe' that Adams was carrying when backpacking. The idea for the actual series formed when Adams was drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria. He then passed out and forgot about it for 6 years.

There are 6 (again we will go into that later) books in the series:

1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
2. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
3. Life, the Universe and Everything
4. So Long and Thanks For All the Fish
5. Mostly Harmless

6. And Another Thing...

Instead of doing individual reviews for each book, I'm going to do a more general review of the series. So let's get into it then.

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First Paragraph: (From Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun."

Our main character is Arthur Dent, who is pretty much your "Average Joe" and is cynical, but has a good heart. He is our vessel of discovery. It is through him that we first view Space and all the crazy things that happen in it. When things are explained to him, we learn through his revelations. He is also amazingly unlucky and never seems to be able to catch a break.

Having Arthur as someone we can relate to is a key element in the series. Mostly nothing makes sense or even exists in the world as we know it. The writing style is clever enough though, to describe and phrase things in such a way that your mind never stops to think, "Hang on, this is all gobble-de-goop", which of course it is. It evens makes sense that nothing makes sense. But, having Arthur there helps us assimilate into the world. If he's confused, we must be too. Human is as human does.

I personally think that Adams was spot on with Arthur's character. He is so deliciously sarcastic and, throughout a majority of the series, just wants a nice cup of tea. And I really think he takes all the events pretty well considering all he goes through and has to endure.

Also in the group of main characters are Ford Prefect (named after a car), Trillian (Tricia McMillan), Zaphod Beeblebrox (ex-president of the galaxy) and Marvin (the manically depressed robot) and a couple more that don't appear until later and would be considered spoilers. All the characters are very well written and you really do care what happens to them. They all have their own character traits and are far from generic. And (though only 2 of the main characters are) they are all so intrinsically human. Or more rather, realistic. They have good qualities, but they also have vices and can even be annoying at times. Sometimes, they can even be childlike, whether through lack of self-control or just through various antics.

It can sometimes be hard to understand the characters' relationships with one another and their intentions though. As an example, sometimes Ford seems to care about Arthur and his safety and at other times it's like he couldn't care less.

Most of the characters in this series (and definitely all our main characters) are so wonderfully sarcastic. The banter that goes on between them is very cleverly written. In fact, the entire book is written very cleverly.

On a quick side note, some of the aspects in this series are a little dated (for example, everyone thinking digital watches are the latest big thing), but that's to be expected and they don't occur frequently.

The writing style is charming in its ridiculousness, and also incredibly well done. There are numerous seemingly random side-stories that may occasionally tie into the main story later and it's almost impossible to know which ones will.

Just a little point, I'm not the biggest sci-fi fan. I like some aspects of the genre (like Futurama and Doctor Who), but I haven't seen more than two Star Wars movies- just so you can see where I am on the sci-fi love scale. But this series is so perfectly written the I can't help but love it.

Now, the way the books are written is very English (I mean in what the characters do and their views of the world, etc.), but will still work universally. Adams gives a very interesting and insightful look at humanity through this series. With his cynical, yet somehow positive, writing that is so enjoyably odd. We get phrases such as :
"It's unpleasantly like being drunk."
"What's so unpleasant about being drunk?"
"You ask a glass of water."
and you can see how clever the wording is. Adams has a brilliant way of combining seemingly insignificant events that last for less than a page and then come back as a key part of the story. And all without letting you know there was even something to guess. So much randomness goes on that you never know if any of it is significant. It is so intricately done. For example, something as mundane as looking for a cup of tea can cause a monumental occurrence, whilst being a perfectly sensible and believable outcome.

I do find that the series does show signs of being converted from a radio series though. There is the feeling that is was written more as one book, split into 5 separate parts. This is made even more prominent by the mini-recaps they have at the beginning of some of the books. You can almost hear the, "Previously on...". I do like that the characters do have their own side story adventures a lot and how all the characters (no matter how often they're separated) will eventually meet up again.

The first book is mostly an introduction to the settings and the characters, and is more of an "Arthur in Wonderland" story, as there is little to no plot. Mostly just a series of occurrences that the characters go through. I would almost say that the first 2 books can be read as their own contained stories, independent to the main plot. For me, this did make the 2nd book drag a little. The first as the introduction where we get to know what's in store for the rest of the series, but the 2nd book is also mainly that, just in different parts of the Universe. It's not that it isn't interesting or entertaining, it can just drag a little at times.

There were times where once I'd put the book down, I wasn't dying to pick it back up again. It wasn't that I was never going to, just that I saw no immediate need. This is mostly down to the lack of plot, mainly being a lot of mini-stories that are tied together with a few thin connections, one being the same characters that are doing something in Space. It can read very episodically, which is, of course, what is was written from.

In a way, it can be like watching Doctor Who (Adams actually helped write a few episodes for the old series). You don't necessarily want to watch every episode. Otherwise, it can feel a bit laboured and intense. You can have too much of a good thing. The series is a quirky, fun and enjoyable ride, but there's only so many mini adventures you can read about in one go.

I think another part of this is that nothing really changes in the characters themselves. They don't evolve. Sure, Arthur becomes more used to the galaxy and the things thrown at him (though not entirely), but -like I said earlier- it is mainly the same characters doing the same things in different places.

There are moments where it seems the characters will grow and change (maybe they meet someone or find something significant), but then these things just get written out of the story somehow and the characters go back to square 1. Well, not quite square 1, more like square 1.1. When you look at the characters at the start of the book, they're really not much different from those at the end. It's not that they're not well written (because even secondary or passing characters are very well written), they're all interesting, they just don't really grow.

Going back to episode-like plots, when one book ends there are no cliffhangers that will keep you reading for the plot. On a similar note, there never really feels like there's any threat to the characters in the series. I don't know why this is, you want the characters to survive, but it's almost like you don't care enough about them to find their death tragic or unsettling if it happened. Don't get me wrong, you don't want the characters to die- in fact quite the opposite, but it's almost like you never expect anything fatal to actually happen to them. They get into infinite amounts of dangerous and life-threatening situations, but you never think they won't make it out. My theory is that Adams writes the threats and tragedies in such a way that they're either an annoyance, a way to get from one scene to the next or both. It may also be that every time a threat appears we get a long explanation going off on an amusing tangent, revolving around pointless trivia that somehow connects with the threat (in the form of Guide entries). And in doing so, you almost forget there was a threat at all. It breaks up the flow of the story.

There are some genuinely sad moments in the series though. I'm not sure if I would go as far as to say they were heartbreaking, but they are nothing if not tragic moments in the lives of the characters.

The third book is more of a recap. And I don't mean that in any sense of the word recap. It's more that there's a feeling of backtracking, while going in completely the other direction. This is a very Arthur and Ford heavy book, with Zaphod and Trillian barely in it. As always, there are some new characters and the return of some old characters (even if just as a cameo).

What does change in this book is that it no longer has such an "Arthur in Wonderland" feel. By this point he's pretty used to space and the strange ways in which it works. Obviously he still gets shocked and still has the same personality, but (unlike the first two books) this one has a plot from the get-go, which I personally think is a good change. Yes, the first two books keep you interested with all the crazy, random things thrown at you, but they are predominantly an introduction to the world Douglas Adams has created and the characters that live in it.

There are still some slow-moving aspects to it, but the plot develops, thickens and, of course, resolves itself by the end.

In the fourth book we get some series backtracking, right back to the beginning of it all, going even so far as to use the exact segment from the start of the first book to begin this one. It's not that all that has happened never happened, but more like the particular place Arthur ends up has gone back in time. He's aged, while it hasn't.

Again, this book has an actual plot, with development and conclusion. There are even a few romances thrown in. And the series only continues to get better.

And again, this book is very light on Trillian and Zaphod moments and is mostly Arthur, with a few Ford moments thrown in. However, this works well because it was always Arthur's story. Besides which it would be hard to fit in what was happening to all the other characters and still have a cohesive plot.

The 5th book can be argued to be the last series, but there is another. We'll get back to that later though.
The book is written as though it was the last in the series (which it was) and so we get the finale. The gang reuniting and reach the final end of their story with a lot happening in-between. And I mean a lot. We even get a new main character who plays very well of others in the main cast.

Anyway, the first thing you notice starting the 4th and 5th books is that a fair amount of time has passed in the lives of the characters. The books do usually open a while after the end of the last book and then go back and fill in the gaps later. Mostly Harmless starts out almost 2 decades after the end of the last book. So, obviously, there are a lot of gaps to fill.

The plot can get a little confusing as there are some parallel universes present, but on the whole everything fits together nicely. It can be a little hard to discern if all of the book is set in the future, or just some areas, and there's a lot of parallel universe jumping involved, so it can be hard to figure out if all the characters are even in the same universe. Especially when the plot flits back and forth between both time and dimensions. There are also one or two parallel characters going around, which just adds to the melee.

Throughout this book, there is also a looming sense of impending doom. Slowly, you start to feel all the little things building up in a way that can't end well. Of course, the characters have all been in fatal seeming situations before, but in this book, that nagging sensation that all is not well is at its strongest.

The ending itself is pretty abrupt, but more than that, it's unexpected (at least for me). I won't spoil the ending, but for me personally, I'm torn between thinking it was a good (if ironic) ending to it all and desperately wishing it had ended any other way. There is a very clever full-circle manner to the ending. And you feel the annoyance of that along with the characters. As I said no spoilers, but the ingenuity of the 5th book's ending is amazing. It's so very clever and would be an absolutely mind-blowing ending if it weren't for one factor (that I won't mention). Anyone who has read any of the books in this series will know that Adams is the master of "Butterfly Effect" plot lines and he pulls another for the ending.

There are some questions unanswered (like the famous 42), but they were questions we never expected an answer to. Most loose threads are tied up in the end and in a very brilliant manner. The ending is pretty disheartening though and now we finally get into the 5th or 6th book ending debate.

In 2001 Douglas Adams very sadly passed away. His wife then commissioned Eoin Colfer (author of the Artemis Fowl series- among others) to write a 6th book, published in 2009.

Normally I'm pretty firm in my belief that if the original author didn't write it it doesn't count as part of the original series. Maybe as a spin-off, parody or homage (whichever it may be) at most. But, with this series I almost longed for a different ending and here was Eoin Colfer offering me one. It probably helped that I already knew and loved him, but still I was held back (and still am) from including it as part of the series.

I think you could easily argue either point and it will ultimately just come down to the individual's preferences. When I re-read the series, I do read And Another Thing after. I like the option of choosing between the two endings and continuing Arthur and co's adventures.

Anyway, onto the 6th book itself. We pick up immediately after the ending of the last book (well almost). And those who missed Zaphod in the last few books, you'll be happy to know he's back in this one.

Now one of the major issues with the 6th book is whether Adams meant for any of it to happen. Eoin Colfer has cleverly linked plot points from previous books, but there are a few continuity issues, and can it still be calle "pure" Hitchhiker's Guide?

The writing style has, obviously, also changed. I do miss Adams' ingenious writing style, but I have also always loved Colfer's. And he does try to mimic Adams' style a bit, but more in the manner of an homage than actually trying to replicate it. Which I prefer. There will only ever be one Douglas Adams and it would have been a little insulting almost to try and copy his writing.

The characters themselves also change a little- or more the way they think changes. It's not a huge difference, but it is noticeable. For example, Ford is more optimistic and Arthur is a bit more cynical. Basically, they will say and do things that I don't quite see the original cast doing. And back to consistently, in the previous books we find out that Zaphod was born with his two heads (as were his ancestors/descendants), but in this book he apparently wasn't. Nobody knows when he first got his second head and it was first the head of a woman.

And somethings are not explained. For example, Zaphod has been pretty much absent from the series for a while, so he's missed a lot that has happened. Yet he seems to instantly be up to date with everything that's happened and one particular addition ( for those of you who have read the series, you'll know what I'm talking about- hint RFFD). How does he know?

As to the ending, I felt it was a little rushed (as was the 5th book's), but not too much. Again, I would've liked a different ending, mostly because we almost get a very good (if cliche) ending, that then gets replaced only about 2 pages from the ending and leaves you almost groaning for one of the characters.

I'm aware that I haven't really mentioned the individual plots of each book, or much about them at all, but past the first book all the plots would contain spoilers. Here is the plot of the first book though, for those interested (very late into the review):

One Thursday lunchtime Earth is unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. For Arthur Dent, who has only just had his house demolished that morning, this is already more than he can cope with. Sadly, however, the weekend has only just begun. And the Galaxy is a very, very large and startling place indeed.

So, what do I think of the series? I really love it. It was just not in my Top 10 Books barely. The characters are very likeable and believable. The plots are brilliantly clever and the writing style is enjoyably eclectic. If you haven't read the series I would seriously recommend it. If you do read it, make sure you have a nice cup of tea and a hardy towel nearby.

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