Mostly Harmless

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

I rarely go back and re-read books. There are just too many books in this world I haven’t read yet to spend time re-reading the ones that I have. Having said that, there are a few I make an exception for.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide tot he Galaxy is one of those books. (The fact that it clocks in under 200 pages doesn’t hurt either)

There are those books in my life that have touched me as a great work of art might make an imprint on you the first time seeing it in all its glory hanging on a gallery wall and you just can’t shake the image that it leaves you with. Or there are those books that you read at a critical stage in your life where they just connected with you at that moment and it becomes part of you. And of course there are those stories that are so beautifully woven that you can spend hours (and maybe this is the writer talking) admiring the craftsmanship and editing that went into pulling it off.

For me Hitchhiker’s has a bit off all of that going for it.

Before I get ahead of myself, perhaps a bit of an overview for those of you who might not be familiar with the author Douglas Adams or his great works of art that is the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy*

In a nutshell Douglas Adams cut his teeth writing sketch comedy and radio plays in the UK in the 1970s and came up with the idea for the story while he lay drunk in a field starring up at the night sky while in Austria. He was reportedly carrying a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, and he had the epiphany that somebody should write a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. He ended up pitching the idea to the BBC as a radio series that debuted in 1978 and second series ran in 1980. During which time the story had been turned into a book and then developed as a mini-series that aired on TV in 1981. It would eventually get the Hollywood treatment in 2005. I first discovered it via the BBC mini-series when it aired on PBS in North America in the early to mid-1980s.

The story involves a hapless 30-something Arthur Dent, who discovers that his friend Ford Prefect is an alien stranded on earth doing freelance work for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ford reveals his true identity to Arthur moments before Arthur’s home is demolished by the town council to make way for an express way, which – coincidentally -is also what the Vogons are about to do to Earth. Ford rescues Arthur and thus they begin their adventures as stowaways on the Vogon ships sent to vaporize earth.

Adams keen sense of humour and biting satire is something to behold. It’s also one of the reasons it’s probably quoted and revered by geeks the world round. I could probably write a graduate thesis on the comedic brilliance of this novel and I’m sure more than one person already has. I most recently re-read the novel this past spring (It took me more than a month because I was SAVOURING IT, not because I’m a slow reader.)

It’s nearly impossible to single out any one line or verbal exchange to sell someone unfamiliar with Adams’ work to sell them on the novel, but Arthur’s reaction to learning what the Hitchhikers’ Guide had to say about Earth is priceless.

Aboard the Vogon ship, not long after the Earth has been vaporized, Arthur has a bit of an existential crisis as he realizes all that he knows is gone and that he is the only known survivor of an entire planet. Arthur demands that Ford show him the entry in the guide on Earth and what it has to say.

‘It doesn’t have an entry!’ He burst out.

Ford looked over his shoulder.

‘Yes it does,’ he said, ‘Down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just under Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple breasted whore of Eroticon Six.’

Arthur followed Ford’s finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it didn’t register, then his mind nearly blew up.

‘What? Harmless! Is that all it’s got to say? Harmless! One word!’

Ford shrugged.

‘Well there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy and only a limited amount of space in the books’ microprocessors,’ he said, ‘and no one knew much about the Earth, of course.’

‘Well for God’s sake, I hope you managed to rectify that a bit.’

‘Oh yes, I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but i’ts still an improvement.’

‘And what does it say now?’ asked Arthur.

Mostly harmless,’ admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.

Mostly harmless,‘ shouted Arthur

Adams level of absurd humour and comedic timing are impeccable, not to mention his turn of phrase. Adams, during his lifetime** was a notoriously slow writer and had to be locked in hotel rooms by his editor to get him to finish works and as a result we have only a handful of written novels to appreciate his talent.

One of the lines I rediscovered from the novel during my re-read this year was toward the end of the novel when Arthur is learning about the original purpose of Earth from an alien named Slartibartfast.

He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the ribcage of a  stegosaurus.

Of course most writers would have been content to leave this bit of imagery and move on, but Adams follows it up with a one-two comedic punch. Here’s the whole passage.

He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the ribcage of a stegosaurus.
 
‘It was made out of the ribcage of a stegosaurus’, explained the old man as he pottered about fishing bits of wire out from under tottering piles of paper and drawing instruments.

I’d be curious to know what novels other people re-read and what they rediscover when they read them.

Do you have perennial favourites that you keep returning to for a fix? Share in the comments.

*The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy actually consists of five books.
**Douglas Adams sadly passed away in 2001 at the age of 49 from a heart attack.

S is for Satire and Sarcasm

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Satire (n) –1) the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc. 2) a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn derision or ridicule.

At an early age, long before I could tie my shoes or count to a hundred, I was exposed to sarcasm. I knew the power or a well-timed verbal barb courtesy of my mother. People often say that they don’t suffer fools gladly; well my mom is definitely one of those people. If you’re being foolish or asking a foolish question she’s going to tell you to your face EXACTLY why it’s foolish. More times than not it was directed at people that crossed my mother, but even her own family was not off limits. It may sound like a form of child-abuse to some, but to me it was training at the feet of a master. Like the oratory power of a silver-tongued politician, my mother’s wit and sarcasm is a gift and to see it in action is awe inspiring. Even if I didn’t fathom the nuances of her verbal prowess at that early age, I soon grew to appreciate it and respect it.

Having such a good teacher, I was forced to develop some self-discipline when it came to my own sarcastic tongue for fear of alienating friends, enraging teachers, and later in life co-workers and bosses. I learned that just because you have the ammunition, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

With such a pedigree it’s little wonder that I came to love satire and sarcasm in popular culture. Comedians like George Carlin, Lewis Black, Al Franken, Bill Maher, Steven Wright, Bill Murray, Monty Python, Mary Walsh, Ricky Gervais, Rick Mercer, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Artists like Gary Larson (Farside), Matt Groening (Life in Hell, The Simpsons, Futurama), Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury), Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), and Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County). Authors, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Coupland. Movies like Mike Judge’s Office Space and Idiocracy, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, any Monty Python movie, any Mel Brooks’ film, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the list goes on and on.

Looking over that list I suppose I tend towards political satire or at least satire that challenges authority and social norms. I guess its little wonder that my favourite Looney Tunes characters include Bug Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Foghorn Leghorn. A more sarcastic, anti-establishment, bunch I can’t imagine.

I’ve been trying to develop my own satirical voice in my writing, but with all things as subjective as humour it’s difficult to tell if you’re hitting the mark or making jokes and references that only you appreciate. I guess it will have to wait until my writing group, and hopefully the public in general, passes judgment before I know if the legacy of my mother’s wit and sarcasm has been passed to my writing ability.

Right now I have an urge to go watch some of those fantastic movies I mentioned.

Who are some of your favorite satirists?