3 out of 5
I sat and contemplated my rating for a bit; am I hating – hating in this context meaning “rating less than perfect” – on a classic book just because it’s fun being all modern day and poo-pooing on your nostalgia? But I don’t think so: I think even past me, who kept this used book store, ’81 MMPB edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on his shelf for multiple decades, would’ve fessed up to an average ranking. Maybe because I remember finding more value in the later books – time will tell, as I reread those – but also, tellingly, because I’m pretty sure I only read this once. A lot of the long-standing books on my shelf got multiple rereads, especially during middle- and high school, but I have no memories of doing that with Hitchhiker’s. Part of that is due to one of its great positives that still holds true: it’s inherently memorable; there’s maybe not a need to reread it because key parts of it just stick, immediately, in mind. This is the reason why ’42’ became a universal “inside” joke. But the other part of that is a debatable plus or minus: despite Adams stuffing every page and chapter with a litany of randomness, it’s not a wholly complicated book. It’s written at a very average reading level, and all of its ideas are pretty clear and on-the-nose; there’s nothing much to be gained from a reread which searches out other meanings ‘neath the surface – it’s a satire about bureaucracy and capitalism and other fun bits, wrapped into sketches that are tied to a sci-fi plot with an admittedly genius setup, and then trailed out for silly effect.
That genius setup finds one Earth-bound offense – the destruction of Arthur Dent’s house to make way for a highway – mirrored by an intergalactic one: the whole planet being destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. Adams wraps around and through this with amazing ease, and the offhand way Dent and his revealed-as-an-alien pal Ford Prefect escape upon a passing-by ship is wonderfully tense and amusing all at once. Thereafter, though, the book meanders in a way telling of its radio-show origins, in which episodic hijinx must’ve been the requisite; the “plot” never quite feels important, despite having several interesting concepts throughout, centering on the Intergalactic President – Zaphod – using a newly built “Improbability Drive” to discover an ancient planet which used to be the location of a factory which made other planets. This is rather background window dressing for skits, though – asides about random whales and depressed robots; when Adams sticks to actually narrating and not constantly segueing away, there’s some good work in there (and perhaps why I recall the later books feeling more immersive, as I imagine / assume story becomes more necessary along the way); but when he is segueing, hilarious as it can be at points, it doesn’t have to be read with much attentiveness, and that ends up being a good majority of the book.
And my whatever-age-I-read-this-at self could tell that as well, so a single readthrough was sufficient to get the gist, file away the references, and leave the book on my shelf. It still very much holds up in that sense (and I’m sure it had the same subconscious impact on me that it had on plenty of others; I can see the shape of jokes I’d tell or put in my own writing in Adams’ templates), as it’s just as amusing now as it was then, but perhaps if one considered it the absolute paragon of inventive sci-fi comedy, it’ll come across as pretty humdrum and somewhat predictable, at a high level, amidst its many imitators hence.