Life, the Universe, and Everything: Still funny, but losing coherence

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Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams science fiction book reviewsLife, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

I loved THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY series when I read it back in 5th grade. It was one of the first science fiction series I read, shortly after THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN. I was just forming my taste in fantastic fiction, and this was the first series I read that was truly funny, featuring dry, ironic British humor no less. It was completely new to a kid growing up in sunny Hawaii, pretty much as far from rainy, overcast England as you can get. In many cases I knew it was clever dialogue, but had no idea what Adams meant.

Listening to the audiobook read by Martin Freeman more than 20 years later, working with several very British co-workers who love to debate about the Tory & Labor parties, cricket (especially The Ashes), how rubbish Man U is this year, and whether Diego Costa is on form or not, I think I can finally understand what is going on in Life, the Universe, and Everything. After all, a vast chunk of the ostensible plot (a slippery concept where Douglas Adams is concerned) revolves around the white robot army of the planet Krikkit to steal The Ashes from Lord’s Cricket Ground in order to collect the needed components to form the Wikkit Gate and free their planet from the Slo-Mo Envelope. They are armed with incredibly powerful bats that deliver different lethal payloads depending on how they are struck. Seriously, there was no chance that a 5th grader from Hawaii could have understood any of these references, however obvious they would be to a British reader. Even after dozens of attempts by my co-workers to explain the arcane sport of cricket to me, and having seen some matches in New Zealand during last year’s Cricket World Cup, I still have to throw up my hands in defeat. In my opinion, cricket is an even longer, more profoundly dull version of baseball, though its fans are equally fanatic about it.

Since the central plot of Life, the Universe, and Everything revolves around cricket as one gigantic in-joke, if that falls flat, then so does the story. Adams still delivers a steady stream of outlandish, nonsensical twists and turns to keep our favorite characters chasing through time and space to foil a dastardly plot to destroy the universe, and also visit prehistoric Earth to make further comments on how the human race really came about, not to mention some further enlightenment on the question of “What is life, the universe, and everything?” to which the answer from book 1 was, “42.” The humorous one-liners remain clever, and the weird aliens continue to be weird, but the whole formula seems to be running out of narrative steam and revisiting old jokes a bit too much. It’s clear that Adams was getting a bit tired mining the same territory for laughs, and I discovered that the cricket part of the story was adapted from a much earlier story draft called “Dr. Who and the Krikkitmen,” which was rejected by the BBC. So the lack of organic cohesion becomes obvious.

Overall, the humor and comments on the vastness of the universe and the hopelessness of mere humans to understand even a small part of it have been fully covered in the first two books, and we are now retreading familiar ground. Even my favorite character, Marvin the Paranoid Robot, doesn’t have quite as many moments to drown in glorious self-misery. Imagine the funniest Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, or Black Adder episode, and then stretch it into a 3-part mini-series. Not so funny anymore, right? Nonetheless, if you are a fan of the previous two books, and you understand cricket, you will probably still enjoy this. I leave you with a Marvin quote:

My capacity for happiness,“ Marvin added, “you could fit into a matchbox without taking out the matches first.

Publisher: The unhappy inhabitants of planet Krikkit are sick of looking at the night sky above their heads, so they plan to destroy it. The universe, that is. Now only five individuals stand between the white killer robots of Krikkit and their goal of total annihilation. They are Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered space and time traveler, who tries to learn how to fly by throwing himself at the ground and missing; Ford Prefect, his best friend, who decides to go insane to see if he likes it; Slartibartfast, the indomitable vice president of the Campaign for Real Time, who travels in a ship powered by irrational behavior; Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed ex-head honcho of the Universe; and Trillian, the sexy space cadet who is torn between a persistent Thunder God and a very depressed Beeblebrox. How will it all end? Will it end? Only this stalwart crew knows as they try to avert “universal” Armageddon and save life as we know it, and don’t know it!

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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4 comments

  1. Yes. Exactly. I loved the first book, but I think this is the one where I stopped. I never read any further than that because the series just felt like it was falling apart. Amusing, but no longer compelling.

  2. The series definitely declined in quality from the first book onward, which is a shame. Adams had a lot of neat ideas, but seemed to focus more on zany antics instead of coherent plots.

  3. I suspect Adams felt trapped (compelled by fans/publishers) into staying in the Hitchhiker’s universe longer than he wanted. I’ve never read the Dirk Gentry series, was that any good?

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