Douglas Adams' sudden death on May 11, 2001 of a heart attack left me, and, coincidentally, several million other fans quite literally numb with shock. Adams, who wrote with unabashed whimsy of the birth and death of entire universes, was simply the last man whom you would expect to leave us, so suddenly, so abruptly, so... anticlimactically. It seemed his wit and energy were close to eternal. With his passing, all of space/time lost a unique and wondrous voice. I never met him or knew him, but I suspect he wouldn't have wanted any of us getting maudlin. Hell, he might even view his own death as the ultimate cosmic joke. So let's remember him with our laughter. That's what he would want, I feel sure of it.
I remember my first discovery of Douglas Adams' megahit SF farce when I was still a boy, as a BBC radio show (still my favorite incarnation of the series). I remember fondly the endless hours playing my tapes over and over again, and being doubled over with hilarity at the exploits of Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent, and manically depressed Marvin the Paranoid Android. Yet even at that tender age, no one was more surprised (or delighted) than I was when The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy subsequently burst upon the world in book and TV show form and become the unlikeliest bestseller phenomenon in memory.
Adams' unique and peculiar sense of humor, rife with gonzo aliens, exploding galaxies, and the infamous Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, might not have found an audience at all had it not had the good fortune to burst upon the world during the hight of Star Wars mania. George Lucas's box-office demolishing opus had not only brought space opera into the mainstream of pop-culture consciousness, but for SF fans, it had brought some much needed light-heartedness into a genre that had been spending the past couple of decades taking itself very seriously indeed in an effort to rid itself of the stigma of juvenile pulp fiction and be regarded as mature literature. Where Lucas, through the lamentations of the all-too-human droid C3P0 (of whom Marvin seems a loving parody) and the Mos Eisley cantina scene, had told SF fans it's perfectly okay to chuckle at this stuff now and again, Adams snatched the reins and propelled us into out-and-out farce. In fact it can be said that Douglas Adams probably made the first successful stab at comedy writing in SF in the last half of the 20th century. Sure, other writers had tried their hand at it, but no one really successfully made people guffaw until Adams came along with his inspired melding of Lucas and Monty Python; the influence of his work today on such popular mirthmakers as Terry Pratchett (as well as the TV show Red Dwarf) is clear.
Given that, it still must be said that there's no point in trying to pretend this is any attempt at high literature, just as it's senseless to make an argument that the Three Stooges created timeless cinema. Hell, just kick up your heels and have a good laugh.
The shenanigans begin when mild-mannered Englishman Arthur Dent awakens one morning to find his house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a new highway bypass. But when his friend Ford Prefect, a struggling actor whom we soon learn is an alien from Betelgeuse, shows up, Arthur finds out that's nothing at all: the entire Earth itself is about to be demolished within minutes to make way for a new hyperspace bypass! Fortunately, Ford is an experienced hitchhiker — he's on Earth to do research for a new edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in fact — and he's able to hitch a lift on one of the ships sent to destroy the Earth (piloted by the loathsome Vogons, creators of the third worst poetry in the universe) before the planet itself is vaporized!
The Vogons discover their unwelcome guests, who were in fact picked up by another alien species serving as ship's cooks, and, after a round of poetry torture, toss them into the void. Yet, quite improbably, they are picked up seconds later by the Heart of Gold, a ship running on the Infinite Improbability Drive, a new engine that makes standard hyperspace travel obsolete by enabling a ship to be at all points in the universe at once, as long as you are able to calculate the exact improbability of that feat at any given instant. The Heart of Gold is piloted by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed erstwhile President of the Galaxy, and his human companion Trillian, a girl whom Arthur once unsuccessfully tried to pick up at a party in London. Zaphod has in fact stolen the ship when he was supposed to be christening it, for reasons even he is unsure of, though he senses that deep within his two brains are areas that have been locked away that he cannot access, which must hold those reasons. On top this, there is the ultimate problem of the answer to the Great Question: the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything; the answer is known (and you're not going to like it!), but no one really knows the question. This bit of silliness dovetails into a wild explanation of the nature of the Earth itself, who was really running things there, and what part Arthur might play in it all.
It's all a big ol' pile of delirious fun, though as I mentioned before, I personally prefer the radio show incarnation. (Thankfully I managed to download it from Napster before they were scuttled by the courts.) The books change around a few plot points from the radio show, but still provide much engaging silliness for readers whose tastes permit that sort of thing. Ironically, I recently watched the TV series again and found that, for the most part, I thought it fell flat. Though it used the same cast as the radio show, translating the whole of Adams' wacky creation from books and radio (where the audience's imagination must be called into service to bring it all to life), to the more concrete medium of television, worked to the story's disadvantage overall, if only because of the bargain basement, Doctor Who-level production values that the BBC's miniscule budget allowed. A big-budget Hollywood adaptation was rumored for more than twenty years, and finally saw the light of day in 2005.
If you're one of the three or four people out there who have not yet read these books, stick out your thumb, pick up The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and have a fun trip. And if you're a long time fan, read them again...and remember Doug.