“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a comedic novel written by Douglas Adams and published in 1979. The novel’s witty, dry take on a space opera was an immediate hit with readers. It was adapted from a radio serial in 1978 and adapted into many other formats including the novel series (which includes 5 books and a short story), a 1981 TV series, stage shows, comic books, a computer game and, most recently a feature film.
The novels are the most recognizable and most widely distributed of all of the adaptations, although many of the adaptations change the ending of the first novel to be more upbeat.
The novel itself tells the story of Arthur Dent, a normal English man who becomes the last survivor of Earth after it is destroyed to make way for an inter-space highway.
Arthur’s friend, Ford reveals himself to be an alien on the day of the Earth’s destruction and saves Arthur by hitchhiking on a spaceship. Arthur and Ford eventually meet up with the zany, insane President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox and fellow human Trillian to seek out the answer to life’s greatest question on a planet ruled by mice.
A house is introduced. It’s owned by Arthur Dent, a normal man who lives in England and is enjoying his morning breakfast. Arthur thinks about how the local government wants to bulldoze his house because it is in the way of a planned highway that they want to build. Just as he is sitting down to eat he hears a loud rumble outside and realizes that a line of bulldozers has pulled up outside of his house. Furious, Arthur goes outside and lays down in front of one of the bulldozers in a peaceful protest. The man in charge of the bulldozers argues with him and asks that he get up. Arthur refuses. He complains that the local planning office made it almost impossible for him to find out what they planned to do to his house and that he had no time to protest it.
Arthur’s friend, Ford shows up. The book gives us a description of Ford, who Arthur knows is an odd person, but a good friend. In fact, Ford is an alien living on earth to research “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Ford seems uninterested in the destruction of Arthur’s house and tries to get him to come with him to the pub to talk about something. Arthur refuses to move so Ford convinces the man in charge of the bulldozers to lay down in front of them so that Arthur can leave. Arthur wonders if he can trust the man and Ford tell him that since the Earth is going to end in 12 minutes, they can trust him to lay there that long.
Chapter two starts with a description on the part of the narrator between the difference between the Encyclopedia Galactica and the Hitchhiker’s Guide. The narrator tells us that the Hitchhiker’s Guide gives the recipe for the best alcoholic drink ever invented: The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. Having a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like: “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”.
In the pub, Ford orders a large amount of beer and tells Arthur to do the same, as they will need a “muscle relaxant”. Ford tells Arthur that he is an alien from Betelgeuse and that the world is about to end. Alien ships are surrounding the Earth. Ford has a device that tells him when any type of ship approaches Earth. The narrator then tells us that Ford feels that it is important to have a towel. A towel is the most useful object in the galaxy as it can be used for many different reasons. One of the key tenants of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is to always have your towel.
Ford and Arthur return to his house to find that it has been destroyed. As he is yelling at the construction workers, the alien ships swoop down overhead and everyone runs away except for Arthur and Ford. One of the ships gets on a loudspeaker and announces to the entire Earth that the planet has to be destroyed to make way for a “hyperspace express route”. He explains that the humans should have known this was coming, as the plans have been on display in the galaxy’s office for a while. After he is done speaking, the ships destroy Earth.
On the other side of the galaxy, the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, a silly, comically stupid man, is supposed to be dedicating a new, highly technological space ship called the Heart of Gold. Instead of dedicating it, however, he decides to steal it. Zaphod has also split his brain into two and had another head surgically installed on his shoulders for unexplained reasons.
Back on the alien ship, Ford and Arthur have hitched a ride. Ford recognizes the ship as belonging to a race called the Vogons who are horrible, stubborn creatures. They are mostly the bureaucrats of the galaxy, handling the paperwork of galaxy planning. The leader of the fleet is called Protetnic Vogon Jeltz. The Vogon’s hate hitchhikers but their cooks, a race called the Dentrassi, picked up Ford and Arthur in order to annoy their masters.
Arthur is shell-shocked. He just saw his planet explode and is now aboard and alien ship. Ford offers him some peanuts to calm him. Ford gives him the “Hitchhikers Guide” to read so that he won’t have to explain everything to him. “The Guide” is an electronic book, which you use by speaking what you want to read into it. It will then load a passage on the subject. The Guide tells Arthur that the Vogons are horrible creatures and that you should: “On no account allow a Vogon to read poetry at you”. Ford tells Arthur that he must put a small, yellow fish in his ear. This is a Babblefish, a little alien fish that feeds on brain energy and converts languages so that they can be universally understood. This, of course, means that Arthur can now understand the Vogon’s speech. Jeltz is told that there are hitchhikers on board and requests that they are brought to him.
In the beginning of the next chapter, the narrator tells us that Vogon poetry is the third worst in the galaxy. The second worst, that of the people of the planet Azagoth, can cause internal bleeding. The worst poetry ever was written by Paul and Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England but was destroyed with the Earth. Jeltz brings Arthur and Ford into a large room and begins reading his poetry to them. After he is done, Jeltz gives them the choice of either being thrown out of the airlock or telling him if his poetry was good. Arthur tries to say that it was good but Jeltz doesn’t believe him. He orders them thrown off of the ship.
The narrator tries to explain to us how “mind-bogglingly” big space is and how astronomical the chances of getting picked up by another ship are when you are floating in the void of space with only 30 seconds of oxygen. The narrator says that the odds are 2 to the power of 267, 791 to 1. Which, by coincidence is the number of an Islington flat in London where Arthur once met a pretty girl at a party. A ship happens to show up and Arthur and Ford are saved before they suffocate.
The ship that saves them is the Heart of Gold, the ship that Zaphod stole. Inside the ship, Arthur and Ford only see what looks like Southend, which is a popular vacation destination in England. Then things begin to look even odder. The sea in their room stays still, while the buildings move up and down. Ford turns into a penguin. A voice over the loudspeaker welcomes them to the Heart of Gold and gives some probability measurements for their rescue. Ford realizes that they are on a ship with an Infinite Improbability Drive. The Narrator tells us that this is a type of engine that was invented to traverse the impossible distances in space by cycling through every probability in existence before reaching the one it wants, i.e. traveling to another location. Its travel is instant, but it causes the people on the ship to cycle through every possible form in existence before it lands.
Zaphod is in the control room of the ship with a woman named Trillian. Zaphod is unhappy that she has picked up hitchhikers but Trillian informs him that the ship picked the hitchhikers up by itself.
They two decides to send the ships robot, Marvin down to fetch the newcomers. Marvin is a sad, depressive robot who doesn’t want to do anything.
Ford tries to tell Arthur about the ship and says that it is also outfitted with a thing called Genuine People Personalities. This means that the parts of the ship that work for you, like the automatic doors, also speak and tell you how happy they are to be opening for you, etc. Marvin fetches Ford and Arthur, while bringing them up to the control center he tells them that the ship was stolen by Zaphod.
Up in the control center, Trillian notes how strange it is that they picked up hitchhikers in sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha because that is where she was from. Zaphod tells her he doesn’t remember how he got there but she doesn’t believe him. The ships computer, Eddie, is a very friendly and enthusiastic voice. Zaphod hates him. Marvin leads Ford and Arthur into the room and Arthur realizes that he knows Zaphod. He says that he was once at a party in Islington when he met a great girl and was trying to speak to her but Zaphod, having crashed the party, kept interrupting. Zaphod told the girl that she should come with him because he was an alien. She agreed and left. Trillian comes into the room and it is revealed that she was the woman in the story. On Earth, Trillian was known as Tricia McMillian, but she changed her name to Trillian when she left Earth.
In the next chapter, Ford and Arthur are given quarters and everyone tries to sleep. Trillian can’t sleep and watches her pet white mice. She wakes Zaphod and tells him that they’ve reached their destination. Zaphod is ecstatic. We are told by the narrator that the planet that has reached is called Magrathea and it is a legendary planet that no one realizes is real anymore. But back in its time, Magreatha was a planet that made other, custom planets for the very rich. However, they soon made so much money that no one could afford their services. A galactic economic crisis occurred and Magreatha disappeared.
On the ship, Arthur wakes to hear Zaphod and Ford arguing. Zaphod believes that the planet they have reached is Magreathea and Ford argues that it can’t be. They continue to argue until Arthur mentions that the suspense is killing him. The narrator notes that stress can, actually kill you so he wants to get some things clear right off the bat. The planet is, indeed Magretha. He also notes that two missiles are about to be launched at the ship but that no one will get hurt, although Trillian’s mouse cage will be broken. A recorded message from the planet begins to play to tell the ship that the planet is closed at the moment and to thank them for their interest. Zaphod ignores this and tries to bring the ship down. The recording pleasantly tells them that two nuclear missiles are being launched at the ship. The ship cannot take any evasive actions to move out of the way and Eddie just starts singing. Thinking fast, Arthur turns on the Improbability Drive. However, instead of moving them through space, the drive only changed the things around them. So the missiles became a pot of petunias and a sperm whale.
The narrator takes us through the thoughts of the sperm whale as it rushes toward the ground. All it says about the petunias is that it thought: “Oh no, not again”. He tells us that if we knew why the petunias thought this it would solve all of the problems in the world. The crew of the Heart of Gold, including Marvin, decide to explore the surface of the planet. Trillian realizes that her pet mice have escaped and becomes upset. The narrator tells us that no one else is upset because no one realizes that humans were only the third most intelligent species on the planet after dolphins and mice.
Eddie’s enthusiastic personality has been changed, by Zaphod to a mothering personality. However, this personality is smothering and warns the crew not to go out on the planet’s surface because they could catch a cold. Zaphod threatens the ship with an ax and it finally lets them out. Magrathea is destroyed, but the group finds a tunnel that leads under the surface. Zaphod tells them that everyone lived underground in Magrathea because: “no one liked the surface very much”.
Zaphod tells Arthur and Marvin to guard the entrance while he and Trillian explore the tunnel. Ford asks Zaphod how he found the planet. Zaphod explains that things tend to work out for him when he doesn’t think about why they’re working out. But that he did get to thinking about it the night before and realized that there was a part of his brain that was sealed off and that someone had left their initials there. The initials were Z.B. Before he can explain further, a toxic gas sweeps through the tunnel and knocks them out.
Meanwhile, up on the surface, Arthur reads through the Hitchhiker’s Guide so pass the time. He reads about a young genius who went out drinking with Zaphod and became obsessed with the question of where missing ballpoint pens go when they disappear. He came up with a theory that they disappear to a certain planet but no one believes him. He also says that he lived and worked there for a while. Still, no one believes him. But the Guide notes that it is odd that Zaphod has a used ballpoint pen business.
Arthur gives up on reading and tries to talk to Marvin who only has sad things to say. At this, Arthur decides to go on a walk and comes across and old man. The old man assures Arthur that he means him no harm. Arthur points out that missiles almost killed them when they landed and the old man says that the computer just does that without instruction sometimes because it is bored. The old man tells Arthur that the Magratheans are only sleeping until the economy revives and that once it does they will begin making custom planets again. He tells him that he must come with him or he will be late. Arthur asks what he will be late for and the old man clarifies that by ‘late’ he means ‘dead’. Arthur agrees to go with him and the two get into his air car. The old man tells Arthur that his name is Slartibartfast.
The narrator comes in again to tell us that, though the humans thought they were the most intelligent species on Earth, they weren’t. The humans thought they were smart because they could build stuff like cities and guns. But the dolphins were actually the second smartest species on Earth, over the humans. The dolphins knew about the destruction of Earth before everyone else and left before the Vogons arrived. The dolphins tried to warn the humans with the message, “So long and thanks for all the fish”. But the humans didn’t understand them. The narrator notes that there was one species who was even smarter than both the dolphins and the humans on Earth and that this species spent their time running on plastic wheels in laboratories.
Slartibartfast takes Arthur to the ‘factory floor’ where the people of Magrathea build planets. At that moment they are building a new Earth. He tells Arthur that they made the first Earth and that he won an award for building the fjords of Norway. He also says that the mice paid for Earth because they are hyper-intelligent pan dimensional beings that only look like mice in our dimension. They created Earth as a giant computer to work out a specific problem. Arthur is very confused by this so Slartibartfast explains.
Millions of years ago, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings decided that they wanted to find out the meaning of life. They built a computer named Deep Thought to solve to problem. Deep Thought told them that it needed 7.5 million years to work out the answer. Seven million years later, the immortal builders of the computer returned to hear the answer. A huge audience has gathered to listen. Deep Thought tells the builders that they won’t like the answer but they insist on hearing it anyway. It announces that the answer is 42.
The builders are unhappy with the answer. Deep Thought explains that they didn’t really give it a question. They have to find the question to find the answer. Deep Thought says that it will build another computer the size of a planet and it will be so intricate that it will have an organic life as part of its hardware. Deep Thought says it will take 10 million years to answer the question. It named the planet Earth and the builders say it’s a dull name. Deep Thought says that’s the point.
Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian awake to find themselves on a solid gold planet. Ford explains that they’re not really on such a planet, but they are inside the virtual reality catalog that Magrathea uses to show off the planets it can build. The three decide to ignore the planets passing by and talk more about Zaphod’s brain. He tells them that he discovered that he sealed off part of his brain so that he wouldn’t remember something. But he doesn’t know what. He does, however, know that it has to do with the previous President of the Galaxy, a man named Yooden Vranx. Right before he died, Vranx visited Zaphod to tell him to steal the Heart of Gold. But Zaphod had to hide his reasons for stealing it so that they would not show up on brain scans when he was elected. This is why Zaphod blocked off his brain. Just as he is explaining this, the catalog ends and a voice announces that the mice will see them now.
Back on the surface, Slartibartfast tells Arthur that Earth was a giant computer and the life on it was part of the program. It was only five minutes away from giving the answer before the Vogons destroyed it. So the Magratheans decided to rebuild it. He tells Arthur that he is going to take him to meet the mice. He brings Arthur to a room where Trillian, Zaphod and Ford are already present. They are eating a large meal. Arthur’s friends introduce him to their hosts, two white mice. These are Trillian’s pet mice and their names are Benjy and Frankie. The mice tell Slartibartfast that they have decided that they won’t need a new Earth after all. They tell Arthur that since he was on Earth right before it exploded his brain may hold the question they are looking for. They tell him they want to buy his brain, chop it up and find the question. Arthur refuses, not wanting to have his brain chopped up and the mice order him to be restrained. But before they can do anything else alarms begin blaring all over the planet. Fed up, the mice decide to just make up a question that they can use on talk shows and book deals. They decide on “How many roads must a man walk down?” to pair with the answer 42.
Arthur and his friends try to escape and figure out why the alarms are going off. The galactic police have arrived to arrest Zaphod for stealing the Heart of Gold. The police start shooting at the group and they hide behind a large computer. The computer begins to melt. The policemen stop firing and Ford goes over to see why. They are now dead, their life support systems non-functioning. Ford notes that this is odd but the crew escapes to the ship via Slartibartfast’s air car which he has left for them. The policemen’s ship is nearby. Marvin explains that he was talking about the ship and it committed suicide which is why the life support failed for the police.
Back on the ship, Arthur reads through “the Guide” a bit. The narrator tells us that every civilization goes through three stages: Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication. The example inside is based on eating. Survival: How can we eat? Inquiry: Why do we eat? And Sophistication: Where shall we have lunch? Zaphod announces that they will grab something to eat at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the book ends.
Arthur Dent – the main character of the novel. An ordinary, English man who is taken from his boring life and thrust into the world full of aliens and spaceships. Because the book is a comedy, Arthur only has semi-realistic reactions to discovering the presence of aliens in our galaxy. He spends most of the book confused and asking questions that provide explanations for the reader. Arthur, in his normalness, is the audience’s touch point into an otherwise utterly illogical, alien book.
Arthur is an average, quiet man who only wishes to sit in his house with a cup of tea but is prevented from doing that by circumstances beyond his control. He is taken on an adventure that most of us view as fun, but he views as annoying and exhausting.
Arthur is not an adventurous character as most sci-fi heroes are. In fact, he is not even truly a hero as he never really does anything heroic throughout the novel. This possibly makes him one of the most relate-able literary characters of all time.
Ford Prefect – Arthur’s best friend and an alien from Betelgeuse. Ford has been hiding on Earth, pretending to be human for many years at the beginning of the book. Although he is clearly prepared for the destruction as he has a device that warns him of alien presences outside the planet.
Ford is a researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book within the book that explains all of the quirks and stories of the galaxy. It is implied that the book works sort of a like a travel magazine, which sends its writers out to research by living with the locals and adopting the customs of the planets they are inhabiting.
Ford is an upbeat, optimistic man who worried rarely but isn’t afraid to stand up and argue with Zaphod over a mission that he thinks will get them all killed. Ford appears to like Arthur enough to save him when he discovers that the planet is going to explode. Although it is never brought up whether he saved him because he liked him or because he felt he needed him as, in general, Ford is fairly self-serving and rescuing someone with no benefits to himself is out of character for him. At the end of the book when Arthur is almost killed by the mice, Ford does little to help him.
Zaphod Beeblebrox – the president of the galaxy who kidnaps himself and steals an important ship during its grand opening. Zaphod is a classic idiot savant character. He appears to be very silly and dumb. It is questioned many times how he managed to become President of the Galaxy. But, in reality, he is a genius who merely acts like he knows nothing to throw off suspicion. Trillian suspects this.
Zaphod requested a surgery to split his brain up into two heads so that he would be able to pass the test to become president without revealing his plan to steal the Heart of Gold and travel to Magreathea. It is never really revealed why Zaphod wishes to go to Magreathea, although it is hinted that he does remember Earth and perhaps has an affection for it. Either way, he does not seem terribly upset when it is revealed that the new Earth will not be built after all.
Trillian (Tricia McMillian) – the main female character of the story. Trillian is an astrophysicist and mathematician who leaves Earth suddenly with Zaphod because she longs to travel somewhere other than England and seek out adventure. In this way, she is the polar opposite of Arthur. However, Trillian’s character is not fleshed out much beyond this. We know that Zaphod asked her to come with him so that she could pilot the ship but their relationship is not further explored in this book. She seems to like him well enough but consider him an idiot for the most part. However, she does realize that he knows more than he lets on.
It is also not revealed where the relationship between Trillian and Arthur stands. We are told that they met on Earth briefly and flirted, but not that they are still interested in each other. Although Arthur does think of her as beautiful and brilliant.
However, Trillian’s character is better explored in later books in the series.
Marvin – the robot that comes with the Heart of Gold spaceship. Marvin is a terribly depressed, suicidal robot who is capable of talking to other machinery although he can only make it as depressed as him. Marvin saves the day in the end when he makes the police ship kill itself as a result of talking to him.
Douglas Adams Biography
Douglas Noel Adams was born in Cambridge, England in March of 1952. His family moved to London shortly after his birth and when his parents divorced a few years later he and his mother and sister moved to an animal shelter that his grandparents ran in Essex. Adams grew very quickly. By the age of 12, he was 6 feet tall and would later reach 6’5. He excelled in writing classes at his private school and began being published in his school’s newspaper at the age of 10.
He became a member of the ‘Footlights’ an invitation-only comedy club at his school and in 1974 he graduated with a BA in English Literature. Adams moved back to London after graduating as he was set on making it as a TV writer. He eventually was discovered by famous Monty Python comedian Graham Chapman and the two had a short writing partnership. Adams appeared in the fourth season of the show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. However, after this ended Adams career briefly stalled. He worked a series of odd jobs until he managed to sell a few radio broadcasts and eventually became the script editor for the famous British Sci-fi show Doctor Who.
In 1977, Adams pitched the idea of “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” to his radio producers. He later said that he came up with the idea while drunk and laying in a field in Austria. He had with him a copy of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe” and wondered why no one had ever written a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy”. The novel was produced following the success of the radio broadcast in 1979 and Adams produced 5 more novels in the series in rapid succession.
In 1980, Adams began talks to turn the series into a movie and the next year managed to turn it into a hit BBC TV series. In 1994, Adams and his then wife Jane Belson had a daughter, Polly Adams and the family moved to Santa Barbara, California.
Adams wrote another series, ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ during the 1980s and published several other books during that time period.
In May of 2001, Adams died of a heart attack at a gym in California. His funeral was held in California and his remains were returned to Highgate Cemetery in London. After this, his wife and daughter moved back to London. Adams legacy continues to live on and a movie of ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ was made in 2005 and was well received by fans of the books.