The Pequod Review:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an ingeniously silly sci-fi satire that takes aim at politics, bureaucracy, literature, and the science fiction genre itself. The story begins with Arthur Dent, a thirtyish everyman, whose modest home is about to be demolished by a bulldozer when his friend Ford Prefect stops by (“Look, are you busy?”). It turns out Ford is not the struggling actor he claims; he is a field researcher from another planet who has been sent to Earth to update The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a guidebook used for traveling around space. Ford rescues Arthur from the impending destruction of Earth, and the rest of the novel traces their journey across time and space.
The plot of The Hitchhiker’s Guide is nearly irrelevant, as Douglas Adams uses the intergalactic journey primarily as a launching pad for various Monty Python-style jokes and set pieces. His narrative has a manic energy throughout, as it reveals one surreal detail after another — flying whales, a depressed robot, a planet that sells other planets, and a supercomputer that knows the meaning of life. Here he describes the overlooked intelligence of dolphins and mice:
It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.
Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending destruction of the planet Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger; but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits, so they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means shortly before the Vogons arrived.
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backward somersault through a hoop while whistling the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.
In fact there was only one species on the planet more intelligent than dolphins, and they spent a lot of their time in behavioral research laboratories running round inside wheels and conducting frighteningly elegant and subtle experiments on man. The fact that once again man completely misinterpreted this relationship was entirely according to these creatures’ plans.
Adams also pokes friendly fun at science fiction tropes. As in other works in the genre, Earth is destroyed — but this time not because of an alien invasion but in order to make way for an intergalactic highway. And the book features a group of threatening aliens (the Vogons), however they are feared not for their physical strength but for their awful poetry. The Hitchhiker’s Guide does for science fiction what the film Airplane! did for disaster movies.
All in all, the book is just great fun from start to finish. It may not add up to much, but the jokes keep coming fast and furiously, and its enormous cultural influence (“Don’t Panic,” etc.) proves to be well-earned.