A man wakes up in the morning with the nagging feeling that something is wrong. That very day, Earth is destroyed by an interstellar conspiracy. The man only barely escapes with the help of an alien living undercover among and studying humanity. Once they flee aboard a stolen state-of-the-art spaceship, they find themselves at the center of a massive scheme spanning aeons.
That sounds like a short summary of an action-heavy, generic piece of genre fiction. Although perhaps an interesting read if the mechanics of its universe were good, there’s nothing particularly innovative about that plot summary. But yet, the book being described, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is one of the most beloved science fiction stories ever written.
The reason why is pretty simple: the style. Douglas Adams, the book’s writer, wrote the books with a distinctive flourish that includes throwaway jokes that are then followed up on as plot points (or maybe not), abrupt changes in direction in mood and tone, and an overall air of self-indulgent absurdity. Adams’s prose knows that it doesn’t need to make sense, and seems to revel in that fact, producing such wonders as white mice doing experiments on human beings and a spaceship that runs on improbability. The choice Adams made to play science fiction against comedy gives him the ability to write a more surprising, dynamic, and engaging story by ignoring many of the conventions of conservation of detail and plot structure.
One of the things Adams does that could be considered rather unusual for genre fiction is make very heavy use of humorous asides. The tangents Adams goes on throughout the story are very powerful world building tools, and they allow The Hitchhiker’s Guide to give its readers background exposition in ways that would never be acceptable in a work with a more serious tone. For example, one of the most well-known is a set of paragraphs near the beginning explaining exactly why “A towel, [the namesake Hitchhiker’s Guide] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”
The entire tangent, which takes up about a page, is one of the parts of the book that is the most culturally entrenched. The hitchhiking slang is often the go-to reference people make when the book comes up in popular conversation. The fact that the main cultural sticking-point of the book (or at least the one people allude to most often) is not even from a section relevant to the plot suggests that the asides resonate very well with readers of the book in a way that demonstrates that those asides are engaging.
Another trademark technique of The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s style of writing is non sequitur. Adams often uses the fact that his story is set in a science-fiction universe to explain plot points in a manner previously completely unalluded to. Of course, Adams uses sensical explanations as well, and often takes both types of explanation to their logical conclusion. As an example, take the sequence describing the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. After about four chapters of buildup, the computer solving the problem finally gives an answer:
”All right,” said Deep Thought. ”The Answer to the Great Question . . . ”
”Yes . . . !”
”Of Life, the Universe and Everything . . . ” said Deep Thought.
”Yes . . . !”
”Is . . . ” said Deep Thought, and paused.
”Yes . . . !”
”Is . . . ”
”Yes . . . !!!. . . ?”
”Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
This quote shows an example of how exactly Adams uses non sequiturs: He uses them to intentionally demonstrate the absurdity of the universe. Of course, the fact that they give him more options and let him carry on the story longer can’t be discounted either. The juxtaposition of serious and absurd reveals makes it difficult for the audience to tell which type each individual detail is going to be, leading to an overall more surprising story.
Adams also brings one central piece of many comedy routines to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: the straight man. Arthur Dent, the main character, fits a dictionary definition of a the straight man as it’s used in comedy: he’s a foil to the absurdity of the galactic world, and he serves to show how a normal person like the reader might react in his situation. Even after leaving earth, he’s still in shock over the loss of Earth, as shown by this quote.
“England no longer existed. He’d got that – somehow he’d got it. He tried
again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger. He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother.”
The fact that The Hitchhiker’s Guide is so drenched in comedy tropes shows the foundation of the book in, well, comedy. The very fact that the book doesn’t portray itself as serious allows it headway into things that serious genre fiction doesn’t get to do. This added flexibility as opposed to serious science fiction stories makes for a more dynamic experience.
Of course, there’s no way Adams could get away with writing comedy science fiction if he wasn’t very experienced with both genres. Adams had previously written for Doctor Who during that show’s Tom Baker era, just when it was starting to become marketed in the US. He also contributed to the fourth series of notable British comedy show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” one of very few people not members of that show’s troupe to do so. John Scalzi, himself a very good sci-fi-comedy writer, makes a point about how difficult traditional British farce humor is in his writing about Adams.
“The reason more people aren’t doing the same [type of comedy] is not because they don’t know what it is but because is because it is so amazingly hard to do. Any sort of comedy or humor is difficult to write, mind you; it just looks easy (or at the very least is supposed to look easy). But to do a very specific type of humor — in this case British farce — is even harder to do, especially if one is not already a practitioner of the form. Douglas Adams was.”
Scalzi paints Adams as a practitioner of a comedic style that few others can imitate, and his readers are inclined to agree. Adam’s own specific style was one shared by a narrow band of people; and he was the only one to use it in connection with science fiction. This explains both how he was able to combine science fiction and comedy, and why he wanted to.
Adams was altogether a skilled writer who contributed to popular culture in the contexts of science fiction and comedy. The story for which he became famous, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, makes good use of traditional comedy tropes. It also makes use of traditional science fiction ideas. However, what truly make The Hitchhiker’s Guide a dynamic and engaging story that has stood the test of time are the flourishes unique to Adams. The aversion of many science fiction tropes and plot pieces, as well as general fiction sacred cows, is what makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the classic that it is.
Works Cited for Analytical Essay:
Scalzi, John. "Who Will Be the Next Douglas Adams? Hopefully, Nobody". Whatever. Wordpress, March 11, 2013. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.