It’s a quiet Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house sometime more than a quarter of a century ago, and I’m in the den surrounded by gold shag carpet, an enormous flocked artificial Christmas tree towering above me. I’m flopped over a brown chair, and for the first time I’m reading a wholly remarkable book about a wholly remarkable book, “a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — not an Earth book, never published on Earth, and until the terrible catastrophe occurred, never seen or even heard of by an Earthman.”
It was also a funny book, an irreverent book, a science fiction novel full of spaceships and aliens — what’s more reprehensible than a Vogon? — and superintelligent computers and Kill-O Zap ray guns that was a satire of science fiction, the space opera sort that was popular at that time because of that little movie known as Star Wars.
It was also an absurd book with strange narrative blips like the story of Veet Voojagig, the philology student, who after a night of drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Imperial Galactic Government, “became increasingly obsessed with the problem of what had happened to all the ballpoints he’d bought over the past few years.” The ballpoints, apparently sentient life forms, theory has it, when left unattended,return to their planet of origin “where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely ballpoint-oid life-style, responding to highly ballpoint-oriented stimuli, and generally leading the ballpoint equivalent to the good life.”
That theory, of course, was no more absurd than the theory that my family and I would find diamonds in a plowed field in Arkansas. Which we tried to do — unsuccessfully — one year on summer vacation, when, sitting in the back seat of our Ford LTD, I also read the four-part Hitchhiker’s trilogy (another absurdity) as we drove through the splendors of Arkansas. Hunting for diamonds in a plowed field in Arkansas was about as absurd as the idea my father had that Arkansas was a great place to go on summer vacation. (Although we did pass through Texarkana, Texas, which, as it turns out, is where my wife is from, though it’s highly improbable she knew she would marry a geeky kid reading a highly remarkable science fiction novel while passing through her hometown on the way to hunt diamonds.)
That highly remarkable science fiction novel was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a real book published 0n Earth, a book that began its life as a radio comedy on the BBC, according to Wikipedia, a remarkable Web site very much it seems modeled on the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, given that it seems to be accepted by some relaxed minds as a “repository of all knowledge and wisdom.” (This could also be said, I suppose, of the World Wide Web itself, given its current popularity.) The rest of the books followed: The Restaurant at the end of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, and So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish.
And thus began an obsession that was obsessive as Veet Voojagig’s obsession with ballpoints. The books delighted my sense of humor with an appreciation of the absurd, alerted me to some of the vagaries of government in general and bureaucracy in particular — the nasty Vogons are perfect bureaucrats — and introduced me to the notion that a science fiction novel could be more than just spaceships, aliens, and lasers; it also could satirize that genre, as well as enlighten a teenager’s mind about contemporary life, the universe and everything. It also revealed to me that a novel could be funny and still be serious.
A week ago at a used bookstore I decided to boost the economy with six dollars plus sales tax, and buy a paperback set of the Hitchhiker’s trilogy. I was curious to see if the novels would delight me as much as they did when I was a teenager. I’ve just finished the first book in the series, and was delighted that at least this first novel holds up almost a quarter of a century later. I’m also picking up on things I didn’t understand, and seeing things that I couldn’t have known, like the similarities between Zaphod Beeblebrox and our former President, W., similarities duly noted in the excellent film adaptation of 2005.
Of course, this delight of mine could also mean my sense of humor hasn’t changed much since adolescence.
But, I’m not panicking. Not yet. Not as long as I have a stack of towels and a few books to guide me through the galaxy.