A how-to guide for starting the next intergalactic war

I fear I’m about to start the next intergalactic war by making the following statement:  I am not a fan, nor do I highly recommend reading Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Wait!  Before you energize your photon light sword thingamajigs, just hear me out!

It seems science fiction was never really my cup of tea.

I believe my first taste of science fiction likely came in the form of a toy included within a McDonald’s Happy Meal in 1983.  What else would have prompted an impressionable six-year-old to want to see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in the movie theaters?  Although now thirty years later, my only memories of that franchise are of an icy-cold air-conditioned movie house, a 16-oz white plastic commemorative soda cup in which the silkscreened characters wore off after three washes, and a glossy-covered activity sticker-book.

In the late eighties, as I entered my ‘tween years, I recall painful memories of being trapped in the house on rainy Saturday afternoons, channel-surfing across old television shows like Buck Rogers and the original Star Trek series.  Snore.  This was boring stuff for a nine year old that would rather be outside riding his bicycle.

A few more years passed until the fall of 1991.  I was a freshman in high school and now afforded the liberty of non-chaperoned trips to the mall with friends on Friday and Saturday nights.  That’s when I first discovered the book.  Nestled mid-way back of a small bookshop was a book title that jumped out in front of me and shook me for attention:  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Somewhat intrigued, I picked the book up off the shelf and read the synopsis on the back cover.  Seems interesting, I thought, but not today.

Over the next twenty years The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to haunt me dozens of times.  There were references in television programs, strategic placement on library bookshelves intended to catch my eye, and of course, casual conversion.  But by this point in my life I was pretty certain science fiction wasn’t the genre for me.  After all, at the time it seemed just about every science fiction story involved spaceships, lasers, and smugglers, right?

It wasn’t until five years ago I was browsing bookshelves to pick up a story or two for an upcoming vacation, when again the same book title jumped out and shook me.  Something was different, however.  This time I thought, everyone I’ve heard over the years who gave this book a rave review can’t be wrong, can they? For twenty years I’ve never heard anything but good reviews for this book.  That’s it, I’m buying it!

I proceeded to read the book on the plane as I journeyed down to Florida.  It kept my interest with its quirky humor, sure.  But looking back, I can’t help but recall feeling there was so much more Douglas Adams could have done with the story.  Many of the book’s conflicts felt rushed.  There was the setup to great action and conflict that could have been drawn out for pages and pages, but instead was wrapped up and resolved in a page and a half.  I also felt I didn’t really get to know the characters.  To me, that was extremely disappointing.

As a writer, I self-discovered two lessons by reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  First, I learned that if I ever write a high-intensity scene—like where a character might get sucked out of a spaceship—to really work hard to draw out the action over several pages or an entire chapter.  Second, I learned creating a plot outline beforehand may help narrow the scope of the story’s plot.

But as a reader, I learned there’s more to science fiction than spaceships, lasers, and smugglers.


11 thoughts on “A how-to guide for starting the next intergalactic war

  1. Well, Matt, I am sure you are aware that I will wholeheartedly disagree with you on this particular book. I loved this book from the moment I read it. I’ve read all the sequels (all 6 books in the trilogy). I’ve read the entire series probably a dozen times. Each time I read it, I see another nuance, another layer that I missed the previous times. Each time I read it the jokes are funnier.

    Personally, I think the charm of the characters in Hitchhiker’s is their simplicity. You know exactly who they are at all times. Arthur Dent is a boring, depressed homebody with a strong desire for tea. Ford Prefect is a pompous, self-indulgent ass who thinks he is either smarter than everyone else or in the rare occasion that he isn’t smarter… he can hold his liquor better. With rare exception, you are not going to be surprised by a character doing something unexpected… unless it’s Zaphod, who only ever does the unexpected (which is exactly what everyone expects him to do).

    In some cases, there are scenes that I wish could have gone on for page after page after page (the numerological bit about life forms being a figment of an imagination, for example). But then again, the short chapters and the seemingly throwaway lines in early chapters which then come back around in later chapters are one of the things I love about these books and this style of writing in particular.

    In many ways, it is this specific series of books which had the most influence on my writing, stylistically speaking. It’s not that Douglas Adams invented this style or anything, but in all the books I’ve read, he did the best job of integrating this style into the sci-fi genre (soft sci-fi as it may be).

  2. In your opinion, how do the sequels measure up to the first book? As you can see, I haven’t read the follow-up books.

    • I enjoyed every one of the sequels. They are much the same as the first in terms of style and the cast of characters is almost identical (with some additions/subtractions, but the core characters are the same). I am trying to decide if I have a “least favorite” or a favorite, but honestly I can’t determine that. I really, really enjoy them all. I also enjoyed all of his other books, too. If you’re interested, I can lend you “Last Chance to See”, which is actually non-fiction and exceptionally well done.

  3. I have managed to survive to the ripe old age of 48 without ever reading “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or watching “Star Wars”. I still managed to pass my SAT, get a Master’s degree, have a fulfilling first career and a lovely family.

    Perhaps now that I’m embarking on a second career, I should pick up the “Guide”, but I suspect it would only distract me. With so much classic literature to read and so much media to follow, I have better ways to invest my time.

    • For me… I have no time to spend on classic literature. No interest, no time. I suffered through it all through my school days and hated nearly every second of it. That’s not to say there isn’t good, enjoyable classic literature available… but the requirements of the educational system turned me off to it, even now. Actually, since my daughter is going through it now, it’s re-turned me off to all of it.

      • I can appreciate how the educational system could turn someone off classic literature. I was blessed to have mostly good English teachers who encouraged us to encounter the texts ourselves and express our response in our own words, not loading us up with obligatory academic jargon. This is one reason I am eager to move into the field of teaching literature.

  4. I’m not a big sci-fi fan, Matt, but I did read Hitchhiker’s Guide many years ago and really enjoyed it (but that was before I started writing and was a bit of novice) 😉 I may have to read it again to see if my taste has changed…

  5. I’m not a huge sci-fi fan for many reasons, but the Adams books helped me stay in touch with my teenage son. He loved them so much that not only did I read many, (he read all, many times) but we read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency together. An echo of his childhood years, reading books together.
    But you raise an interesting point, Matt, and I admire your fortitude for stating that you don’t like a book that others consider a stabilizing force in their libraries. I hate The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami, whom many say is one of the leading authors of contemporary literature. After reading more than half the book, I gave up. It was a huge, meandering exercise in existentialism, and it frustrated me. I couldn’t attach to any of the characters, and the scenes were so unbelievable that even allowing for a suspension of belief in favor of accepting the story didn’t work for me. I don’t doubt his deserved status in the book world but it doesn’t change how I feel about that book.
    We get to dislike what doesn’t work for us. If we can determine why, it helps us in our own writing. We set personal standards by assessing other authors whom we admire or don’t, and make sure our stories make our own highest grade. We write so people will read our work but we have to write what motivates us. And we get to read what inspires us, to love our own choices, and to dump the rest.
    I gave away my Murakami book to a friend eager to read it. No regrets.

    • I LOVED the Dirk Gently books! Love them.

      Your point about determining what/why we dislike a piece is really critical. if you don’t like something, you certainly want to avoid it in your own writing!

  6. HHGTTG, like a lot of books, has a stronger appeal for people of a certain age. The zany wackiness of it speaks to those with a strong sophomoric bent. I read it as a teen and loved all three books. 4 and 5 were pretty good, too.

    However, I recently went back and re-read them. Still good fun, but my enjoyment was as much re-experiencing the original attraction as it was with the text itself.

    Like Shari says, it was an enjoyable echo of my younger self.

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