Sep 08, 12
Read in September, 2012
The fourth instalment in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker series is an odd beast. The tone is markedly different from any of the first three books, and by design; after all, while those novels were mad sci-fi romps, this one is deliberately a romance (if a very odd one, at that). To say that some of his readership were blindsided by this change and did not react well to it would be understating things to a magnificent degree. And yet that's not at all why I found this novel somewhat frustrating.
The truth is that I like when a series - whatever the medium - radically changes format; I find it fascinating to see which essential parts have to be kept, and which parts are mutable and open to reinterpretation. Out of the previous novels' ensemble cast, the only one who sticks around as a major character is Arthur Dent; Ford and Marvin pop their heads in, but that's about it. And 95% of the novel takes place on Earth - a rather massive development, given its apparent destruction at the start of Book One. In fact, this seems almost (if not entirely) a Hitchhikers novel in name only - as if Douglas Adams had tired of all the space/time shenanigans and wanted to write something new, yet worried that his readership might not follow him to a brand-new concept and setting. (He would soon test this for real with the first Dirk Gently novel.)
In Neil Gaiman's 2009 retro-review, he pointed out two very salient facts: First, that Douglas was not a novelist by nature, and also that this fourth book was the first one not based on a previous work. In other words, it was his first real go at writing a novel - and with that in mind, the failings of the book make a lot more sense. The characters are far, far richer than in his first three books, and display a greater emotional range than any we've seen before. The tradeoff, regrettably, is that he forgot to include a plot. Don't get me wrong: It's an enjoyable read, and one you'll breeze through in an astonishingly short time, in large part due to how fun the tale is in the telling. But after finishing the book, my immediate thought was, "...is that it?" Because, apart from the "boy meets girl" fulcrum on which the rest of the story turns, not a lot else happens. (And even that seems disjointed, as if Douglas forgot some core developments; Fenchurch jumps from having met this odd man once or twice for a few minutes, to being kissy-kissy in love with him.)
But then, by all accounts this novel was written in a rush. Douglas Adams was notoriously bad with deadlines ("I love the whoosing sound they make when they go by"), and he allegedly didn't even start writing it until after the novel was already late - leading to him cranking out chapters one by one, immediately grabbed by his editor who had taken a room at the nearby hotel until the damned thing was finished. It's a shame, really; I found the change of setting refreshing - even if the reason for the Earth's return was just one more thing largely glossed over - and the character-centric focus an appealing one. Unfortunately, events being what they were, the novel ended up as one that still entertains ... and yet never quite manages to satisfy.