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Literature / The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Go To Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place...

This is not her story.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (published in 1979) is the first book in the increasingly inaccurately-named The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. It constitutes the first half of author Douglas Adams' original radio story. Followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Arthur Dent is your typical English Everyman. He lives in a sleepy English village on this Insignificant Little Blue Planet known as Earth. His life is so desperately ordinary that he could not possibly know his best friend, Ford Prefect, is not in fact, from Guildford, but is from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. As a roving researcher for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ford went to Earth to do some research... and has been stuck here ever since.

And then, one dull Thursday morning, Ford shows up at Arthur's house, claiming the world will soon be demolished by strange creatures called Vogons. And it all just gets weirder from there.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • We get to see Arthur's day begin before he winds up in front of the bulldozer.
    • Ford's backstory, the choice of name, why he doesn't use his given name (he can't pronounce it), and what he did during his stay on Earth (mostly, tried to get off it).
    • Zaphod's stealing of the Heart of Gold is actually shown.
    • During the visit to Magrathea, what happened to Zaphod, Ford and Trillian while Arthur was with Slaartibartfast is shown - they were dumped in the Magrathean catalogue, to see some of the planets on offer.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The mice. In the original radio play, they're fairly amiable, if somewhat stuffy and lacking interest in very much; having deduced that Arthur, as a last-generation human, is in the ideal position to find the Ultimate Question for them and promise to make him "a reasonably rich man" if he does — something he never actually gets around to because the plot happens. In the book, and in subsequent adaptations, they're far more sinister about it, plotting to kill him and remove his brain in order to read the question from his brainwaves.
  • An Aesop: The nature of the Universe, especially whether there's any meaning behind it, is pretty much unknowable, and the best thing to do is not worry about it and do what makes you happy. Even the greatest supercomputer in the universe can only communicate meaning through a number.
  • Annoying Laugh: A man in the bar where Ford and Arthur drink their beers has one of these, which has caused his female companion to loathe him. The narration notes that she'd probably have been gratified to know that he was about to evaporate in the impending demolition of the planet, except that she would be too busy evaporating herself to notice.
  • Anti-Climax: The answer to the ultimate question is... 42.
  • Apathetic Citizens: What the Vogons accuse the Earthlings of being.
    Vogon Ship: Apathetic bloody planet. I've no sympathy at all.
  • Artistic License – Physics: A nice cup of hot tea is no more of a good source of Brownian motion than any other random liquid with particles suspended in it. It's likely that Adams was mistaking convection currents in the tea (visible when you add milk to it) for Brownian motion.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Ford and Zaphod share "three of the same mothers".
    • The Hooloovoo is a "super-intelligent shade of the colour blue" which, in order to attend the launch of the Heart of Gold, has been "refracted into a free-standing prism for the occasion."
  • Calvinball: Zaphod is said to have grown an extra arm "to improve his ski-boxing". We never learn exactly what that involves.
  • Chaotic Stupid: Zaphod, at times.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: A trait of Ford Prefect, whose smile often gives people the impression that he's about to go for their neck.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Both Ford and Zaphod.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The Infinite Improbability Drive is an in-universe justification for just about any fool thing that happens. To name one early example, Ford and Arthur are expelled into a random point in interstellar space, only to be saved within seconds by a passing starship crewed by Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod and his casual girlfriend Tricia, who once shot down Arthur's advances at a party in Islington. And two to the power of the number of that Islington apartment is numerically identical to the odds of any of this happening.
    Zaphod: Is this sort of thing going to happen every time we use the Drive?
    Trillian: Very probably, I'm afraid.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: The Captain of the Vogon "constructor fleet" tortures Arthur and Ford with his terrible poetry.
    Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz: And now, Earthlings, I present you with a simple choice! Either die in the vacuum of space... or tell me what you thought of my poem!
  • Crapsack World: Played for Laughs
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: After Arthur's house is bulldozed while he's having a drink, he tells the builders responsible that he will sue the council and then have the builders hung, drawn, quartered, whipped and boiled until they've had enough, then he will do it again, and he will then jump on the little bits until he gets blisters or can think of anything more nasty to do, only for the rant to be 'interrupted' by the arrival of the Vogon construction fleet.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the original radio play, the fate of the two gun-happy cops, Shooty and Bang-Bang, is never mentioned — in the book, they very definitely die.
  • Desecrating the Dead: Discussed for Laughs: Arthur Dent threatens to have Mr Prosser (the council worker who knocked Arthur's house down) hung, drawn, and quartered, and then to cut him up into little bits, and then take the little bits and jump on them.
  • Deus ex Machina: Douglas Adams originally came up with the idea of the Infinite Improbability Drive because he couldn't think of a way to save Arthur and Ford after they were thrown out the airlock.
  • Discouraging Concealment: The plans for the highway bypass for which Arthur Dent's house was to be denolished were "on display" in a dark cellar with no stairway in a bottom of a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door reading "Beware of the Leopard". Presumably, this technically satisfied the requirements to make the plans "available" to the public while actually keeping them hidden.
  • Dissimile: The Vogon ships are described as hanging in the air the same way that bricks don't.
  • Driven to Suicide: Marvin ends up causing the cops' ship to kill itself simply by talking to it.
  • The Eeyore: Marvin, a.k.a. the "Paranoid Android"
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Possibly the most understated one in literature:
    There was a terrible ghastly silence. There was a terrible ghastly noise. There was a terrible ghastly silence.
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: Arthur Dent is forced to deal with the reality of the Earth having been destroyed by the Vogon Constructor Fleet.
    New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway.
  • Evolutionary Stasis: It is mentioned that the Vogons stopped evolving shortly after they stopped being an aquatic species. Evolution threw up its metaphorical hands in horror at the sight of the Vogons in daylight, refused to let them evolve again, and in compensation produced the other, amazingly beautiful creatures of Vogsphere — which the Vogons inevitably destroy for their own amusement.
  • Family Theme Naming: The original custodians of Deep Thought are named Lunkwill and Fook. Generations later, their descendants who await the Answer to the Ultimate Question are named Loonquawl and Ph'ouchg.
  • Fiction 500: In their heyday, Magratheans possessed half the wealth in the galaxy, reducing almost everyone else to abject poverty. They then went into hibernation until the economy recovered enough for them to do it again.
  • The Fool: Zaphod—though in a twist on the trope, his seemingly random impulses are actually guided by memories he erased years ago, ensuring that they do, in fact, have a loftier purpose. He'd just rather not think about it.
  • Fun with Homophones: At one point Ford tells Arthur that hyperspace is unpleasantly like being drunk. Arthur asks "What's so unpleasant about being drunk?"note  and Ford responds "Ask a glass of water".note 
  • Genetic Memory: Mr. Prosser in the book is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and is troubled by obscure mental images horsemen laughing at him and visions of pillaging, etc.
  • Genius Ditz: Zaphod is pretty clever. He manages to work out a way of reading a secret message coded into his own brain tissue using tests not used by conventional science. But he's not as smart as he wants people to think he is, so he takes pains to hide his exact level of intelligence.
    It was difficult to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he could't be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, him pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he didn't know what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Arthur decides that the incoming missile attack is sufficient reason to activate the Infinite Improbability Drive.
    Zaphod: What, are you crazy? Without proper programming anything could happen.
    Arthur: Does that matter at this stage?
    • Fortunately, it turns out to be Crazy Enough to Work, as it stops the missiles and redecorates the Heart of Gold, and the only casualties are a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale.
  • Grade System Snark: "'Ten out of ten' for style, but 'Minus several million' for good thinking."
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: None of the characters are motivated by morality.
    • Zaphod steals a ship and searches for hidden planets for reasons he doesn't fully understand (his professed reason is for fame). Ford tags along for a free ride and Arthur follows purely out of lack of other options.
    • The Vogons and Magratheans are just doing a job, albeit the Vogons explicitly taking pleasure in excessive violence whenever possible.
    • The hyperintelligent pandimensional beings want to answer a deep philosophical question, but their motives range from "fame" to "curiosity".
  • Hollywood Law: Prosser should not have been able to legally tear down Arthur's house unless the government had purchased the land and served the tenant with an eviction notice giving him ample time to find a new home and move out. Instead Arthur is somehow completely unaware of the fact that anyone is planning to destroy his home and build a bypass on the land until the day before the wrecking crew arrived, and they proceed to knock the building down without providing him with any sort of compensation for the loss of everything he owned as soon as Ford took him far enough away that he could no longer raise a fuss.
  • Hope Spot: Unlike in the radio and TV versions, for a moment, it looks like Arthur and Ford's BS might actually persuade Jeltz to let them go after all. But, too little, too late, and he decides to have them thrown out anyway.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: The effect of the Infinite Improbability Drive. Played for Laughs, of course.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Earh is regarded this way by the Galaxy. Even by Ford, who spent many years here. He upgrades its Guide entry from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless.”
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: Applied Phlebotinum runs mainly on the Rule of Funny, for example, the Infinite Improbability Drive, which as the name implies, literally runs on improbability. It runs by placing its vector configurer into a cup that contains Brownian Motion. The best source of Brownian Motion is a hot cup of tea. How it works is the real mystery, as the inventor (who just had a Finite Improbability Drive create it out of thin air) was lynched by scientists because they "realize what they really hate is a smartarse."
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold
    • Zaphod is both figuratively and literally this. While he's an arrogant jerk who steals both women and starships, he does have his share of good qualities as well. Not to mention that the ship he stole is actually called the "Heart of Gold."
    • Arthur and Ford try to suggest that the Vogon Captain is this, in an effort to avoid being ejected into space. He promptly tells them that no, he's just an out-and-out Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk, and then orders them thrown out the airlock.
  • Karmic Death: All the people involved in the demolition of Arthur's house, which would include the bulldozer driver, the construction crew, and all the government bureaucrats who planned it. They never told Arthur about the bypass they were building; they merely left the plans out for public display (i.e. in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in an abandoned cellar), and used the fact that he never brought it up with them as a sign of compliance. They are all killed when the Vogons show up and destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace expressway, with the plans for the project having been on display in a far-off planet for 50 years.
  • Matching Bad Guy Vehicles: The Vogon fleet is composed of identical yellow ships. They're black in the film adaptation.
  • Mirroring Factions: Arthur wakes up to his house being destroyed to build a bypass, and by the end of the same day, he finds himself on an alien ship who just destroyed the entire planet earth a bypass.
  • Monkeys on a Typewriter: One of the side effects of the Infinite Improbability Drive is an infinite number of moneys who have just written a script for Hamlet.
  • Mythology Gag: In the discussion on Ford noting humans and their tendency to state the blindingly obvious, an example given is "you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot hole. Are you alright?" This is something Arthur actually asked Zaphod in the second radio series.
  • Noodle Incident: The Great Collapsing Hrung Disaster of Gal./Sid./Year 03758, which wiped out almost everybody on Ford Prefect's ancestral planet Betelgeuse Seven. Lampshaded by mentioning that nobody knows what a Hrung is or why it should collapse on Betelgeuse Seven — least of all Ford, whose childhood nickname "Ix" meant "boy who is unable to satisfactorily explain what a Hrung is, or why it should collapse on Betelgeuse Seven."
  • Oblivious Astronomers: Hand Waves Earth's obliviousness to the approach of the Vogon Constructor Fleet in the book:
    The huge yellow something went unnoticed at Goonhilly, they passed over Cape Canaveral without a blip, Woomera and Jodrell Bank looked straight through them, which was a pity because it was exactly the sort of thing they'd been looking for all these years.
  • Oh, and X Dies: Inverted - when the Heart of Gold comes under a missile attack, the narrator takes a moment to assure the readers that the ship is not destroyed and nobody aboard is seriously injured. (On the other hand, a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale aren't so lucky.)
  • Oh, No... Not Again!: What the aforementioned petunias think just before their demise.
    "Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now."
  • Our Presidents Are Different: The President of the Galaxy is just a figurehead to draw attention away from the people truly in power. Zaphod is very good at his job.
  • Planet of Hats: Vogons wear the Obstructive Bureaucrat hat, proudly making life as difficult as possible for the galaxy and carrying out demolition orders with utter disregard for the lives of inhabitants.
  • Police Brutality: Played for Laughs. When the galactic police find Zaphod on Magrathea, they shoot at him with a Kill-O-Zap impulsively. When the protagonists try and get them to stop, the cops act like the real injured party, thinking that they are being unfairly stereotyped as "dumb two-bit trigger-pumping morons with low hairlines, little piggy eyes and no conversation." While they continuously claim to be the contrary, it is very clear that they are looking for an excuse to be violent.
    Cop 1: Now—either you all give yourself up now and let us beat you up a bit though not very much of course because we are firmly opposed to needless violence, or we blow up this entire planet and possibly one or two others we noticed on our way out here!
  • Precision F-Strike: At least some versions have Ford think, in response to Zaphod's insistence that they're at Magrathea, "bullshit".
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Ford informs Arthur that the Vogons "made so much money being professionally unpleasant" that they can afford to employ servants to do their cooking. The Vogons are "not actually evil" though but "bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous"... that's to say they are examples of the Obstructive Bureaucrat.
  • Railroad Plot: In the beginning, the Vogons blow up the earth because it's where a hyperspace highway is to be built. An unusual case as this doesn't make up the bulk of the plot; it merely kicks off the book's events.
  • Random Events Plot: The book is basically just a list of strange things that happen to Arthur and Ford in space, and doesn't really have an overarching narrative beyond that.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Asked to think of what they thought of Jeltz's poetry (which is infamously bad and he knows it), Arthur claims to like it. This takes Jeltz and Ford aback, and the later momentarily wonders if they might actually be able to BS their way out of certain death.
    • Zaphod announces to the massed cameras and the galactic public that the Heart of Gold is "so amazingly amazing, I think I'd like to steal it." Everyone is so entertained that they fail to lift a finger prevent him from going on to doing so.note 
  • Resistance Is Futile: One of the more important duties for guards on Vogon ships is shouting "Resistance is useless!". Not only to prisoners, apparently; they just yell it out for no reason at times.
  • Single Line of Descent: Subverted with a minor character who's "a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan", who dies along with the rest of the Earth and has no further bearing on the plot.
  • Skewed Priorities: The narration notes that while the designers and engineers of the Heart of Gold have pushed back the boundaries of technology and built the most advanced spaceship ever, they're much more excited about meeting "a man with an orange sash around his neck", i.e. Zaphod, who as President is coming to the launch the ship.
  • Stompy Mooks: The Vogon guards. One of them even told Ford and Arthur that he enjoyed doing that as part of his job before placing them in an airlock.
  • Suckiness Is Painful: Vogon poetry, being the third worst in the entire universe, can cause severe pain in those who hear it. Vogons are under no illusions as to the reputation of their poetry, and have special devices prepared to "enhance" the listening pleasure of anyone unfortunate enough to hear it. They're not as awful as the Azgoths of Kria though. When one of them gave a reading of his work, "Ode to a Small Green Lump of Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning", four of the listeners died from internal hemorrhaging and his own internal organs throttled his brain to stop him.
  • Think Nothing of It: Arthur says this after Zaphod praises him for saving all their lives on Magrathea. Zaphod takes him at his word and immediately forgets all about it.
  • Two of Your Earth Minutes: In the Trope Namer, the commander of the Vogon Contructor fleet addresses everyone on Earth.
    • He states that demolition of Earth "will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes". Granted, working out a population's units of time just to use it to tell them precisely how long they have before all being killed, and consciously pointing out that they've taken the trouble, is a typically Vogon thing to do.
    • He also says "All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years...".
  • Uncanny Valley: In-universe; Ford Prefect is described as unsettling because he doesn't blink nearly enough and his skin seems stretched too tight on his face.
  • Unfazed Everyman: Arthur Dent (the former trope namer).
  • Vast Bureaucracy: The entire society of the Vogons.
  • Weird Trade Union: Unionized philosophers try to sabotage the creation of a computer that can answer the deepest question in existence, out of fear of being made obsolete.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: Arthur, at the very beginning. In this case, it's nothing dirty — he found out about the plans to bulldoze his home and got rip-roaringly drunk and angry.

And remember, always know where your towel is.