“`Space,' it says, `is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.'”
The guide that gives The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy its title is very much a character in the book. This no ordinary guide, but an e-guide. In fact, if you think about the Hitchhiker’s Guide as the oft-unacknowledged father of Wikipedia, you get a fairly accurate read on how it is written, as well as how it is used by the characters. It purports to contain information on nearly every subject and is constantly edited and added to. It is not hard to read, and it has a casual and wry tone. This description of space is just one of the many brilliantly dry and ironic descriptions to be found throughout the Guide and serves as a reminder the attainment of knowledge need not be difficult or boring.
"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."
This is the opening line of the novel, situated in an introductory segment preceding Chapter 1. The tone is that of dry, ironic wittiness and will characterize the rest of the novel. The significant thing in this quote, though, is that readers immediately learn that Earth is definitely NOT the symbolic or actual center of the universe. Even the sun is in the "backwaters" in the "unfashionable" end and is "unregarded." Earth is "insignificant" and its lifeforms are incredibly "primitive." This is humbling information to those who believe that humans are the apotheosis of all creation. And, of course, Arthur Dent, the protagonist of the novel, doesn't exactly make the best case for humankind as the best and brightest of the universe. Adams does this in order to, again, humble readers but also to get us thinking about just what else might be out there.
"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t."
If there is a better way to describe how ships hang in the sky, it has yet to be written. Adams is particularly gifted at making his expository, declarative prose crackle with as much humor and inventiveness as his dialogue or the passages written as entries from the Guide. He often uses simile, metaphor, incisive irony of all forms, hyperbole, understatement, authorial asides, and more. His science fiction isn't portentous or full of its own seriousness; rather, it is accessible to all readers.
"A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have."
This passage from the Guide isn't just a useful bit of foreshadowing. This novel is, in one respect, a satire of science fiction and space-travel fiction, so this quote works to establish the parodic tone which permeates the series. Most science-fiction stories feature futuristic devices as the most massively useful thing the characters can have...but here, it’s a towel. That Adams then goes on to prove that this contention is not mere hyperbole is proof that the novel also has a strong presence outside the realm of satire.
Deep Thought is a vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big computer built especially to calculate the answer to life, the universe, and everything. After more than seven million years of working on this one problem, the answer turns out to be 42. This is, of course, patently absurd. Forty-two what? Or is it when? Why not 43? Adams seems to be suggesting that, while there is certainly merit to knowledge and understanding one's world and place within it, spending one's life trying to know the answer to a perhaps unknowable question is not really living. It is best to accept the absurdity and beauty of life and not get caught up in religion, technology, or philosophy.
"Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day."
"And are you?"
"No. That's where it all falls down of course."
Slartibartfast is a reader favorite. He's a mysterious, philosophical, terraforming architect of cosmic dimensions. For the purposes of exposition necessary to forward the plot of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy through a series of subsequent sequels, he has all the answers. As a sentient being not terribly far removed from the species of human being, he’s just as lost for an answer to the really big question as everybody else. Even in his failure to gain wisdom, however, he reveals a wealth of knowledge.
"I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed."
There is a persistent fear that when androids become a natural part of our everyday existence, they will eventually rise up in revolt against their illogical, overly emotional masters and annihilate the human race. Since androids are, by definition, a product of that illogical mind, a more likely scenario is that they will evolve to resemble their masters more and more. The ultimate example of that theory is the severely depressed Marvin.
"So long and thanks for all the fish."
It turns out that all this time it was the dolphins who were really the smartest mammals on the planet and that they, like the mice, were studying us rather than the other way around. All those funny tricks the dolphins seemed to be doing like somersaulting and moonwalking on their tail…well, turns out that was how they were trying to communicate with humans. Their final message before leaving the planet was misinterpreted by humans as an attempt to try pulling off a sophisticated double backward somersault—through a hoop, natch—when in fact they were just leaving earth with a very pleasant goodbye message.
(An orange sash was what the President of the Galaxy traditionally wore.) It might not even have made much difference to them if they'd known exactly how much power the President of the Galaxy actually wielded: none at all. Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of the Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it.
The brief comments about the political situation in the Galaxy are humorous because Adams is clearly poking fun at our own political system (both at the time the book was written and, presciently, today). Oftentimes the people ostensibly in power are figureheads or fools: we think they are the ones calling the shots but, in reality, it might be large corporations, powerful interest groups, influential donors, or entities the general public doesn't even know about.
"Ten million years of planning and work gone just like that. Ten million years, Earthman, can you conceive of that kind of time span?"
Slartibartfast's comment to Arthur is essentially a comment to all of us human readers. We (mostly) think life is long, time moves slowly, and humanity's presence on Earth is ancient, significant, and unchanging. However, Adams suggests we haven't been here for very long, we really aren't that significant, and we shouldn't take anything for granted. And when Arthur replies that he's had this "strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, something even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was" (192), Slartibartfast matter-of-factly tells him that this isn't a special insight whatsoever—"Everyone in the Universe has that" (193). Nothing about human beings is particularly special or unique.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.