There is an insignificant little blue and green planet near an unregarded yellow sun in the backwaters of the galaxy. The people who live there are mostly mean and unhappy. There was a girl who had an idea how to fix it, but this isn’t her story. It’s the story of a catastrophe and the story of the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which no Earthman had ever heard of until now. It is a remarkable and very, very successful book in the galaxy and is now even more regarded than the Encyclopedia Galactica, in part because it’s cheaper and because it has the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover.
This story begins with a house.
Arthur Dent is pretty much the only one who thinks his house is remarkable in any way. Arthur is about thirty with dark hair and a nervous temperament. He works in radio. He is currently frustrated because the county council wants to knock his house down for a bypass. One morning Arthur gets up and brushes his teeth. It seems like his brain is not quite working properly, probably because he was drinking the night before. He notes the bulldozer outside his window quizzically. He remembers last night when he was going on about something passionately. Suddenly it clicks and he runs outside to lie down in front of the bulldozer.
Mr. L. Prosser, the fat and shabby council rep, tells Arthur wearily that he has to move. Prosser is annoyed that he has to explain this and tells Arthur he could have gone down to the local planning office to see the plans. Arthur retorts that he did, that they were in the dark cellar at the bottom of a filing cabinet with a warning about a leopard on the outside.
Prosser’s head fills with visions of the house being destroyed, which slightly unnerves him.
One of Arthur’s closest friends is Ford Prefect, who is, in fact, not human. Ford is from a small planet near Betelgeuse and arrived fifteen years ago. He tried to blend in, chose that name, and even though he has a slightly odd appearance and quirks, does indeed seem normal enough. He has always been annoyed, though, to be stuck on Earth for so long and wishes that a “flying saucer” would come and get him so he could continue his research for the Hitchhiker’s Guide.
Ford arrives at Arthur’s house and looks down at him in the mud to greet him. He keeps looking nervously up and the sky and says he needs to talk to Arthur. Arthur replies that he cannot leave so Ford arranges with Prosser for Prosser to take over for Arthur; after all, these are the roles everyone has assumed.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy understands that alcohol is appealing to humans but states that the best drink in existence is actually the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. One must drink this drink very carefully, for it has juice from Ol’ Janx Spirit, a measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V, three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin, four liters of Fallian marsh gas, a float of Qualactin Hypermint extract, a tooth of an Algolian Suntiger, a sprinkle of Zamphuor, and an olive.
At the bar, Ford behaves nervously, prompting Arthur to ask him what is going on. Ford tells him to drink three pints as a muscle relaxer. Arthur is perplexed so Ford starts to explain. He says he is not from Guildford but from another planet and the world is about to end. Arthur sighs at this odd behavior and says to himself that he simply has never been able to get the hang of Thursdays.
Several dozen huge, slablike yellow things are moving through the ionosphere above Earth. No one on Earth knows yet except for Ford Prefect, whose Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic detects them. This device is hidden in his satchel with a towel and a few scripts because Ford pretends to be an actor. In the satchel is also the electronic Guide (which has to be electronic because, if it were printed, it would be the size of multiple large buildings).
Why a towel? The Guide extols the merits of towels due to their multiple uses. If you have a towel on you, you’re assumed to have everything else you need too.
Suddenly, Ford asks Arthur if he has a towel, and Arthur confusedly replies he does not. There’s a dull crash outside the window; Ford drily states it’s Arthur's house being knocked down, but it doesn't matter. Arthur yelps and runs out of the bar and Ford has to follow him.
The barman has a sensation when Ford tosses him money - “a momentary sensation that he didn’t understand because no one on Earth had ever experienced it before. In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal” (29) about how far away they are from the place of their birth. The barman feels Ford’s distance and, stunned, asks him if the world is really going to end. Ford assents and leaves. The barman shakily asks for last orders.
The machines sink lower.
Arthur runs to his house, yelling angrily. He doesn’t even notice that Prosser is staring up at the sky. Arthur trips and sees the things hovering above and cowers when they sear through the sky with a monstrous noise. People on the planet begin freaking out and crashing cars and howling.
Only Ford knows what is going on. He wishes of all the races who could come to Earth to say hi that it didn’t have to be the Vogons. He knows what to do, though, and is prepared. He has his towel. Silence falls. The ships hang noiselessly above Earth like a “blasphemy against nature” (33).
There is a susurrus and then every electronic device blares out a message from Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Planning Council explaining evenly that Earth will be destroyed in about two minutes because they need the space for a hyperspatial express route. People are filled with terror and the Vogon admonishes them that there is no need for this response because the plans were available to see on Alpha Centauri. He is unsympathetic and shuts off the system.
There is silence, then noise, and then silence. The fleet disappears.
Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Imperial Galactic Government, speeds across the sea of Damogran on a boat. This isolated place is where the secret Heart of Gold project is, and it was this very project that was the reason why Zaphod privately decided to run for the Presidency in the first place. When he’d announced it people were very shocked; after all, he was an “adventurer, ex-hippie, good-timmer, (crook? Quite possibly), manic self-publicist, terribly bad at personal relationships, often thought to be completely out to lunch” (37).
Only about 6 people actually know how the Galaxy works, which is that the President’s job is to draw attention away from the real political power. The President and Government don’t really have any, and even those who guess at that think power is in a computer—they are wrong, too.
Zaphod’s boat zips toward the island of France where a reception committee waits. Everyone is wearing gorgeous lab coats and are intensely excited. They seem even more excited, ironically, to meet Zaphod than about their incredible matter-bending project.
Zaphod eats up the attention as he skids and whirls on the water. A small robot records his behavior for the rest of the billions of people in the galaxy. Zaphod waves. He is mostly humanoid except for his two heads and a third arm.
Zaphod alites and the crowd cheers. A mechanical spider hands him his speech, but he does not need it. He looks out into the crowd and spots Trillian, a girl he’d recently picked up from another planet. She is slim with dark hair and a full mouth and small nose. Zaphod smiles at her and then the press.
An official flips a switch and a huge dome behind the crowd collapses and reveals a massive, sleek, and gorgeous spaceship. In the middle of it is a small gold box that is the “most brain-wrenching device ever conceived” (44).
The crowd looks at Zaphod. He winks at Trillian, who knows what is coming. He states to the crowd and press that the ship is amazing and that it’s so amazing that he is going to steal it. Everyone laughs because this is a very Zaphod-joke.
Suddenly Zaphod throws a Paralyso-Matic bomb into the crowd, whoops, and runs through the now-still crowd.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz is an ugly creature. He has a domed nose and dark green rubbery skin. The Vogons had crawled out of the primeval sea of the Vogsphere and never evolved further. They shouldn’t have survived but they are stubborn and slub-brained and found other creatures to eat. Then they discovered interstellar travel and moved to the Megabrantis cluster, the political center of the Galaxy, and formed the backbone of the Galactic Civil Service. They are very similar to their ancestors and are very vile.
Inside Jeltz’s flagship are Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, which is rather unfortunate since the Vogons hate hitchhikers. Arthur groans in confusion and comments on how dark it is. Ford tells him they are in one of the spaceships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet and that they’re safe. Arthur is unconvinced and when Ford lights a match he seems to see strange shapes in the shadows. Ford explains that they hitched a ride using their electronic Thumb. Arthur is shocked, especially when he realizes this is the inside of a flying saucer.
Vogon Jeltz always feels somewhat irritated when he destroys a planet, and when he sees a happy Dentrassi bound in with his food, he knows he will have a place to direct his anger.
Ford tells Arthur that it was the Dentrassi cooks who let them onboard but the Vogons run the ship. He then pulls out the Guide and goes to an article about the Vogon Constructor Fleets. It says the Vogons are extremely unpleasant; apparently, the Dentrassi do not like them and let the hitchhikers on to annoy them. Ford then explains to Arthur how he was hitchhiking and got stuck on Earth.
After a moment Arthur inquires why he is here, and Ford tells him matter-of-factly that Earth was demolished. Arthur begins to panic but Ford counsels him to look at the book’s cover. He then gives Arthur a small yellow fish to put in his ear. All of this is too much, and it is exacerbated by a terrible noise Arthur cannot understand. Ford quickly inserts the fish in Arthur’s ear and he can understand the voice. This is what he hears...
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy presents its charms from the first pages: readers see right away that they are in for a humorous, ironic, and unpredictable tale in which expectations regarding the supremacy of Earth, human beings, and traditional narrative structure must be immediately discarded. However, Adams’s novel isn’t merely entertaining; rather, it has explicit and implicit critiques of the science fiction genre, religion, government, and much, much more.
Arthur Dent, it must be said, is an unconventional hero. He is not particularly strong or heroic, and anything significant that he does is usually an accident. He is querulous and mundane, easily spooked and seemingly interested in very little other than getting himself a good cup of tea. Nevertheless, Arthur isn’t totally useless, and his centrality in the text is actually an effective way for Adams to allow the reader to indulge their sense of discombobulation. After all, how else is a “normal” human being supposed to react to their planet and everything and everyone they’ve ever loved being destroyed, being told their close friend is an alien, and being swooped up by a spaceship to putatively spend the rest of one’s life exploring a strange and at times dangerous universe? Arthur’s tears and fears are actually quite relatable, as is his burgeoning curiosity. Indeed, one of his most likable qualities is that curiosity. He begins to spend more time in the Guide, which is no doubt what readers placed in his shoes would do as well. To the best of his ability, he embraces his new and utterly surreal life, and even saves everyone’s lives when he suggests using the Improbability Drive later in the text.
Ford and Zaphod are more objectively interesting characters. Both are aliens, and both are intelligent and capable in their own ways. Ford tries to adopt what he thinks is “normal” for a human being but ends up being just slightly off-base. Of course, the imperceptive Arthur does not notice his friend’s eccentricities, but then again, would we think a strange person we know is actually an alien? As for Zaphod, he is a fantastically bombastic character who nevertheless has nuance. He is an utterly improbable choice for the President of the Galaxy -or is he? Adams’s writing has been lauded for its prescience (after all, the Guide like an iPad with Wikipedia on it?) and in the era of Trumpian politics it resonates even more. Just because Zaphod is a self-centered, egotistical, perhaps-crook does not mean he is not qualified for the presidency; in fact, it is what makes him appealing to the people.
And it is these people’s favor and adoration of Zaphod that buoys and sustains him: they adore his “antics” (40) and even though they are gathered to celebrate the unveiling of one of the most stupendous inventions in history, “still the greatest excitement of all seemed to be to meet a man with an orange sash around his neck” (39). Adams lampoons the conflation of politics and celebrity, the lionization of charlatans and showmen.
Throughout the text, Adams explores the ideas and intersections of knowledge, understanding, and meaning. The Guide is a massive, seemingly inexhaustible catalog of knowledge that is continually edited and added to. It is useful and fascinating, and it helps everyone understand their history and their present, if not their future as well. Adams clearly lauds the collection and perusal of knowledge, and again, it foreshadows the best parts of the Internet. However, Adams also seems to be suggesting that knowledge has its limits and that the universe and some of the beings within it are essentially unknowable. Since there is no all-powerful God controlling things, what is left is irony, coincidence, and the actions and their concomitant effects that shape the universe. Arthur’s home is going to be destroyed due to callous bureaucracy; as is the Earth itself. The Improbability Drive brings together a motley collection of humans/humanoids whose decisions and accidents may affect the course of history.