Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (itself spread across five books with a six written by Eoin Colfer), with its friendly, green warning against panic, casts a huge shadow over the field of humorous speculative fiction. Though it is far from the only explicitly comedic science fiction (and far from the first), it is the work to which all others inevitably get compared. Why?
Why So Serious? How Comedy Works
There are few art forms as serious as comedy. Laughter and that which elicits it has a profound influence over us on an emotional and neurochemical level. Through its ability to rapidly affect our limbic system (and by extension our endocrine system, autonomic systems, etc.) laughter offers significant health and survival benefits to individuals, and promotes cohesion in social groups. We are physiologically and socially designed to be susceptible to laughter’s influence.
Comedy – whether satire, slapstick, parody, or any of its myriad other forms – relies on this neurophysiological connection to increase the accessibility of its themes and to accelerate the rate at which we internalize them. By stimulating the endorphin-producing systems of our brain, comedy creates subconscious associations between pleasure and the themes/content which produced it. Laughter is a sympathetic magic that sculpts our perceptions and when integrated into an entertaining narrative, we are unlikely to even notice its influence on our thinking, our values, or on our worldview. Yet even unremarked, that influence can be significant.
The Absurdity of Monty Python and the Hitchhiker’s Guide
While the longevity and popularity of the Hitchhiker’s Guide owes a great deal to the serious subtext of its subject matter, that subtext is rarely discussed. While on a superficial level, Arthur Dent’s travails in the greater galaxy are merely amusing adventures, at its heart the series speaks to otherwise dense truths about humanity, common feeling, and perseverance.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide deals with themes so weighty that the only way to approach them accessibly is to leaven them through the use of comedy. Given this reasoning, Adams’ use of comedy is both understandable and reasonable. But it is not unique. Harrison, Swift, and many others used comedy to similar effect long before Adams did. So why is Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide so popular?
What sets the Hitchhiker’s Guide apart is that that it was the right kind of comedic work in the right sociocultural context delivered through the right medium and using the right technology. Originally broadcast as a radio drama by the BBC in 1978, Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide targeted a mainstream audience that was already familiar with a much-loved sketch comedy series: Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which had been broadcast from 1968 – 74).
Though Monty Python rarely relied on science fictional motifs (preferring more mundane or at times
fantastic Arthurian fare), the sketch series and subsequent films nevertheless relied heavily on comedy of the absurd as their primary comedic device.
Both Monty Python and the Hitchhiker’s Guide series rely on the introduction of an internally comprehensible incongruity into an otherwise mundane narrative. Adams’ Vogons (whose officious annihilation of the Earth is merely a routine inconvenience in the construction of an interstellar highway bypass) would be right at home next to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Both are incongruous, yet their internal logic remains consistent and understandable given the absurd conceit at their root. What is more, their internal logic remains consistent and recognizable as a trait commonly found amongst its audience: we’ve all had to deal with officious bureaucrats, after all.
Monty Python was undoubtedly influential on Adams’ own work, and in fact he was one of only two non-Python members to have been given a writing credit on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Yet Monty Python’s greatest contribution to Adams’ may have had less to do with its influence on him as a writer, and more to do with its influence on Adams’ audience.
By the time The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was first broadcast as a radio series in 1978, a decade’s worth of viewers had grown up watching Pythonesque comedy of the absurd. Monty Python taught them how to consume such absurdity, how to bridge its cognitive gaps and derive pleasure from its surrealism. One of the main drivers for The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s popularity was that its timely seed fell on fertile soil.
The Medium’s Influence on The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s Popularity
The audience’s eagerness to engage with comedy of the absurd was only one factor in The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s popularity, however. Equally important was the role of technology and media in popularizing Adams’ narrative.
For most of us in the United States, our first experience of Hitchhiker’s Guide probably stems from Adams’ novels. But originally, the story was first presented as a radio show in Great Britain. This radio play reached a wide and broadly mainstream audience. Significantly, this audience was not limited to the fairly niche community of science fiction readers. Instead, it was explicitly targeted to get good ratings across a broad spectrum of the British population.
To that end, Adams had to create a science fictional universe which was accessible and understandable with minimal application of unfamiliar science fiction conventions. The comedy had to be understandable even if one wasn’t familiar with the tropes of science fiction. This structural constraint played very well with Adams’ comedic approach: since his absurdity relied on the introduction of comprehensible incongruity into an otherwise mundane environment, to have relied more heavily on science fictional conventions would have made the comedy impenetrable for a mainstream audience.
This resulting accessibility was further enhanced by improvements in technology. In particular, the radio show was produced with the latest improvements in audio engineering. It was the first radio comedy program to be recorded in stereo, and featured extensive and never-before-heard sound effects to heighten the audience’s immersion. The net result of these technological innovations was to make it easier for its (again, mainstream) audience to imagine the fantastical aliens and environments of Adams’ wacky galaxy.
This confluence of comedic structure, media, and technology had a significant impact on the accessibility of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and in particular on its popularization amongst a mainstream audience (which is a realization that sadly seems to have escaped David Barnett in The Guardian’s birthday paean to Douglas Adams).
While Adams’ popularity amongst mainstream audiences owes much to the accessibility of his devices, that very accessibility stems from the commercial reality of the medium he was initially working in. When the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first hit British shelves it was already a popular franchise amongst a large mainstream audience.
What The Hitchhiker’s Guide Isn’t, and What Dirk Gently Is
Why do all comedic works of speculative fiction get compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Because it is popular. Its gigantic sales to both speculative fiction readers and mainstream audiences make it a cultural touchstone within and without the genre community. Thus, it is the easy comparison to make.
It is, however, a false comparison. Terry Pratchett is often compared to Douglas Adams, yet Pratchett’s work (which I’ll be exploring in greater detail later this month) is largely devoid of the absurd as a comedic device. Douglas Adams’ oeuvre can be divided into two broad categories based on the type of comedy he employed:
On the one hand, we have The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is a masterpiece of absurd science fiction. However, it is not a parody: It is utterly devoid of the narrative conventions of most science fiction. It is not subverting the conventions of space opera. It is not subverting the conventions of hard science fiction. It is not subverting utopian/dystopian fiction.
Similarly, it lacks satire’s pointed barb. The humor in The Hitchhiker’s Guide is scattershot in nature. In one chapter, Adams may be mocking humanity’s tendency towards bureaucracy, and in the next our predilection for certain canapes at fancy cocktail parties. His humor is therefore diffuse, in a way that neither Horatian nor Juvenalian satire can possibly be.
Adams’ later fiction – in particular Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – differs significantly from Hitchhiker’s Guide. For one, the Dirk Gently series eschews the absurd techniques used in Adams’ earlier work. While at first blush, some of the jokes may seem similar, they instead rely on the audience’s pre-existing familiarity with the narrative conventions of detective fiction. In other words, while Hitchhiker’s Guide is absurd science fiction that stands alone (there are few comparable works), Dirk Gently falls squarely into the far more common realm of parody.
Consider a comparison between the Dirk Gently series and John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Such a comparison is far more apt than comparing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Redshirts, or even The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Dirk Gently. Both Dirk Gently and Redshirts rely on the audience’s pre-existing familiarity with the narrative conventions of a particular genre (or in the case of Redshirts, a particular television/film franchise). Both use their comedy as a veneer to sugar coat deeper philosophical questions: Dirk Gently’s “interconnectedness of all things” and the significance of guilt, Redshirts’ with the nature of reality and personal responsibility.
On the whole, I don’t object to holding Douglas Adams up as the “master” of comedic science fiction. He has earned that title, if nothing else because his books have become such undeniable cultural touchstones. However, for real critical exploration, I would hope that we’d compare apples to apples.
The comedic method employed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series is comedy of the absurd, and Adams is almost unique within the field for employing that device within his fiction. John Scalzi’s Redshirts, the movie Galaxy Quest, and most of the stories in Unidentified Funny Objects are parodies comparable to the Dirk Gently novels. If we must compare them to Douglas Adams, let us at least make those comparisons relevant. The work of Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, or James Morrow – by contrast – has precious little in common with that of Douglas Adams apart from the fact that it can make us laugh.
In attempting to compare apples to apples, next week, I’ll be taking a closer look at the ways in which parody works within speculative fiction.