It’s 30 years since Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made its debut on BBC radio, but its most famous mystery is still waiting to be resolved.
The radio series – which subsequently became both bestselling book, television series and film – traces the travels around the galaxy of Arthur Dent, after the earth is destroyed to make way for a “hyperspatial express route”.
Possibly the most famous line in the whole book is the “answer to life, the universe, and everything” given by the supercomputer, Deep Thought.
For seven and a half million years, this stupendously powerful, office-block of a machine had whirred. When it came to announcing what it had discovered, crowds had quite understandably gathered. “You aren’t going to like it,” Deep Thought warned. “Forty-two,” it said, with infinite majesty and calm.
But it’s more than just geek humor.
Adams didn’t just poke fun at his characters, he wrote with a real sympathy for them. Well, just look at the man, he was a person who cared about things like the extinction of bizarre species that the vast majority of humanity has never heard of, much less seen for themselves. Empathy. That’s the secret of reaching the apex of funniness. When the reader in his imagination steps into a character’s shoes, he takes the metaphorical pies in the face personally.
Adams wrote as if the way the universe is mattered.
He also wrote as if the way the universe is happens to be funny.
The fact that the way things are both matters and is funny isn’t exactly funny itself. Or rather it’s very funny, and it’s very something else, which there isn’t a perfect word for. To capture that something else, you’d have to write a bunch of books.
Which is just what Douglas Adams did.