The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Study Guide

Douglas Adams

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Context


From Gulliver's Travels to Star Wars

Science fiction addresses the effect of real or imagined science on culture or individuals. Also called SF or sci-fi, science fiction is a modern genre that emerged in the West with the Industrial Revolution. This was an explosion of technology that began in Britain in the 18th century. The revolution spread to other parts of the world, essentially changing the character of society from rural to urban and from farming to manufacturing. The resulting changes led writers to speculate on ways in which technology would affect the future. Major themes developed, including medical advancements, space and time travel, alien encounters, and parallel universes. Writers created wildly diverse visions of the process of techno-social change, from the dark dystopian to the blissful utopian, and everything in between. In 1818, Mary Shelley created what critic Brian Aldiss called "the first great myth of the industrial age": Frankenstein, which became a prototype for modern science fiction.

Other notable forerunners of modern science fiction include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and various works by Edgar Allan Poe. Jules Verne has been called the inventor of science fiction, with techno-thrillers like Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He shares that honor with H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. These and other authors paved the way for the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1930s.

In the early 20th century, the genre catered mostly to a juvenile audience. As such, it was a genre that inspired generations of young scientists who hoped to turn sci-fi dreams into reality. Following World War II (1939–45), science fiction matured and spread throughout the world, driven by unmatched scientific achievements. Science had split the atom to create nuclear energy and the atomic bomb, a human had walked on the moon, and cloning human life was seemingly possible.

By the 1950s, sci-fi had become more sophisticated and satirical. The focus on new or imagined technology shifted to the effects of technology on societies and cultures. Notable writers included Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. The genre moved beyond print media and the occasional radio play into films. These were mostly low-budget, B-rated films, featuring alien invasions or frightful mutants.

In the 1960s, with the advent of television shows like Star Trek (1966–69) and films like Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), traditional science fiction reached record popularity. In the 1970s, the blockbuster movie Star Wars (1977) helped establish science fiction as one of Hollywood's most influential and profitable movie formats. Star Wars was also a perfectly timed forerunner to Douglas Adams's radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Pop Culture and Technology in the 1970s

Other influences were at work when The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was first written and produced. The 1970s saw the breakup of the Beatles, one of the richest songwriting partnerships in pop music history and a personal favorite of Douglas Adams. Disco came in, followed by heavy metal, punk, and hip-hop. Clothing styles ranged from hippie beads and bell-bottom jeans to mod hot pants and thigh-high boots, then glam disco fashion. There is a definite flavor of the hippie about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is a wild nonconformist and describes himself as "a real cool boy." In addition, a sequel to the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy features a heavy metal band called Disaster Area.

Symbols of the 1970s included leisure suits and platform shoes, disco balls, sticky notes, and long unemployment lines. The decade was also marked, however, by exciting technological innovation. Douglas Adams had a keen interest in technology, and it is, of course, an essential element in his work. He eagerly promoted technological innovation and applauded advancements in the world of computers, the Internet, and consumer electronics. The basic concept of the Internet began in 1969, and by the end of the 1970s, personal computers were available. In addition, the first video cassette and video game were invented, as well as the first pocket calculator and the first electronic digital wristwatch (which is given a spotlight in the novel). In short, there was an explosion of gadgets that changed how people were entertained and educated, and how they calculated and communicated.

At the time Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, space exploration was on a lot of people's minds. Astronauts had already walked on the moon. Exploration was advancing thanks to the Mariner spacecraft, which was launched in the early 1970s to orbit and map the surface of Mars. In addition, the Voyager spacecraft was sending back images of Jupiter and Saturn. Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was orbiting Earth, and the Apollo Soyuz Test Project—the first space mission crewed by Americans and Russians—was underway.

Influences on the Author

Two major influences on Douglas Adams personally and as a writer were music and Monty Python. He grew up in the 1960s and idolized the artistic innovation the Beatles represented. In his posthumously published book The Salmon of Doubt, Adams says that the group was not just writing songs, but "they were inventing the very medium in which they were working." He personally was an accomplished, self-taught guitarist. For his 42nd birthday, he played live on stage with the rock group Pink Floyd. For Adams, music—either played or listened to—was a remedy for bouts of writer's block and a source of inspiration.

During his years at Brentwood School and St. John's College, his talent for writing quirky plays and sketches emerged along with his passion for the surreal comedy of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The sketch show aired on the BBC from 1969 to 1974. The Python intelligent, linguistic humor was a revelation for Adams—he saw that comedy could be a vehicle for expressing ideas, while simultaneously being very, very silly.

Literary influences on his writing included authors Kurt Vonnegut, known for works blending satire, black comedy, and science fiction, and P.G. Wodehouse, widely regarded as the greatest comic author of the 20th century. In Adams's opinion, "what Wodehouse writes is pure word music." In a 1979 interview, Adams noted he liked the aspect of sci-fi that allowed him to show things from a different perspective—"to show all the different interpretations that can be put on apparently fairly simple and commonplace events."

History of the Guide: From Radio Play to Film

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy combined the fun of science fiction with a thoughtful satire on society to invent a new genre: comedy science fiction. It first aired on BBC radio in March 1978 and has since developed into a series of best-selling novels (popularly known as a five-part trilogy), a TV series, a record album, a computer game, and a motion picture. There have also been several stage adaptations as well as a series of DC comics based on the five-part trilogy.

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