BOOK REVIEW: The Science of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon

The Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are a lot of “The Science of…” books out there using science fiction as a means to explain science. It’s easy to see the appeal for both readers and writers. For one thing, it makes complex and technical subjects approachable and palatable. For another, it provides a series of examples with which most readers will already be familiar. Triggering memories of a beloved book can’t hurt sales.

This “Science of” book is a little different in that it uses a work of absurdist humor as its muse. [In the unlikely event that you’re unfamiliar with Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” series, you can access a review here.]One may wonder whether the book delves into this absurdity by contemplating the efficiency of infinite improbability drives (faster than light engines that run on unlikelihood) or the value of melancholy robots. It does and it doesn’t. For the most part, it relates the wildest creations of Adam’s mind to the nearest core notion that has scientific merit. [Though it does have a chapter on babel fish (an ichthyologically-based universal translator), but that’s a technology that’s already in the works—just not in fish form, but rather a phone ap.]

For the most part, the book explores science and technologies that are popular themes in the pop science literature. These include: the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence, the end of the world, the beginning of the world, time travel, teleportation, cows that don’t mind being eaten (presumed to take the form of lab-grown meat, and not talking cows who crave flame-broiling), the simulation hypothesis (as related to Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex), parallel worlds, improbability (only tangentially related to the infinite impossibility drive, i.e. focused on understanding extremely unlikely events), and the answer to the ultimate question. There is also a chapter that I would argue is more in the realm of philosophy (or theology, depending upon your stance) than science, and that’s the question of the existence of a god or gods. (This isn’t to say that the question of whether god is necessary to explain the existence of the universe and our existence in it isn’t a question for science. It is. But Hanlon mostly critiques the numerous arguments for why there must be a god, and it’s easy to see why because they provide a lot of quality comic fodder.)

The book contains no graphics, but they aren’t missed. It has a brief “further reading” section of other popular science books, but it isn’t annotated in the manner of a scholarly work. It is well-researched and highly readable, not only because it hitches its wagon to Adams’ work but also because it’s filled with interesting tidbits of information and its own humor. The book was published in 2005, and so it’s a little old, but most of the technologies it explores are so advanced that the book has aged well. (But if you want the latest on a particular aspect of science fiction-cum-science, you may want to look at a more recent book.)

I’d recommend this book for fans of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and those interested in popular science generally. (Having read the five books of Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” trilogy will make the book more entertaining—though it’s not essential to make sense of it.)

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BOOK REVIEW: And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

And Another Thing... (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, #6)And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Earth is about to be destroyed, again. To save it, Zaphod Beeblebrox and friends need weave together a web of improbable conditions including getting Bow Wowbagger–the immortal alien whose pastime is insulting every person in the universe—to take him to Asgard so that he can get Thor to “dissuade” the tirelessly bureaucratic Vogons. Fortunately, the possibility that a genuine god might prove up to the task of smiting the immortal insult-slinger once-and-for-all is enough to gain his compliance. Thor, on the other hand, will take some convincing after Zaphod’s high jinx resulted in the mighty god’s abject humiliation.

Facing precarious business conditions, the publishing industry is reluctant to let anything as trivial as the death of a popular author derail the gravy train of a successful series. James Patterson, having proven that an author’s involvement can be an inconsequential factor in the selling of books, paved the way for wave of books written by authors who who’ve passed on (e.g. Eric Van Lustbader has already written three times as many “Bourne” novels as Robert Ludlum, and a new author is taking on the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series that was immensely popular a few years back.) The problem is that not all novels are James Patterson’s formulaic “Alex Cross” crime novels; some writers have a unique voice—if not a genius. Some authors do matter.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of an author who mattered to the success of his books than Douglas Adams. It’s not that no one could be as funny as Adams, but rather that his brand of funny isn’t so easily to emulate. This is the nature of humor. Consider stand-up comedians. Among them there are some who could be fed material written by anyone about anything and they would be funny in the same degree (for good or bad.) However, there are others whose funniness is tied to their voice and the material that they either developed or molded to their peculiar nature. Adams had a peculiar nature.

It seems to me that there are two possible outcomes for someone trying to emulate Douglas Adams. The first is that they try to be original, but copy the style of Adams. That book seems like it would be impossible to make worthy of more than one star. The other possibility is for the author to use Adam’s own tropes and ideas to provide the humor and then to stick heavily to Adam’s original material with respect to story. Such a book would be derivative in the highest degree, but might not suck entirely. The best I could rate such a work would be mediocre, which is where I think “And Another Thing” is. It’s not that Colfer isn’t a good writer or a sharp guy; it’s that he took on a task that was doomed. Perhaps, I should say kudos to him for challenging himself to such a daunting task.

Personally, I think H2G2 should have been allowed to be laid to rest. (Frankly, having read all five of the original series books, I thought the stories began to drag as the series progressed relative to its original greatness. In other words, I’m not sure whether Adams, himself, could have added anything worthy to franchise.) However, having said all this, I must admit that I would’ve found this book an enjoyable read if I didn’t know that the best of it was just the result of standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Read it or don’t. It’s readable, enjoyable, derivative, and utterly unnecessary in equal proportions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently, #1)Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency [DGHDA] is the opening book in Douglas Adams’ second series of novels (what would have been a trilogy—at least–had Adams not passed away.) DGHDA was followed by The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and that would have been followed by The Salmon of Doubt—though the manuscript was released in its incomplete form along with other random works in a collection by the same name—as publishers are want to make their cash cows rage after the dying of the light.

Adams is most famous for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [H2G2] series. DGHDA shares the British absurdist humor of H2G2, but is a more genre-bending a work. While H2G2 crosses humor and sci-fi, DGHDA takes those two genres and throws detective and supernatural fiction into the works. The book was billed by the author as a “detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic.” Of these, “horror” is dubious given the fundamental silliness, “epic” is a little grandiose for a work of 300 pages, and the “romantic” and “musical” parts are rather thin.

The title refers to a detective agency owned by Dirk Gently, who believes in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things and is a bit of a con man. Gently is the lead character in a comedic sense, but his straight man–Richard MacDuff–has at least equal claim to being the book’s overall lead. (Just as straight man Arthur Dent leads in the H2G2 books.) Gently gets involve when he discovers Richard engaged in the inexplicable activity of breaking into the window of his (Richard’s) girlfriend’s apartment—a girlfriend with which he has a favorable relationship. This convinces Gently that Richard has either been hypnotized or possessed, either of which makes him a prime customer of Gently’s agency.

The mystery part of the novel revolves around the new owner and editor of a magazine—Gordon Way–who dies, and whose ghost continues to be active in story (even having PoV chapters in this shifting PoV novel.) Richard comes to believe he’s a suspect, although the bungling former editor of the magazine—Michael Wenton-Weakes–is the lead suspect. Of course, the fact that the deceased is the father of Richard’s girlfriend, Susan Way, does encourage the notion that Richard could be involved. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a who-dun-it if it was a straightforward case of one of these men with motives having done it.

As would be expected of a book by Douglas Adams, it has its moments of hilarity, but it wasn’t as funny as the best of the H2G2 books. The best absurdist device introduced into the book is the Electronic Monk. In an era in which no one has time for believing in things, one can purchase or rent a robot to believe things for one—particularly those outlandish notions that are unsupported by evidence and thus are least worthy of the effort of belief.

The main characters are all sufficiently quirky to be memorable, likable, or both. The characters are one of the strengths of this book. The story is a bit disheveled, probably purposefully so, but it doesn’t make for the easiest work to follow–particularly early in the story when one hasn’t yet got a firm grasp of who’s who and who’s doing what. That said, it’s a decent enough plot, all things considered.

I’d recommend this for those who like humorous speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (Hitchhiker's Guide, #4)So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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My reviews of the previous books in the series are linked below:

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Life, the Universe, and Everything

This, the fourth book in the H2G2 trilogy, feels different from the others. First, it’s not so much about the ensemble cast featured in the other books. This is a book about Arthur, plain and simple. Arthur is reunited with Ford Prefect only in chapter 36 of 40, though there are Ford chapters interspersed preceding that reunion. Marvin the depressive robot makes it into the final chapter, but his appearance seems random and purposeless (except that it interjects a Marvin’s typical humor to nice effect.) Zaphod and Trillian are only mentioned in passing.

Second, romance plays a significant part in the story line, answering the previously perennial question, “Will Arthur ever get laid?”

It will be no surprise to readers of the earlier books that the title, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, was the final message of the dolphins before they jetted from the Earth–they being the only ones on the planet who knew the Vogons were about to destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

The story begins with Arthur being dropped on a planet that looks suspiciously like the Earth that he knows was destroyed. He hitches a ride with a young man and his delirious sister, Fenchurch. He develops an inexplicable connection with Fenchurch, and their burgeoning romance makes up a considerable part of the story. Fenchurch had had an epiphany right before what she can’t help feeling was the destruction of the world, and she is traumatized by her inability to remember.

The only difference between this planet and the one Arthur knows is that–he later finds out–this one is entirely devoid of dolphins. His house is even where he left it with a couple of months of dust and dirt accumulated. The only thing out-of-place is a new fishbowl engraved with “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

The couple, once united, go to meet an eccentric scientist who claims to know what happened to the dolphins. The eccentric, who goes by the name Wonko the Sane, has a house built inside-out to symbolize that he is outside the asylum–the asylum being the rest of the world. Wonko shows the couple his engraved fishbowl, and they then realize that all three of them (including Fenchurch) received such bowls. Wonko tells them that they should have put their ear to the bowl’s mouth. They do so, and hear a message from the “Save the Humans” organization, which is a dolphin charity group whose name says it all.

Fenchurch wants to see the universe, and so when Ford lands back on Earth–having come to investigate why the Hitchhiker’s Guide entry for Earth has been expanded from “mostly harmless”–they go off together. Their first stop is to read God’s final message to His created. I’ll not tell you the message. So ends the book–well there’s a little epilogue which is nearly meaningless in isolation.

While it’s off-kilter from the other books, this one shares Adams’ usual absurdist humor. However, in keeping with the different feel, one of the best laughs I had in this book was not absurdist humor at all. That laugh resulted from a story told by Arthur to Fenchurch as an icebreaker. He had once bought a packet of crisps and a beverage and sat down at a table to work the crossword at a train station. The station cafe was crowded and so a stranger ended up sitting across the table from him. The man opened the package of crisps and ate one. Taken aback, Arthur didn’t know what to do. Being non-confrontational in a reserved British fashion, all he could manage to do was to ignore the man’s encroachment and take his own crisp to eat. The man, not to be out done, took another. They proceeded like this until the entire pack had been consumed. To Arthur’s mortification, when he got up to go to his train, he found that his packet of crisps was under his newspaper, untouched. Something about that struck me as hilarious.

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Here is the song from the movie of the same name.

BOOK REVIEW: Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

Life, the Universe and Everything (Hitchhiker's Guide, #3)Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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My review of: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My review of: Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Arthur Dent and company are back for a third volume, and this time they must save the universe. This installment in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) series leaves off where the second stopped.

Readers will recall that at the end of the second volume,Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Arthur and Ford Prefect were marooned on the Earth two million years before their time (i.e. before the Earth was destroyed for a hyperspace bypass.) The two are reunited after Ford spent some time in solitude experimenting with being insane. They catch a ride forward in time on a piece of couch-shaped jetsam caught in an eddy in the space-time continuum.

Arthur and Ford are then picked by Slartibartfast, designer of fjords, who convinces them that they must go on a mission to save the universe from the inhabitants of the planet Krikkit. Actually, he can’t convince Ford of that, but he does convince him to go to the longest running party in the universe. Unknown to Ford, Slartibartfast wants to prevent the Krikkiters from attaining a requisite part that happens to be located at the party.

Arthur plays a particularly important part in this volume. After a run-in with a creature that he has killed numerous times in various bodies, the H2G2 straight man develops the knack for not hitting the ground after throwing himself downward (i.e. he can fly.) This new skill plays an important role in ultimately winning the day.

Arriving at Krikkit, the group finds that the locals aren’t much interested in destroying the universe anymore.This leads the band them to uncover a plot of intrigue and hilarity.

Given that there are two more books, you probably believe that the universe wasn’t destroyed, but I’ll avoid spoilers.

As always, Adams is the master of absurdist science fiction. Sure he gets his characters out of jams by flukes of the infinite impossibility drive or, in this book’s case, randomly appearing and disappearing couches, but it’s the wackiness that we enjoy and not the tautness or logical consistency of the tale.

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