I Owe An Apology to ‘Mostly Harmless’
I missed the layers of existential crisis in Douglas Adams’ work in my first read
I was fourteen when I first read Mostly Harmless — the fifth instalment in the science-fiction/comedy book series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I thought this book was bleak and dreary compared to the first four books in the series. The teenage reader in me didn’t enjoy it at all.
I thought this book did not have its laugh-out-loud moments that had so endeared its prequels to me. There was some humour, no doubt about it, but most of it felt like tedious repetition to my fourteen-year-old self.
But now, as an adult, Adams’ writing makes SO much more sense. Yes, this book is indeed darker than its prequels, but it delves deep into the human psyche, into the dichotomy of our choices, into how no matter however much we achieve, nothing seems to be enough.
Every single decision we make, every breath we draw, opens some doors and closes many others. Most of them we don’t notice. Some we do.
This article is about the apology I owe to this book, Mostly Harmless, for missing the message of existential crisis at its core and always suggesting my friends to not read it if they didn’t want to. Please note: there might be spoilers if you haven’t read the book.
The Lost Humans
For a series whose first book begins with the planet Earth getting annihilated and the last remaining humans scattered all over Space, one can’t expect too much joviality, can they? However, throughout the series, Adams does a stellar job of keeping the reader hooked to the decisions his brilliant characters make.
In Mostly Harmless, however, the tempo dips a bit and we see a lot of the characters pondering over their life choices and how things would have been different had they made better decisions. Since the basic premise of the book is science-fiction, there is probability and alternate realities involved.
There is Tricia McMillan (The version of Trillian in an alternate reality who didn’t “run off” with Zaphod) who has two master’s degrees in Mathematics and Astrophysics and is currently working as a successful news presenter in New York. And yet, despite her laurels, there is the underlying doubt about how her life would have turned out if she had left with Zaphod.
It has been 17 years since her chance encounter with the alien, and she is still trundling through life, dissatisfied with the cards she has been dealt, wondering what would have happened if she had made the other choice and ran away with the two-headed alien who asked her out.
The quality of any advice anybody has to offer has to be judged against the quality of life they actually lead.
Trillian’s fear of missing out
Then again, there is Trillian, the version of Tricia who did leave with Zaphod all those years back. She has moved on from her eclectic boyfriend and is a successful news reporter covering crimes and wars across several galaxies and universes.
Despite all her successes, despite all the adventure in her life, she is assailed by the question of how different life would have been if she had a child. So, she goes to a sperm bank and manages to birth a daughter.
This child, called Random, is supposed to be her ticket to normalcy.
But, she soon realises that she prefers jumping from one alternate reality to another and all Random does is tie her down. Unable to deal with the responsibility, she hunts down Arthur Dent (the only human to have left the earth, and hence, the only possible candidate to be Random’s father) and tells him it’s time he took the responsibility of his daughter.
Sometimes if you received an answer, the question might be taken away.
There is Arthur Dent — depressed and homesick after losing the love of his life, Fenchurch, to a hyperspace jump. He moves from planet to planet in search for some semblance of normalcy, until he stumbles upon the homely planet Lamuella where most of the humanoid population is backward and still hasn’t moved on from their hunting and gathering days.
Arthur uses the only talent he has — making sandwiches — and stays on as the much-loved local sandwich maker, finding happiness in cutting the perfect bread slices and training local boys to take up his place when he is gone.
Protect me from knowing what I don’t need to know. Protect me from even knowing that there are things to know that I don’t know. Protect me from knowing that I decided not to know about the things that I decided not to know about. Amen. Lord, lord, lord. Protect me from the consequences of the above prayer.
Arthur’s idyllic life is shattered to pieces when Trillian arrives and dumps Random in his life.
Random’s teenage angst
Random — the daughter Arthur never knew he had. Random — the ten-year-old young woman who has only known a life of jumping from space bars to sub-ether parties with a mother who never really wanted her.
Random, who never had a home or a father.
How is such a soul expected to adjust to Arthur’s life of — what Ford Prefect calls — “mind-boggling boredom”?
You live and learn. At any rate, you live.
Naturally, she takes the first exit she finds, pulling Arthur and Ford into an adventure they hadn’t foreseen, one that brings this awe-inspiring journey of five delightful books to a satisfying end.
The Humour and the Pain
There is humour. But there is also a lot of pain. There is pain in Tricia/Trillian’s sense of never being satisfied, in Arthur’s loss of his love and his home and his desperate but ultimately futile attempts at being a good father, in the heart of the reader who sees the characters make mistakes you wish you could jump into the book and stop them, but realising that even that would be futile, for they would only go where their hearts led them.
There is pain in knowing that no matter what you choose, there will always be a doubt that you could have chosen differently and that life could have been better.
This a brilliant masterpiece of a book. This is philosophy disguised as comedy.
If anyone tells you to not read this book, ask them to reconsider after reading my review. And also, this quote by Douglas Adams himself -
Let the past hold on to itself and let the present move forward into the future.
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