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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mostly Harmless

Mostly Harmless
(Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy #5)
by Douglas Adams
(3/5 stars)

After I read the fourth book "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish" I checked the reviews for this one and decided I didn't like it and shouldn't read it. But then I decided a couple weeks later that I might as well read it in case it wasn't as disappointing as I thought and just so I could get my merit badge for having read the entire series--except for the short story included in the "Ultimate" edition and "Salmon of Doubt." And just like one of those horrible standardized tests, most of the time you should go with your first instinct.

Reading the end of this book felt exactly like the outrage expressed by fans of "The Sopranos" after the infamous "fade to black" ending. The first reaction was "Huh?" This was followed by reading over the last pages a couple times to see if I'd missed something. This was followed by disbelief that I didn't miss something. Finally, the outrage of "THAT's how it ends?!!!" (Unlike some other books at least I didn't throw it against a wall, it being a library copy in already shoddy condition.)

Like those Sopranos fans, I feel like I was duped, like I had a practical joke played on me. I read these books and followed it all the way to the end and then--THAT. Really all I needed then was for the ghost of Douglas Adams to appear to point and laugh at me and then flip me the bird. I think when you follow a series, even one that isn't terribly long like the Hitchhiker books (about 1,100 pages in all) you want that "Lord of the Rings" ending with all the farewells or the "Harry Potter" ending where we check up on everyone years later. Because let's face it, when you read an entire series you become emotionally invested in it to some extent so they're maybe not a spouse or brother/sister, but at least an aunt/uncle who appears regularly. So when it comes to the end, you want the closure, not so much of a funeral but more like a graduation or wedding where one journey ends and another is beginning. When that's lacking, you're left with disappointment and resentment that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

What saves this book is that you read "Hitchhiker" books for the same reason people watch "Family Guy" on TV, for the ridiculous asides more than the actual main story. That's what makes the books readable even when the story and especially the character development is disappointing.

The story concerns the complexities of space-time, which is always very confusing. Fenchurch, the love Arthur discovered in the previous book, disappears in a hyperspace accident without so much as a line of dialog, thus rendering the last book pretty moot. Arthur then roams around the Galaxy by donating hair, fingernails, and of course sperm to DNA banks. (Whatever happened to the, you know, hitchhiking?) He does this to find a place where he can fit in, trying a few places like another version of Earth called NowWhat that is a swampy hellhole. (If you want to take a romantic interpretation, you could also say that by constantly traveling in hyperspace maybe he's hoping Fenchurch will reappear.) He finally crashes on a remote planet and becomes a revered Sandwich Maker until he meets his daughter, produced by some of that sperm he gave away. The child's mother is none other than Tricia McMillan or Trillian. She comes from another Earth (or is it the same one as the fourth book?) where she never went with Zaphod at a party and thus never became Trillian and instead became a news reporter who's visited by aliens who crash-landed on the tenth planet called Rupert, which technically now would be the ninth since Pluto is no longer a planet. Meanwhile, Ford Prefect discovers that a big corporation has bought out the Hitchhiker's Guide and developed a new version with the power to destroy the universe. Is any of this making sense? Probably not. It doesn't make much more sense when you actually read the book either.

All this naturally leads to the really disappointing ending that I went on and on about above. Like pretty much all the Hitchhiker books, there's little in the way of character development and after spending 90% of the story getting everyone together, the author rushes the unsatisfactory conclusion. If not for those funny asides and the humorous tone of Adams's writing, this would have been far more disappointing. Still, if you've read and enjoyed the rest of the series you may as well read this one for the complete set.

That, mercifully, is all.

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