How ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ Saved My Life

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wastes no time putting its earthbound readers in their place.

“Uncharted.” “Unfashionable.” “Unregarded.” That’s how Douglas Adams describes our interstellar neighborhood in the first sentence of the book. Then he zooms in: “Orbiting this sun at a distance of roughly 98 million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descendent life forms are so amazingly primitive, they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” It’s among literature’s most savage burns (1970s category), and it’s directed at our entire species.

The rest of the book and its sequels, four by Adams and one by Eoin Colfer, proceed from there. Earth is labeled in the titular galaxy-spanning reference book as “harmless,” an entry later expanded after 15 years of research by roving-reporter-turned-galactic-Virgil Ford Prefect to “mostly harmless.” The most intelligent beings on the planet are revealed to be mice. By the end of chapter three only two humans are left alive, and one of them is Arthur Dent, an incompetent bore of a Dante who just wants to go home but can’t because first his house and then his entire planet have been demolished.

When I first came into contact with THGTG not quite 20 years ago, it taught me that it was okay to be an Arthur Dent. It was exactly the lesson I needed to hear at the time, even if it didn’t stop me from wishing I was cooler than I was. (I still aspire to be Ford Prefect.)

I was 13, and I hadn’t yet acquired even the barest hint of teenage indifference. Everything felt as though it mattered desperately. Every school test and every sporting confrontation became a measure of some critical part of my self-worth. And when I failed at them––or more accurately, “failed to meet my own ludicrously high expectations”––the only way I knew to release the emotion of this disappointment was through tears. Basically, I cried often and hard all the way through eighth grade, and that was how everyone knew me: as a smart kid wound tighter than a tourniquet. I was teased a lot and I was ashamed nearly all of the time and I could not for the life of me figure out how to stop it, despite the best intentions of my parents, who only ever put pressure on me to try to alleviate the pressure I put on myself.

The book twisted open the stuck valve in my psyche. I loved it from the first paragraph of putdowns, so much so that a friend and I spent our first encounter with it passing it back and forth, alternating chapters. We each finished it in a day. We might have torn it in half if we hadn’t already begun treating it as a holy text. We started carrying towels with us immediately. I bought a satchel to carry my books to high school in because that’s what Ford Prefect used. My crying ceased immediately, even though I wasn’t quite sure why.

I didn’t pick up the themes of the destruction of hubris while reading the series the summer before ninth grade. I didn’t recognize how the one thing nearly every character has in common is an outsized impression of his or her own importance. I didn’t tie together how the series is filled with protagonists and antagonists acting out their grandiose ambitions only to be thwarted by the most prosaic of means. The 7.5-million-year calculation of the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything produces the hilariously incomprehensible answer of 42. A convoluted scheme to meet the ultimate ruler of the galaxy turns up a recluse who habitually doubts anything outside his Cartesian Self, including his cat. In the sequel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the most effective torture device in the galaxy is the Total Perspective Vortex, which shows whoever is placed inside how insignificant they are compared to the enormity of the universe. In the third book, Life, the Universe and Everything, Arthur’s brief delusion of glory at Lord’s Cricket Ground nearly dooms all existence. (The universe is saved by his ineptitude.) The only final sin in Adams’s galaxy is ego, and the only character able to transgress and emerge unscathed is Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed outlaw president of the galaxy who lives all but oblivious to the consequences of his actions, and whom the author eventually got bored with and abandoned.

Instead, what my barely-teenaged self took from the book was that my existence was fundamentally absurd. The world is simultaneously too complex and too dumb for it to be anything else. Our rules and systems and desires and foibles are all constantly interacting in bizarre and incalculable ways. The book is a populist gateway to existentialism, exploring the tension between free will and an indifferent universe. “The chances of finding out what’s really going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, ‘Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy,” says the planetary designer Slartibartfast in the first book. Like the existentialists, Adams—and his series—hardly advocate total surrender in the face of the world’s folly. Slartibartfast would come to lead Ford and Arthur on a quest to save the universe from a bellicose planet of raging xenophobes by locating a series of cricket-themed MacGuffins in Life, the Universe and Everything. 

But to believe, even as a 13-year-old boy, that you can brute force your way through life’s unpredictability by being successful at everything you set out to accomplish is to put yourself on the path toward becoming yet another of the planet’s surfeit of megalomaniacs. A person who will stop at nothing to get what he wants often ends up getting stopped by some nothing. (Though, as recent history keeps showing us, perhaps not often enough.) Sometimes in life you’re the state-of-the-art spaceship that can tamper with the rules of reality to dodge a pair of ground-to-air nuclear missiles and sometimes you’re the bowl of petunias, called into being by that tampering, miles above a strange planet ready to plummet to your doom.

Adams’s way of viewing the galaxy was so innately appealing to me that I came to adopt it as my own, meeting the universe with my own absurdity whenever possible but coupling that with a healthy degree of skepticism for the parts of its illogic that weren’t mostly harmless. This is how the Hitchhiker’s Guide taught me to be a grown-up, some combination of spinning things further and sillier and backing away slowly. It is still the mode in which I operate as an adult. It feels kind of similar to how many people operate on the Internet, which is perhaps not always the healthiest of all relationships to have with the world, but for me it was a short-term boon.

The humor and wit that made Adams’s story of the planet’s destruction popular around the world allowed his arguments to slip through unnoticed and slice the Gordian knot of my self-absorption. “If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion,” Adams writes in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but that’s exactly what he gave me. I received, if not total perspective, then at least a new and much-needed lighter one. He helped me find my own small, singular place in the universe.

Goodnight World-Building

There’s no plot to Goodnight Moon, no characterization, no conflict. Every word written by Margaret Wise Brown and every detail illustrated by Clement Hurd is designed to build the illusion of comfort and stability—much in the same way that Star Wars presents a galaxy of infinite possibilities that includes one where your spaceship’s starter refuses to turn over, or the way that Harry Potter depicts a version of middle school where you are actually special.

In the case of Goodnight Moon, all the words and details—save one notable exception—work together to build Brown and Hurd’s fictional world. In the midst of the book’s mirrored repetition of household objects and animals, the goodnights to the clocks and socks, the kittens and mittens, is a white page with the words “Goodnight nobody” printed on it. It jolts the adult mind out of the trance the book’s murmured sibilants can produce. Goodnight nobody? What does that mean? Who’s nobody? Is children’s literature ur-cozy room haunted? This strange page feels like the point at which the book’s childhood materialism and chronic OCD list-making morph into existential despair (which makes Goodnight Moon the perfect bedtime story of grown-ups too).

But what the adult mind–especially one prone to the nagging-doubt-pre-sleep death spiral–reads as gloom is, in the context of Brown’s micro-fictional universe, just the introduction of the unknown. Worlds, even ones created for children’s bedtime stories, need a little mystery. In this case, not a mystery to solve, but one that remains unsolved; less whodunit and more who-or-what-is-it. For a fictional world to feel real, some part of the story has to reach outside the setting and break the seal of perfect self-containment. There are some characters we will never figure out. Some places we will never understand. Not everyone gets an arc. And sometimes loose ends work better when they are left untied. The least realistic fantasy is that in which everything is revealed, that in which everything adds up. No level of omniscience can answer every question that might occur to the reader. No author is the Laplace’s Demon of her own creation.

But today, many authors and filmmakers seem convinced they really do know the location of every atom in their fictional universes. Instead of expanding their worlds, creators—and the executives pressuring them—exploit them. Characters and settings become resources to tap. The best and most interesting worlds are strip-mined, their forests clear-cut, their mountaintops blown clean off. If you’re successful, you’ll never run out of space that needs to be filled or money that needs to be made. Maximalism has nothing on serialism, the way the infinite cannot compare to the merely big. In other words: Once the mystery of Nobody is solved in the sequel to Goodnight Moon, readers can finally learn what kind of complex and fully-realized life the quiet old lady has once that bunny finally goes to sleep.

This is how minor characters in superhero movies come to have whole worlds built upon them. And each time this happens—every time an unnecessary backstory is explained—some part of the mysterious fictional world dies. These minor characters become load-bearing gargoyles, and their inability to support the weight of the story weakens the entire structure. Perhaps the greater Goodnight Moon universe will support a prequel explaining the deep backstory and life path of the quiet old lady and the personal meeting “hush” has for her. Or maybe that will be where the money and the interest dry up. If they ever do.

In addition to the degradation of fictional universes, this hyper world-building means we spend so much time in familiar (and ever-expanding) worlds that we don’t invest in new ones. Too many choices; let’s just watch something with superheroes in it again. The rules are familiar, and that familiarity creates the illusion of comfort and stability. Goodnight lightsabers. Goodnight wands. Goodnight Godzilla. Goodnight James Bond.

The creation of fictional worlds and universes is an achievement to be celebrated (and rewarded), but so, now, is their stewardship: knowing when to push further and what to leave unspoiled. Not every old lady needs a complex backstory, not every Nobody has to go off in the third act or the third film. Sometimes the mysteries in our fictional worlds can simply be put to bed.