(For anybody who’s wondering, I promise I’ll eventually review a book written in the past five years, it won’t always be these decades-old books. Honest. I promise.)
Like many people I read the first four books of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guild series and stopped there. I’d heard the fifth book, Mostly Harmless, wasn’t as good, wasn’t funny, and that I wouldn’t like the ending. And I’d loved the fourth book so much, especially the ending, so I thought “why ruin it?”
Recently, though, I met someone who seemed appalled that I’d gone twenty years and never finished the series. “You have to read it,” he said. And since he seemed so enthusiastic, I read it. So for anyone who never read the fifth book but wondered “can it really be that bad?” the answer is: no. It’s much much worse.
Don’t let the calm attitude fool you, I was furious when I finished it. This isn’t going to be a “book review” so much as a “barely coherent rant.” I’ve yet to talk to the jerk who recommended it but seriously, what the hell?
Let me go ahead and say, for the record, I know that Douglas Adams wrote the book while going through a rough patch. “I just had a thoroughly miserable year,” he said in an interview, “and I was trying to write a book against that background. And, guess what, it was a rather bleak book!” I sympathize, and it can’t have been easy writing anything at all while depressed, much less a book everybody expects to be funny. And I understand that these were his characters, he was entitled to do whatever he wanted with them.
Intellectually, I get that. Emotionally I’m still pretty ticked off about it.
A big reason for my not reading the fifth book was that Arthur Dent finally got a happy ending in the fourth book, and I’d heard that Adams went back to being mean to Arthur in Mostly Harmless. And you know what? It’s true. Poor harried, tormented, confused Arthur doesn’t really catch a break for the entire fifth book. Any bit of happiness he got in the fourth book has (quite literally) disappeared as if it never existed.
We get to see Ford Prefect quite a bit, and he’s occasionally entertaining. But all through the book it felt like we were looking at Ford through a dirty window; you could see him, you could tell what he was doing, but his whole manic personalty never seemed to shine through
Trillian showed up – two Trillians, actually, one from an alternate version of the Earth where all the events in the Guide series never happened and the second Trillian from “our” universe, long after she’s gotten jaded and tired. I didn’t like either of them. The first Trillian knows she missed out on something but she doesn’t know what. It could’ve come across as poignant, but instead she seems whiny. The second seems familiar until we see she’s become aggressively selfish, dumping off her own child with someone she hasn’t seen in years so she can continue being a famous news reporter. Adams basically takes the Trillian we know and love, and completely ruins her.
That’s it for the main characters you’d remember. Signature characters Zaphod and Marvin never appear. (And believe me, when I tell you Marvin The Paranoid Android could’ve lightened things up, we have a depressing book.)
Huge chunks of the plot line are strangely unclear. For instance, this one very powerful and familiar book has manifested itself as a giant bird-thing. It’s an interesting bird-thing, an entertaining bird-thing, but why is it a bird? There’s no explanation, it’s just a bird. Douglas Adams always did like to be wacky and weird, but his weirdness always made sense. This definitely didn’t, an entire facet of plotline that felt like it had an explanation waiting Douglas couldn’t be bothered to write.
And the ending, arrgh, the ending! (Yep, there goes the last bit of coherent expression, I’m down to “arrgh.”) I’d spell it out for you, but even though I’m telling you not to read this book, I’m incapable of giving away the ending. It’s partly force of habit (I hate spoilers) but also because it’s so mind-bogglingly depressing I don’t want to inflict it on you. Honestly, I got to the last sentence and stared at it aghast for a minute, before yelling “That’s how you ended it? Like that? You took the characters we fell in love with four books ago and you do that to them?”
I almost chucked the book across the room.
And now you’re probably curious enough to actually want to read it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if you do read it, or you’ve read it already, maybe this will make you feel better. (It did me.) Neil Gaiman’s Sandman refers to a “Library of Dreams”, full of books that authors never got around to writing.
In the interview I mentioned previously Douglas Adams also talked about writing a sequel to the fifth book. “I would love to finish Hitch-Hiker on a slightly more upbeat note, so five seems to be a wrong kind of number, six is a better kind of number.” He died of a heart attack in 2001 before he ever got to finish the series.
Eoin Colfer wrote a sequel that I hear is pretty entertaining (And Another Thing is on my list of books to read), but it’s not the same as if Adams got to write it himself. But Adams planned to write that book, and already had ideas drawn up about it. And it made me feel better to think that if you could find a way to the Library of Books That Never Existed you’d find a nice hardback copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide: Book Six, written by Douglas Adams himself.
That one has exactly the ending you were hoping for.