conceptual fiction
The Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams
Essay by Ted Gioia
There are many reasons why the arbiters of literary taste have
never warmed up to science fiction.  But one of the most obvious
is the overwrought heroic ambitions of the typical sci-fi story.  
The protagonists of these works are inevitably involved
in grand endeavors of galactic proportions, and no matter how
remarkable the project at hand—whether the conquest of space
or time or aliens with rad weapons—the
"mission accomplished" banner is ready
to be raised high in the last chapter.  Put
simply, subtlety and nuance don’t have
much of a role to play in these tales.

Heroic enterprises of this sort fell out of
fashion long ago in the world of literary
fiction, or exist merely to be derided and
toppled.  Yet, oddly enough, even science
fiction fans have lately grown weary with
grandiose schemes and nebula-shaking
theatrics. Call it the post-
Star Wars
burnout, if you will.  I don’t attribute this to
any greater sophistication among
readers—far from it—or to a greater
sophistication among writers either, but rather
to obvious changes in science and technology in modern times.  

During the golden age of science fiction, the most exciting
scientific advances were linked to large-scale government
programs—the space race, the Manhattan Project, the Project
Blue Book inquiry into UFOs, etc.—and as a result the sci-fi
stories of the day adopted similar pretensions.  In more recent
times, the most noticeable advances in technology have taken
place in the world of consumer electronics—in science that can
be consumed at home, so to speak—and this has been
accompanied by a comparable shift in genre fiction.  Science
fiction of our current day is increasingly anti-heroic, even
somewhat anarchic and counter-culture in its pretensions.

No book better epitomizes the post-heroic tone of sci-fi than
Douglas Adams’
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  As the
name indicates, a certain louche bohemianism permeates its
pages.  This is star-hopping on the cheap, pursued by those
aiming not to conquer the universe, but merely sample its riches
on fewer than thirty Altairian dollars per day.   You can trace the
lineage of many later science fictions books, with their hip and
irreverent tone, back to this influential and much beloved
predecessor.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is very much a product of
its author’s unusual background—while other sci-fi writers
apprenticed as contributors to pulp fiction magazines, Adams
learned his craft writing and performing comedy (most notably
as part of Monty Python), working in television and radio, and
taking on a host of quirky jobs (bodyguard, porter, chicken shed
cleaner, etc.). In fact,
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
started out as a radio comedy series broadcast on BBC Radio
in 1978.  This uncharacteristic background makes itself felt
throughout Adams’ fiction:  in the lithe, sprightly tone of the
prose, in the rapid pace of the narrative, and above all in the
author's taste for the bizarre and outré.  Almost every aspect of
the novel—plot, character, setting, style—is subservient to
Adams's comic intent.

But if
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy signaled the birth of
low-key, antiheroic science fiction, don’t jump to the conclusion
that large scale events of interstellar importance don’t take place
in its pages.  
Au contraire!  When was the last time you read a
novel in which the planet of earth was destroyed in an early
chapter?  Give the man his due: Adams is not afraid to leave a
trail of galactic debris in his wake as he transports his characters
from nebula to nebula.  

The sudden vaporization of Mother Earth is far from the only
improbable plot twist in this book.   Whales fly through outer
space, and the mystery of life is solved, more or less.   Readers
are also presented with a spaceship that is propelled by an
ultra-high-tech improbability drive—with predictable (or perhaps
I should say unpredictable) results.  Suffice it to say that even
Dickens would have complained about the unlikely coincidences
that occur every twenty pages or so during the course of
The
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
.

Character development is not Adams’ strong suit here (but he
got more adept at it over time—check out
Dirk Gently’s Holistic
Detective Agency for a more controlled and personality-driven
narrative).   Ford Prefect, our lovable alien from Betelgeuse in
the constellation of Orion, is a freelance contributor to a popular
guide for galactic hitchhikers.  After a regrettably long stopover
on the third planet from our own sun, Prefect thumbs a ride on a
Vogon spaceship—just in time to avoid a painful practical lesson
in eschatology—and brings along earthling buddy Arthur Dent.   
No, they won’t make readers forget Sal Paradise and Dean
Moriarty anytime soon, even if the hapless duo somehow
\manages to cover Kerouacian on-the-road distances in a few
milliseconds.  But in terms of offering quips and set-up lines for
cunning rejoinders, Dent and Prefect can’t be beat even by the
Beats.

Before you reach the end of the novel, you will have encountered
many unexpected things, not just our flying whale but also a
bipolar robot, mice who experiment on scientists, a planet where
they make other planets, and the worst poetry in the universe.   
Whenever the story line seems about to falter—which is regular
occurrence in these chapters—Adams just pushes forward, and
usually saves the day with the sheer extravagance of his
imagination.   Okay, the whale notwithstanding, this is not Moby
Dick, but in the history of speculative fiction, Adams’ immensely
popular novel stands out as a breath of fresh air, and redefined
the genre in ways that are still felt today.  And, yes, all on fewer
than thirty Altairian dollars per day.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimensions of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


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