“Mostly Harmless” by Douglas Adams (1992)

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“The history of the Galaxy has got a little muddled, for a number of reasons: partly because those who are tyring to keep track of it have got a little muddled, but also because some very muddling things have been happening anyway.”

Every year I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve tried to have a specific series to be re-reading. In 2013, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then in 2014, all of Douglas Coupland. 2015 was Harry Potter, 2016 went to Jasper Fforde, and 2017 didn’t actually have a theme and was just a few old favourites I wanted to rediscover. This year, I set myself the task of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and since it’s only a trilogy of five, I’ve already done it. Fittingly, the 42nd book I read this year was Mostly Harmless, which feels just about perfect. Don’t panic – my waffling introduction ends now. The next paragraph gets to the point.

Mostly Harmless picks up at an unspecified point beyond the end of the last book. Arthur Dent is scouring the multiverse (or rather, the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, as multiverse doesn’t quite explain what’s going on) for any sign of Earth, but is routinely upset to find that it doesn’t exist, or does but in an entirely unfamiliar way. Ford Prefect has returned to the headquarters of the Guide and breaks in as to avoid the expenses department who would like a word. He finds things have changed rather a lot since he was last here. And elsewhere, Tricia McMillan is starting to wonder if her career as a television presenter is a satisfying compromise to the opportunity she didn’t take to join Zaphod Beeblebrox on his spaceship.

Except, as we know, she did. Only not in this universe. On this version of Earth – where the primary difference appears to be that clover here usually has four leaves and a three-leaf clover is lucky – she went back for her bag and Zaphod left her behind with nothing but frustration and a sense that she was meant to be so much more. She gets a second chance, though, when aliens land and take her to the planet Rupert, just beyond Pluto, to ask how astrology works. Meanwhile, Ford is fiddling his accounts in ways previously unseen by the galaxy, and Arthur appears to have finally found somewhere that he isn’t entirely miserable. That is, until our Trillian turns up and informs him that he’s a father, which is awkward as they never even got around to sleeping together. As everyone gathers together for one final time, Arthur realises that this really is the end – for now at least.

While still funny, surreal and one of the cleverest books in the known universe, there’s definitely a bleak streak throughout this one. Everything feels a little more futile, and ending cannot be described as happy, however you slice it. Adams admitted later that he was having a difficult time personally when writing this book, and it shows. He had, apparently, always planned to restore whatever passes for order in the series at some time later, but his untimely death in 2001 put paid to that. Although a sixth book has been published, I won’t be reading it for now. I sense that no matter how good the imitation, it won’t be quite right.

The book is also the most uneven of the series. Zaphod and Fenchurch are both missing – the former’s absence is not explained, and there is a throwaway line regarding the latter – and the plot threads don’t necessarily all tie up quite as well as we’re used to. It ends rather abruptly and we never properly get a chance to savour the final events. There are, however, more female characters than ever, some interesting philosophy, and an underlying message about the importance of home and trying to find one’s place in the universe.

I’m sure that Adams would’ve given us a lighter sixth book, but it is what it is. All in all, it’s still a great book, better than I remembered, and I love some of the concepts. Arthur is still an angel, and I would love to take him out for tea, just to give him a bit of normality. Whatever happened next though, including the real reason that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, are buried along with Adams in Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been to see his grave, and I advise any fan to do the same. There’s a beautiful tradition, though. In life, Adams claimed he could never find a pen when he wanted one, so it’s now the done thing to take one with you and leave it for him at his grave.

And if that touch of madness doesn’t sum up the wonderful man and his incredible books, then I don’t know what does.

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“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

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“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

“The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe” by Douglas Adams (1980)

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“In the beginning the Universe was created.”

Way back in my early teenage years (which feel now like a hazy memory as a milestone birthday approaches with alarming speed), I discovered Douglas Adams, quite by accident. I had borrowed one of the book’s from the school library, and it happened to be The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Yep – I didn’t even start at the beginning. I didn’t even know there was a beginning to start at. Ergo, I came to the series in the wrong order, which somehow feels apt and irrelevant. There are spoilers below, but they too don’t feel particularly relevant.

Restaurant picks up about two hours after the ending of Hitchhiker’s, with Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android being pursued by a Vogon spaceship that has orders to kill Zaphod. With the ship’s computer using all of its power to work out quite how to make tea at Arthur’s request, there seems to be little they can do to escape, until Zaphod suggests a seance and calls on the help of his great-grandfather. The irritated and irritable relative performs some jiggery-pokery and now Ford, Arthur and Trillian are left on the ship, while Zaphod and Marvin have vanished.

They have, it turns out, been transported to the publishing headquarters of the titular guide. Zaphod has received instructions from himself to meet with a man called Zarniwoop, who in turn has a quest to seek out the Ruler of the Universe. The plot zigzags through the universe taking in deserted planets, angry robot tanks, delayed shuttle flights, a Total Perspective Vortex, a colony of telephone sanitisers and hairdressers, but all culminating in one of the most amazing experiences of all time – dinner at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Like the first book, there’s a lot of philosophy in here. The biggest debate of all comes during dinner when they encounter the animal they’re about to eat, and it happily suggests which parts of it are the tastiest. Arthur has massive problems with this, while the others all seem to be OK with it. Arthur thinks its barbaric to eat an animal that wants to be eaten, but when it’s pointed out to him that surely this is better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten, he is somewhat forced to backtrack.

The universe is once again packed with bizarre races, species and characters, many of whom exist solely for a throwaway joke, such as the Jatravartids who have over fifty arms each and “are therefore unique in being the only race in history to have invented the aerosol deodorant before the wheel”. Adams is again funny, sharp and surreal, but I’ve come away with one thought that I’m sure I’ve never properly dwelt on before – the universe seems to be entirely inhabited by men. Trillian is the only female character that I think I can name at the moment (and we don’t really get another until Fenchurch turns up in either book three or four, I forget which), and while she appears in quite a lot of scenes, she has about five lines in two hundred pages. Most of the other aliens that appear that have certain genders are all male. I am a feminist, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever noticed quite how unbalanced this whole thing was until now. It feels like Trillian is there more because she’s mentioned a lot, and has a bigger role in the 2005 Hitchhiker’s film, but really, she’s not given the page time she deserves.

It is a great novel, nonetheless, but looking back now I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first one, although exceptions can be made for the scenes at Milliways, the character and concept of Hotblack Desiato, and any time Marvin pops up to share in his misery. I also realise that it’s at this point my memory in what happens with the rest of the series fails me. I’ve got a few notions, but from here on in, I’ll be going in pretty much blind. Wish me luck!

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury (1951)

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martian“One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.”

Humans seem to always have been fascinated by the idea of life on Mars. I suppose because it’s our nearest planetary neighbour, it’s the one place we’re likely to go any time soon, since we’ve given up on the Moon (turns out it was grey and rocky). Mars has long instilled within us a sense of mystery and no matter how many times science and rationality tries to tell us that there’s probably nothing living there, we can’t help but imagine that somehow some kind of intelligent life has flourished.

Ray Bradbury, the master of science fiction, here weaves a selection of short stories that show humans trying to get to Mars. Unfortunately for us, there is already a race of Martians there, and they aren’t too impressed. The first expedition gets killed as soon as they step out of their rocket. The second are put in an insane asylum because everyone thinks they’re mad for saying they came from another planet. By the third expedition, the Martians are ready, and use their telepathic skills to lull the humans into a false sense of security and get rid of them.

But then when the fourth expedition arrives, the Martians are (mostly) gone, and now humans can arrive in full force, turning up on thousands of rockets over the next few years. We meet the man who wishes to plant trees to remind him of home, the priests who wish to introduce Christianity to the natives, the black slaves who have built rockets in secret away from the white men and now are all heading to the new planet, and we also meet the last few Martians and find out what happened to them.

The book is really a hybrid between a novel and a collection of short stories. The stories are mostly separate from one another, but occasionally there is a recurring character, or a previously mentioned concept will resurface. The stories are set between 1999 and 2026, which implies that Bradbury had a lot of faith that humanity would get to Mars by then (we hadn’t landed on the Moon when this book was written) but he also shows that in some areas perhaps he wasn’t so advanced, such as suggesting that in the early 2000s, black people were still second class citizens and had fewer rights than the whites.

His version of Mars is highly fantastical. The Martians are humanoid in shape with dark brown skin, gold eyes and six fingers, and can all project ideas telepathically and share in hallucinations, a trait that becomes important in some of the stories. A little of their lifestyle is explored, such as showing how they cook, clean and entertain themselves – it’s very domestic. However, this is also a Mars with plants and animals, rivers and strange forms of transportation. Their cities are huge and crystalline, lasting thousands of years, and they seem to have blended knowledge of science, religion and art together to create what seems to be a utopia. Until, as usual, humans turn up to ruin it.

It’s not my favourite Bradbury, but it’s highly imaginative, very visually satisfying and an interesting look at the damage humans do, with good intentions or not.

“The Tenth Planet” by Gerry Davis (1976)

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Well, ninth... poor Pluto.

Well, ninth… poor Pluto.

“The long low room housed three separate rows of control consoles and technicians and resembled Cape Kennedy Tracking Station in miniature.”

I’ve covered Doctor Who novels on a number of occasions, but this one takes us right back to the time of the First Doctor, as played by William Hartnell. The episode is from 1966, the book is from 1976, and it’s one of those ones that definitely shows its age.

Basically, in this story, Earth’s long lost twin planet Mondas has reappeared in the sky and the natives, Cybermen, are coming back to Earth to conquer it and steal all of its power. The Cybermen (for non-Whovians) are an alien race that were once like humans but had a desperation to survive at all costs. They replaced their body parts with metal and plastic until no flesh or bone remained and their brain was replaced with a computer. In their quest for eternal life, they lost their emotions and now run on pure logic.

On Earth, it is the year 2000 and the only people capable of stopping the invasion are the Doctor, his companions Polly and Ben, and the scientific crew of a space tracking station buried beneath Antarctica. But the Doctor is ill and his strength is failing fast. He must work with the humans to stop the invasion and remove Mondas from the sky before the Earth loses all of its power and the human race is deleted from history…

Cybermen have never been my favourite Doctor Who villains, although they look marginally more scary now than they did back then. They come across as creepy, but this is their first appearance and the writers are still clearly working through a few flaws. The Cyberman have names here (possibly the only time they ever do) and there’s still some semblance of humanity about them. They are slightly more hive-mind-like in later appearances; here they still seem to be individual. One particularly odd moment is when they disguise themselves as human soldiers.

The novel also includes the Doctor’s first regeneration at the end of the book. This can’t count as a spoiler, as the cover mentions that it is the First Doctor’s last adventure, so you know that it’s coming. It builds up to it slowly. The Doctor doesn’t do much here, merely gets older and paler, and then turns into Patrick Troughton.

The story has dated in the way that anything from that era that tries to predict the future does. It’s the year 2000 (their future, our past) and mention is made of a manned mission to Mars having just returned to Earth. I miss that optimism and, once again, I must say that it’s about time we started getting interested in manned spaceflights again. We owe it to the past, if nothing else!

A quick read, and of its time, but nonetheless interesting to see an early incarnation of both the Doctor and the Cybermen.

“The Ark In Space” by Ian Marter (1977)

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ark in space“Out among the remotest planets, in faithful orbit through the Solar System, the great Satellite revolved slowly in the glimmer of a billion distant suns, reflecting their faint light from its cold and silent surfaces.”

Huge Doctor Who fan though I am, my knowledge of it prior to the 2005 revival is rather lacking. I’ve done the research and therefore get a lot of references in the newer episodes, but I’ve seen very few of the old ones and have therefore slightly sketchy opinions on each of the actors and their portrayals of Doctors 1 through 7.

However, here I found myself with the novelisation of one of the stories featuring the Fourth Doctor, as played by the always incredible Tom Baker with companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan. I’ve never seen the episodes in question, but I may have to seek them out. It is interesting to read a book that was first done in another media, as it is so often the other way around. The last time I did that it was with the novelisation of Agatha Christie’s play Black Coffee. As an added twist, the book was written by the actor who played Harry in the show, Ian Marter. Anyway, here’s what it’s about.

The Doctor and Sarah Jane have taken Harry with them to prove that the TARDIS can indeed travel in time and space – the plan is just once around the moon then back home. However, Harry can’t resist pressing a few buttons and the three find themselves in the distant future on board a spaceship where the humans are cryogenically frozen, along with numerous other Earth species. One of the humans, Vira, defrosts and believes them to be the enemy, and they must convince her that they mean no harm and have arrived by mistake. On top of that, Sarah Jane has just gone missing and there’s something creeping about the ducts leaving sticky silvery trails behind it.

Things become even more fraught when the Doctor uncovers a Wirrrn Queen, a huge alien insect that lays its eggs inside the bodies of other living species. And there are plenty of those on board right now…

It’s a good spacey romp but it’s also a classic example of how some of the earlier Doctor Who episodes have aged. Sarah Jane immediately falls into the role of the damsel in distress, although thankfully does later prove herself as more than capable of holding her own just as was always shown in the programme, and in fact is certainly more of a hero than the old-fashioned Harry. The Doctor is in full jargon speak here, with lots of technological words batted about to describe the spaceship and the cryogenic technology, some of which goes entirely over my head. The book has the claustrophobic feel of some of the best episodes of Doctor Who (see “Midnight” from the 2008 series), but I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see much more of the Ark. Humans are shown in large numbers, and there’s a reference to elephants, but what could otherwise be a wonderful bit of scenery porn is skipped over entirely. It’s all panels and flashing lights.

It’s quite dark and the body horror inflicted on some of the characters is enough to make your skin crawl, and the Wirrrn are an interesting species but, again, I don’t know if we really see enough of them. They’re another one of those races native to the series that are perhaps justified in their evil, because that’s simply the way they do things. A good read, but a lot of wasted opportunity.