Seeing ourselves through others' eyes: ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

posted October 09, 2021 at 08:20 pm
By Rory J. Bolivar and Robespierre L. Bolivar

One of the recurring pop culture references in the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” centers around the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. 

Sheldon Cooper calls it a beloved novel. Leonard Hofstadter says it was his favorite book growing up. Penny bought Leonard a first edition of the novel as a birthday gift. Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrappali debate the answer to a scientific mystery by referring to the book’s plot.

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams (2021 edition, Del Rey)
‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams (2021 edition, Del Rey) 
The year 2021 is an ideal time to discover this cult sci-fi classic. This year marks the 42nd anniversary of the publication of this novel which spawned the original pentalogy. Since the number 42 is one of the most crucial plot points in the book, fans of the novel celebrate this anniversary as a milestone. A new Hulu series is also reportedly in the works, more than 15 years after the release of the 2005 film. 

Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (42nd anniversary edition, 2021, Del Rey) begins, ordinarily enough, on a Thursday morning in a quaint suburban England town. Arthur Dent, whose sole claim to fame is that he works at the local radio station, is thunderstruck when he realizes his home is being demolished to make way for the freeway. His friend Ford Prefect intervenes and saves Arthur from a cataclysmic event which makes his home demolition travails seem completely inconsequential by comparison. 

What follows is a trippy and raucous adventure of galactic proportions.

The novel is side-splittingly funny, ingenious, and delightfully cheeky. It seamlessly combines the best of absurdist humor with a penetrating look at the foibles of human society from an objective “alien” point of view. As such, we find ourselves both laughing out loud and pondering deep insights into human behavior in equal measure.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a superb satire of science fiction tropes. It lovingly skewers the hero’s journey, physics, cosmology, the search for extraterrestrial life, robotics, and our preconceived notions of UFOs, alien abduction, and dystopian futures.

Ford Prefect, an alien who has been living on Earth for 15 years, is the archetype for characters like Sheldon Cooper. He can be grossly insensitive, inappropriate, and sometimes downright weird. His seemingly incomprehensible actions, however, have an altruistic purpose and he is, at the core, a decent humanoid alien hitchhiker.

A scene on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ where Penny (Kaley Cuoco) gives Leonard (Johnny Galecki) a first edition of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. (CBS/Netflix)
A scene on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ where Penny (Kaley Cuoco) gives Leonard (Johnny Galecki) a first edition of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. (CBS/Netflix)
Arthur Dent provides the perfect foil for Ford Prefect. As a run-of-the-mill human who is unceremoniously herded off to the far reaches of space, Arthur is understandably confused and often quite nauseated. His natural human emotions play off well against Ford’s more calculating reactions. Their “perfect strangers” shtick and witty banter provides much of the novel’s comedic fodder, much like how Sheldon and Leonard’s hilarious roommate dynamics fuel “The Big Bang Theory’s” hijinks.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is also a brilliant piece of speculative fiction. In 1979, when the novel was originally published, the closest thing to a personal computer was the 1 megahertz, 96-kilobyte Commodore Personal Electronic Transactor (PET) and the Atari 2600. What passed for a comprehensive information resource was the heavy 30-volume Encyclopedia Britannica sitting on a dusty shelf in the school library.

The novel, however, foresaw the rise of electronic and audible books, the touchscreen, the motion sensor, drones, live-streaming, and online information resources similar to Wikipedia at least two decades before they became commercially available. 

In fact, aside from being the title of the novel, a fictional state-of-the-art travel guide called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is featured prominently in the novel. 

Ideal for those wishing to visit the farthest reaches of the cosmos on a budget, the Guide merges the comprehensiveness of a travel book series like Lonely Planet with the powerful search and point-to-point direction functions of Google Maps. Despite containing a gazillion data streams to account for every planet, star, moon, gas cloud, asteroid belt, and life form that can be found in the vastness of this galaxy, it comes in an easily updatable electronic format in a device the size of a large pocket calculator. 

While we now take for granted the fact that gigabytes of such information can be contained on our modern mobile phones, remember that in the late 1970s this would be like hauling an entire library of books in your backpack.

Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and Howard (Simon Helberg) debate the answer to the mystery of number 43 they found in a room Sheldon goes to. (CBS/Netflix)
Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and Howard (Simon Helberg) debate the answer to the mystery of number 43 they found in a room Sheldon goes to. (CBS/Netflix)
At its heart, the novel is an incisive and innovative – if irreverent – ethnography of the “other”, a socio-cultural examination of those whose way of life is “alien” to us. 

By seeing ourselves from another person’s point of view, we develop a keener sense of empathy. We become more circumspect in our words and actions. We better understand the value of diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness. Hopefully, we will also learn not to take anything for granted, since it would be a shame to waste time, goodwill, opportunities, and even relationships.

Instead of offering searing, in-your-face commentary which people tend to ignore or even resist, the novel offers us more easily digestible nuggets of wisdom wrapped in humor. 

If laughter is the best medicine, then books like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” are the sweet candy flavors which coat the pills we took when we were children. The flavors may not be therapeutic, but they make the medicine go down easily.

About the authors: Rory J. Bolivar is a registered microbiologist, educator, and writer. Robespierre L. Bolivar is a recipient of the Gawad Mabini, one of the highest Presidential honors bestowed upon Filipino diplomats. Follow them on Facebook @robroryreads and visit robroryreads.wixsite.com/bookreviews

Topics: The Big Bang Theory , The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by The Standard. Comments are views by thestandard.ph readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of thestandard.ph. While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with The Standard editorial standards, The Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.