Cosmic hitchhikers through parallel universes

Monday Book Review

May 09, 1994|By Dave Edelman

MOSTLY HARMLESS. By Douglas Adams. Harmony Books. 277 pages. $20.

DOUGLAS Adams' 15 minutes of fame as the author of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series came to a close years ago. Why, then, should he suddenly add another installment to the humor/sci-fi story when he's moved on to more ambitious projects?

After reading "Mostly Harmless," the series' fifth book, it seems plausible that Mr. Adams simply needs the money. Although the book definitely has its moments, Adams has apparently grown bored and cynical about the entire concept. The result is a moderately funny but unnecessary book with Elvis jokes you can see coming light-years away.

For those not familiar with the "Hitchhiker" series, their premise is this: An extremely dry Englishman named Arthur Dent escapes from the Earth seconds before it is blown up to make way for a new Intergalactic Hyperspace Bypass. Dent ends up cavorting through time and space with a droll group of aliens and having adventures that defy logical connection.

The first three "Hitchhiker" books gathered a large cult following through their intense mockery of science fiction, philosophy and British snobbery.

"Mostly Harmless" picks up the story from several different angles. Dent, with his "Hitchhiker" pals Ford Prefect and Trillian, have somehow found themselves in different parallel universes. Moreover, they find that the ground rules of their lives have radically changed. Dent returns to Earth to find it inhabited by distinctly unhuman creatures who communicate by biting each other on the thigh. Prefect discovers that his employers are concocting a plot to sell their pan-galactic traveler's handbook to everyone in several dimensions at once. And there are two Trillians wandering around, one of whom has had a daughter with Arthur Dent -- without his knowledge, of course.

Mr. Adams works best when he tries to lightly poke holes in the concept of rationality. (The author did, after all, once work for the comedy troupe Monty Python.) One of the book's cleverest bits comes in its opening scene, when a spaceship computer frantically tries to recall its mission after a passing meteor blows out its stored memories. The ship's crew, without any recollection of what it is supposed to do, ends up latching onto the first passing mission it can find -- astrology -- and sticking to it with the utmost tenacity.

If this all sounds confusing, it must have been doubly so to the author. Mr. Adams' response to the jumble he has created is most curious. He wraps up all of the book's sub-plots in one final scene that sourly places the "Hitchhiker" series into what seems to be permanent retirement.

It's an unexpected shift of gears into utter misanthropy from Mr. Adams' normal light comedy. Nothing seems to have come of all the chaos, and the impression the reader gets is that the puppetmaster has tossed his puppets out the window in annoyance.

Somewhere buried in the mess is a moral about learning how to feel at home in a chaotic universe. Unfortunately, Mr. Adams'skills at conveying serious messages are nowhere near on a level with his skill at conjuring up non sequiturs, and the idea gets buried.

When an author is cynical about his own work, that should be a clear enough signal. Fans of the "Hitchhiker's" series may still find things to chuckle at in "Mostly Harmless," but few would want to invest in more than the paperback version. The merely curious would do better borrowing the book from a friend.

Dave Edelman writes from Cockeysville.

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