Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the confusion surrounding exactly what it is, due to the haphazard way it was developed. The author was famously disorganised to the despair of his publishers and programme makers (a quote from him: "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."). My copy of the book, an omnibus edition by Heinemann, is subtitled A Trilogy in Four Parts, and as well as the title story includes: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. These are not long, each story taking 130-150 pages. Most usefully, the omnibus has an introduction by the author (A Guide to the Guide) explaining the sequence of events, briefly summarised as follows:
Adams had always been attracted by the idea of combining science fiction with comedy, but the only person he could find who was prepared to support him was a BBC radio producer, so a radio series was how it started; on BBC Radio 4 in March 1978. This consisted of six episodes, but one more appeared later that year. This generated enough of a response for Pan Books to commission a book version of the series, which emerged in September 1979 and was an instant hit. To quote Adams: "It was a substantially expanded version of the first four episodes of the radio series, in which some of the characters behaved in entirely different ways and others behaved in exactly the same ways but for entirely different reasons, which amounts to the same thing but saves rewriting the dialogue". In case you were wondering, the 1979 book covered only the first four episodes because Adams kept missing deadlines and Pan lost patience… At about the same time, a double record album was released which was an entirely fresh recording, and was a slightly contracted version of the first four episodes. In January 1980 five new episodes of THHGTTG were broadcast, giving a total of twelve. In autumn 1980 the second book was published with the title The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which was "a very substantially reworked, re-edited and contracted version of episodes 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 5 and 6 (in that order)". At about the same time, a second record album was made featuring a heavily rewritten and expanded version of episodes 5 and 6 of the radio series, under the TRATEOTU title. Meanwhile, a six-episode TV version of THHGTTG was made by the BBC and broadcast in 1981. "It was based, more or less, on the first six episodes of the radio series". So it incorporated most of the book versions of THHGTTG and the second half of TRATEOTU. "though it followed the basic structure of the radio series, it incorporated revisions from the books, which didn't". In summer 1982 a third novel was published with the title Life, the Universe, and Everything. "This was not based on anything that had already been heard or seen on radio or television. In fact it flatly contradicted episodes 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the radio series". Adams then worked on a film screenplay "which was completely inconsistent with most of what had gone on so far" (a film version eventually emerged in 2005, four years after Adams died). Then he wrote a fourth book of the trilogy, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, which was published in 1984 and "effectively contradicted everything to date, up to and including itself". I hope that everything is now absolutely clear…
Wikipedia points out that THHGTTG also spawned several stage plays, comics, and a computer game. Plus the naming of two asteroids: Douglasadams and Arthurdent (after the principal character). My own introduction to this alternate universe was the TV series, which I loved and saw twice, which meant that I judged everything else by it; as a result I wasn't that impressed by the film, although it had its moments. In reading the "trilogy" I realised that I only recognised the first two volumes – I must have bought the omnibus and forgotten to read the others, so I had the pleasure of reading a lot of it for the first time. So to the first volume:
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The story begins with Arthur Dent, a completely ordinary Englishman, an "everyman" who becomes the focus of the entire series. His friend Ford Prefect turns out to be an alien (an explanation of the joke to non-Brits: the alien had chosen his name on arrival since it appeared to be very common, but he didn't realise it was actually the name of a small and very ordinary British car). Ford warns Arthur that the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspatial express route – which duly happens, but Ford manages to hitch a ride for Arthur and himself on one of the Vogon ships which had carried out the destruction. Here, Arthur is introduced to The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book-sized machine which contains a vast amount of information of varying reliability which is more or less useful to those travelling around the galaxy; reassuringly, it has DON'T PANIC on the cover. He also has a babelfish inserted into his ear, which carries out the useful task of translating any language into English.
The adventures of Arthur and Ford include hitching another ride on a stolen spaceship in which they meet up with the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox and his girlfriend Trillian as well as Marvin the Paranoid Android. They find the long-lost planet Magrathea where new planets are made to order (including the Earth, made to order by Slartibartfast for a specific purpose, for a non-human race). They learn about the vast computer which was created to provide the answer to life, the universe and everything, and after seven million years of thought famously came up with the answer "42" (sorry if that's a spoiler!).
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: In this story, the real reason for the destruction of the Earth is revealed (but only to the reader). After further adventures during which the group are pursued by law enforcement officers over Zaphod's theft of the spaceship, they arrive at Milliways, a unique restaurant which has the ability to transcend time, so its meals are served while it is perched on a piece of rock just when the universe is about to end. It is during this meal that the famous talking cow episode takes place. The group decide to steal another spaceship, not realising that it is designed for one purpose – to crash into a star as part of a performance by Disaster Area, the loudest band in galactic history. Escaping once more, the group is separated, with Arthur and Ford finding themselves trapped on a huge spaceship which is conveying millions of carefully selected people (although with unusual selection criteria) to another world, where it crash-lands.
Life, the Universe, and Everything: At the start of this story, Arthur and Ford have been trapped for years on the world they crash-landed, but with the aid of a Chesterfield sofa and an eddy in space-time they are able to return to something like normality, only to encounter the existential threat of the Masters of Krikkit and their deadly robots. They eventually rejoin Slartibartfast (and later, Zaphod, Trillian and Marvin), and Arthur learns to defy gravity, while first Marvin and then Arthur both end up saving the Universe in unexpected ways.
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish: Arthur returns to the Earth by himself, after discovering that it hadn't been destroyed after all (or, if it had, it had been replaced by an identical copy complete with identical people). Here, at last, he meets the girl of his dreams and together they discover God's Final Message to His Creation.
Adams had a peculiarly British sense of humour which doesn't necessarily travel well, but anyone who appreciates Monty Python will love Adams. These stories are packed with comic incidents and anecdotes from Adams' free-wheeling imagination and there is nothing else quite like them in SFF (although as I was recently reminded, Robert Sheckley's style is worth comparing). I thoroughly enjoyed reacquainting myself with Adams' work, and discovering the two later volumes was an unexpected treat.