The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Novel Beat Sheet
Written by: Douglas Adams
Publisher: Pocket Books paperback—original publication in 1979 by Pan Books, based on the BBC radio series from 1978
Total pages: 215
Genre: Dude with a Problem having a dash of Golden Fleece adventure
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or HG2G, as longtime fans sometimes call it, is a weirdly wonderful and sentimental favorite, even among readers whose literary preferences don’t typically bend toward zany space travel. The novel had its origins in a BBC Radio 4 radio series in the late 1970s. As a science fiction comedy on the airwaves, written by Douglas Adams of Doctor Who and Monty Python fame, it was a huge and immediate hit.
Its popularity continued when published in book form, selling over 250,000 copies in its first three months alone and over fifteen million in Adams’s lifetime. It also inspired a five-book “trilogy,” a television series, a 2005 feature film, a number of stage plays, comics, and a video game. In homage to his beloved story, Adams even had an asteroid named after his main character (18610 Arthurdent) and another one named after himself (25924 Douglasadams). All this, and fans everywhere still celebrate May 25th annually as “Towel Day” in his honor.
The legacy Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001) left us—aside from this cleverly written and long-lasting comedic series, among his other works—is also this short but important message: “Don’t Panic.” I find these reassuring words (located on the front cover of his fictional guide) to be a much-needed reminder to relax and take a deep breath as I deal with whatever I must face next in the world/universe around us.
May Adams’s distinctive sense of humor and insight bring some lightness to you, too, whether you’re reading this story for the first time… or, like me, for the gazillionth.
Here are my take on the beats for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 3): The introductory pages inform the readers in a delightfully satirical tone what this story will be about, which is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—a remarkable book, slightly cheaper than the great Encyclopedia Galactica and, rather importantly, “it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” The novel is also about a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions and a house.
Set-Up (pages 5 – 28): The house belongs to Earthman/Englishman/Everyman Arthur Dent, who is 30 years old, single, and works in radio. His house has never been a source of problems for him until very recently (read: just yesterday) when Arthur learned it was scheduled for demolition to make room for a new bypass. Arthur is told by the person about to bulldoze his house that he should have known about this. That the plans have been “on display” for months (in a dark and locked filing cabinet, located in an unused lavatory in a basement of the local planning office, as it turns out). That he has no right to argue about it now.
Arthur is displeased and plants himself in the mud in front of the yellow bulldozer to keep his house from being demolished. Unbeknownst to any of the humans involved in this exchange, their very own Earth is likewise scheduled for demolition. It’s in the direct path of an alien construction fleet set on plowing down our “mostly harmless” planet to make way for a hyperspatial express route through the star system.
No one around is aware of this impending disaster except for Arthur’s good friend, Ford Prefect, who is not an out-of-work actor, as he’s pretended to be for the last five or six years since he and Arthur met. Oh, no. Ford is secretly a roving researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and has been stranded on Earth for the past 15 years. He’s desperate to return to his home planet, which is somewhere “in the vicinity of Betelgeuse,” and has been waiting for any opportunity to escape.
Theme Stated (page 12): When Ford would get overly drunk, longing to be rescued and returned to the place he belonged, policemen would often ask him, “Don’t you think it’s about time you went off home, sir?” To which Ford would inevitably reply, “I’m trying to, baby, I’m trying to.” Finding one’s way home (or to the place one belongs) is a major theme in the course of the novel—for more than one character.
Catalyst (pages 24 – 25): Ford drags Arthur away from his soon-to-be-destroyed house and takes him to the local pub, trying to explain to his human friend that he is, in fact, an alien, and that the world they’re living in is about to end. He buys them both several pints of beer and instructs Arthur to drink up. Ford is acutely aware of the looming catastrophe and knows they’ve only got about 12 minutes left.
Debate (pages 28 – 36): Ford continues trying to explain to his pal that the bulldozing of the house doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. But until Arthur goes outside and sees the gigantic yellow Vogon Construction Fleet with his own eyes, hovering in the sky and intent on imminent planetary destruction (which the Earthlings should have known about already, since the plans for the interstellar bypass had been on display in the planning office on Alpha Centauri for eons…), Arthur doesn’t believe what his friend is trying to tell him.
Ford, of course, is somewhat more prepared than the humans surrounding him. And while he wishes the Vogons weren’t the ones who finally appeared on the scene, Ford will take any rescuers he can get. He is ever ready and knows exactly where his towel is.
Break into Two (page 36): There is momentary worldwide panic, but the Vogons are as merciless in their mission of destruction as the humans so intent on destroying Arthur’s house had been. There is silence, a dreadful noise as Earth is vaporized by the aliens, and then silence again. The Earth is now gone, and the Vogon Construction Fleet sails away through space. For Arthur and Ford, however, the adventure is just beginning.
B Story (pages 37 – 45): Meanwhile, five hundred thousand light-years away, the President of the Imperial Galactic Government, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who just so happens to be a semi-cousin of Ford’s, steals a spacecraft called the Heart of Gold. He has the help of a very intelligent human named Tricia McMillan, aka “Trillian,” a woman Arthur actually chatted up once at party in London. (Arthur also met Zaphod, who was calling himself “Phil” at the time.) The improbable manner in which this spacecraft works will quickly intersect with Ford and Arthur’s intergalactic experience.
Fun and Games (pages 46 – 120): The promise of the premise is in full swing here, complete with space-travel wackiness, numerous near-death experiences, and alien introductions. Due to Ford’s specialized skills and tools, he and Arthur hitch a ride onto the Vogon ship, sparing them from an untimely demise.
Unfortunately, the Vogons aren’t fans of hitchhikers, and their leader Jeltz, after inflicting his notoriously bad poetry upon the pair, throws them into the airlock to be tossed into outer space to perish. Seconds before that happens, Zaphod, Trillian, and the crew aboard the Heart of Gold (which includes an overly cheerful shipboard computer named Eddie, a very depressed robot named Marvin, and a pair of white mice) accidentally rescue Arthur and Ford.
Ford explains nifty things like how the Babel fish translation system works, why packing a towel is so important, and what he came to Earth to do, including further details about the Hitchhiker’s Guide. They learn more about the starship Heart of Gold with its Infinite Improbability Drive, get to know or become reacquainted with their companions (Zaphod, the President of the Galaxy, has acquired a second head and an additional arm since Arthur saw him at that party), and travel at high interstellar speeds toward a mythical planet called Magrathea.
Few in the galaxy—with the exception of Zaphod—believe the lore. He and Ford argue about the planet’s existence until, in fact, the ship’s Improbability Drive brings them right to it.
Midpoint (pages 120 – 121): Normally, this would be a turning point signaling either false victory or false defeat. Douglas Adams, however, manages to openly subvert expectation by telling the reader that too much suspense can be worrisome. Stress and nervous tension have become seriously problematic for individuals across the galaxy and, therefore, the narrator wants to let us all know that, yes, a major disaster will soon strike, but—not to worry!—everything will be okay. Also, Zaphod has been correct all along, and Magrathea does exist.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 122 – 145): Exactly as predicted, there are problems. Big problems. The not-so-mythical planet begins launching nuclear missiles at them. In a last-ditch attempt to save them, Arthur flips on the switch for the ship’s Improbability Drive, which is a move that could kill them all. (Then again, so could Magrathea’s nuclear missiles.) Explosions of noise and light follow.
Against all odds, the missiles are bizarrely transformed into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, which is the kind of weird thing that can happen with the Improbability Drive. Trillian discovers that her two white mice have escaped, but only she seems upset by this. The team heads out to visit the planet but soon splits up. Zaphod leaves Arthur and Marvin (aka “the Paranoid Android”) to guard the surface entrance to the passageway, while he, Ford, and Trillian go down into the planet’s interior to explore the dark underground tunnels.
All Is Lost (page 145): Whiff of death. A steel shutter traps Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian down below and gasses them until they pass out.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 146 – 149): Meanwhile, up above on Magrathea’s surface, Arthur and Martin wander around moodily in the darkness and cold. His friends are taking a very long time to return, but a small bit of brightness comes in the form of watching a double sunset. After that, however, the night is so inky black that he nearly walks into an old man.
Break into Three (page 150 – 157): The man has the odd name of Slartibartfast, but he is the keeper of a great deal of important information about the planets Magrathea and Earth. He insists (read: threatens) that Arthur follow him—or else.
Finale (pages 158 – 214): A and B Stories cross as the background behind Arthur’s home planet of Earth getting blown up merges with Zaphod’s mission to Magrathea and Trillian’s missing white mice. Slartibartfast takes Arthur via aircar deep into the place where the Magratheans work their creative magic, that is, the area dedicated to the building of other planets. They’re currently constructing a second version of Earth—after all, they made the first one.
Slartibartfast explains that it was the hyperintelligent pandimensional beings (who look a lot like mice) who’d paid for the original Earth and used it as a giant supercomputer. Their prior computer came to the conclusion that the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” was 42. Unfortunately, they were still unclear as to what the correct question was… Enter the original Earth, which was nearly finished computing a definitive response to this when the Vogon Construction Fleet destroyed the planet. But because Arthur was on Earth just moments before it was vaporized, his human brain might yet hold the answer (or, rather, the question to the ultimate answer) that the smart mice have been waiting for.
Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian have reawakened and are sent in to meet these mice leaders (although Trillian brought them from Earth and knew them previously as her pets), and Arthur is reunited with his friends. The mice—named Frankie mouse and Benjy mouse—who have been manipulating their way back to Magrathea, thanks to Trillian, Zaphod, and the Heart of Gold, now have a proposition for Arthur: They’d like to buy his brain and dice it up, but they’ll generously replace it with an electronic one.
Arthur declines with a hard no, but the mice are determined and their thugs attack Arthur and his pals. Then the galactic police show up, wanting to arrest Zaphod for stealing the spaceship, and the cops respond by shooting. Fortunately, up on the surface, Marvin the robot has been complaining so much to the computer on the police’s ship that it shuts down and kills the cops. Then, with the help of Slartibartfast’s aircar, Zaphod, Trillian, Arthur, and Ford are able to make their escape.
Final Image (page 215): Back on the spaceship, Arthur is flipping through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and comes across an entry that says every major civilization tends to pass through the stages of “Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication,” or, phases known as How, Why, and Where. This is depicted clearly by the questions: “How can we eat?” Then, “Why do we eat?” And finally, “Where shall we have lunch?”
He doesn’t get to read any further because Zaphod interrupts him and suggests they all go out for a quick bite at the Restaurant and the End of the Universe, thus setting the trajectory in motion for the second book in the series to begin and enticing fans from across the galaxy to read on.