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The Science Of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Michael Hanlon
Macmillan paperback £8.99 / $14.95

review by Christopher Geary

Among the ever-growing variety of genre-related non-fiction titles strewn across the shelves of favourite bookshop chains, nowadays, we find an increasing number of 'science' texts, boasting explanations - of serious theories and the less sober notions behind modern SF - that won't tax the brainpower of layman readers. In recent years, we have seen everything from Michael White's The Science Of The X-Files (Legend, 1996), to Link Yaco and Karen Haber's The Science Of The X-Men (BP, 2000). Are these authors simply following the latest trend in spin-off books? Are they exploiting a demand for detailed information concerning the 'what if...' scenarios of popular sci-fi? Indeed, is there any genuine educational value in these works?

Few, if any, of these are 'official' texts, carrying endorsements from the movie or TV programme makers, and most - such as The Science Of Jurassic Park And The Lost World by Rob DeSalle and David Lindley (HarperCollins, 1997) - benefit from the critical freedom of being quite 'unauthorised' guides to the background of whatever specific production they focus upon. With alarming reports in this new century of the slippage in education standards on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps it's pointless to question the integrity of authors like Michael White (see A Teaspoon And An Open Mind) or Michael Hanlon, or the editors and publishers of their 'science of...' books - because, considering the state of apparent decline in the average child's general knowledge of the sciences, any effort to redress the balance should be welcomed. But, are these pseudo-textbooks getting the attention of young readers? Apart from their obvious appeal to SF fandom, what market are these books intended for?

The Science Of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy opens with Hanlon's introduction, finding a spurious link between Douglas Adams' whimsical "ultimate question of life, the universe and everything," and Stephen Hawking's seminal text A Brief History Of Time (1988). However welcome and amusing that may sound to sci-fi geeks (like me!), it remains a frankly insulting suggestion, and does not bode well for Hanlon's purported instructive cause. As has been noted elsewhere, the publicity blurb for this book labels the Hitchhiker's Guide as "a prescient sci-fi classic." Even allowing for a good-natured spoofing of book promotional practices, describing the recent movie, the TV adaptation, or Douglas Adams' novels as 'prescient' is beyond a joke. Despite its well-deserved success as a comedy alternative to frequently pompous Star Trek episodes, or the lacklustre Doctor Who, there's no prescience in any version of the Hitchhiker's Guide. It's simply a parody of space opera and time travel conventions, achieving a level of intelligent humour that the scatological Red Dwarf failed to reach.

Traipsing eagerly through all the subgenre themes and off-kilter plot devices of the Hitchhiker's Guide, scouring the text for its most quirky ideas (like the 'Babel fish'), and wholeheartedly embracing both satirical and farcical elements, Hanlon reminds us how rich a confection of SF concepts the eponymous Guide offers. With chapters on the Fermi paradox (where are the aliens?), the "quest for ultimate truth" and the purpose of super-computer 'Deep Thought', the existence of god (whatever your own beliefs), there's no way to ignore how sincerely this book approaches the grandest of all philosophical questions. In re-visiting the engagingly irreverent 'restaurant at the end of the universe' and the 'big bang burger bar', we journey from mysterious origin to the limits of human destiny with tongue-in-cheek aplomb. Hanlon also tackles the mind-boggling puzzler of teleportation, the possibility versus probability strangeness of parallel worlds, the particularly queasy moral dilemma of a talking meat-animal with a conscience (as served for dinner at 'Milliways', of course!), and the disturbing, mind-numbing challenge or "ultimate punishment" of the 'total perspective vortex'.

Charting the greatest unknowns in such a light-hearted manner only underlines that today's science, especially at the cutting-edge, is largely composed of more questions than answers - and, perhaps, it will always be the case for humankind. Should we be troubled by the fact of our collective ignorance? I think not. Just as Hawking advised us to 'keep talking', the legacy of Adams, as explored in this book, prompts everyone to keep asking, regardless...
Science of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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