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Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams2.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundAfter a gap of eight long years, Douglas Adams returned to the froody adventures of Ford Prefect and the perpetually bewildered Arthur Dent, for one final spin round space, time, and every probable and improbable universe out there. And this time, it’s a tough one, folks. It has been said that Adams never wanted to write this book, that he was simply caving in to pressure from fans, and that in fact this book threw Adams into a black mood that lasted until his untimely death.

If all those things are true, it’s surprising that as much of this book is as funny as it is. In the end, though, the joke’s on us. Adams gives his series a bleak if not altogether nihilistic ending that leaves you scratching your head and wondering what the point was. Okay, so we get to find out what the number 42 signifies, but you do come away from this story with the uncomfortable feeling that Adams has just flipped the bird at you, smiling all the while.

Earth, it would seem, occupies an area of space/time where the very fabric of the whole thing isn’t exactly in the best shape it could be. This, of course, is why the Vogons’ plan to destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass appears not to have worked terribly well and, in fact, why Arthur finds himself travelling from one alternate Earth to another in a pitiful attempt simply to find a place he can call home. He eventually settles (well, his spaceship crashes rather spectacularly) in a bucolic community where he gains a social prominence he has never known before, as their Sandwich Maker. And this is the funniest part of the whole novel, the one sequence in which it seems as if Adams is recapturing the old magic. But when Trillian — the girl Zaphod stole from Arthur years back when Earth was a place he thought he understood — shows up, bringing a surprise in tow, Arthur’s life is once again turned topsy turvy.

Ford Prefect, meanwhile, has discovered the Hitchhiker’s Guide publishing offices have been bought out by an insidious corporation run by some insidious (and familiar) aliens, and he vows he’ll hurt them any way he can. Which, it would seem, only means he starts overrunning his expense account. Here it’s clear Adams is taking a swipe at himself and his own series, as he describes how the Guide has been corrupted by the forces of evil. Methinks he doth protest too much, really. I think a fellow with Adams’ wit could have engaged in self-deprecating humor without lapsing into self-loathing.

Mostly Harmless is not irredeemably dreadful by any means, and at times sports Adams’ most impressive writing and plotting in the entire series. Just when it seems as if absolutely nothing is going to make sense no matter how hard you try, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit just so. Playing with the very concept of probability as if it were some perverse erector set he’d dug out of his attic, Adams runs riot with ideas. But by the climax, things have simply gotten chaotic, with Adams clearly in a hurry to finish the book and get it over with.

I heard a rumor (there are always rumors) that at the time of his death, Adams’ frame of mind had improved markedly and he was considering a sixth book in the series to, in effect, apologize for this one and bring back the characters, crazy situations, and, most crucially, the humor that so many millions of fans had come to love. (And indeed, in 2002, a book titled The Salmon of Doubt comprised of Adams’ notes for that novel, as well as other personal papers, was released.) Had he gotten that chance, one can only imagine what extremes of imagination Adams would have been able to experiment with. The legacy that Adams left, however, is certainly nothing to disregard, and it shines through his work despite the shortcomings of books like this one. His wit may only have been mostly harmless, but it’s the little elements that aren’t so harmless that stick with you — that, and Adams’ most important message: that no matter how senseless and out of control reality and life seem to be, for crying out loud...Don’t Panic!