It will not take most readers long to work out that So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, the fourth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, is a very different type of novel from its predecessors. These were all (more or less) novelisations of other iterations of the story, mainly the radio series in which Hitchhiker first appeared. Fast paced and fizzing with ideas, these earlier novels can be consumed in one sitting. So long, on the other hand, is a much more reflexive novel. Adams tries to capture some of the spirit of Hitchhiker etc, but eventually settles down to a much more traditional, earth -bound romance.
At the end of Book 3 in the series, Life, the Universe and Everything, Arthur Dent, Adams’s eternal everyman, and his alien friend Ford Prefect were stranded on earth millenia before the present day. Things have now obviously moved on, because Arthur and Ford are no longer together. This is really Arthur’s novel, and Ford fades into the background playing only a minor role towards the end. Having hitchhiked across the galaxy, Arthur is dropped back on Earth, even though the planet was. as you will recall, destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a hyper-space bypass. Arthur is surprisingly calm about this, and continues to do what he knows best – hitchhike, restlessly trying to understand what has happened to restore the earth, and where all the dolphins have gone? He has a hunch the two things are connected.
On his travels he catches a lift with a man named Russell and his sister Fenchurch. Fenchurch is withdrawn and uncommunicative, and Russell hints that she is mentally unwell. It slowly becomes clear that Fenchurch’s condition is connected to the demolition of the Earth and its subsequent reappearance, which the rest of the population avoids thinking about by claiming it was mass hysteria. Arthur is fascinated by Fenchurch, partly because he is strongly attracted to her, but also because he suspects that she is one of very few people left on earth who might be able to understand what he has experienced.
As the novel unfolds their paths keep crossing and uncrossing. Arthur finds Fenchurch hitchhiking, gives her a lift, but on parting manages to lose her phone number. He then miraculously rediscovers her by searching for the cave he lived in on prehistoric Earth – her flat is on the same spot on this quasi-Earth. There is something strange about Fenchurch, and it is only when Arthur finally works it out that they are able to properly connect with one another. It transpires that Fenchurch was the woman mentioned in passing in the opening chapter of the previous novel who, moments before the earth’s demolition, had stumbled across the answer to life, the universe and everything. Someone who in the previous novel was just a throw-away gag becomes here a central character. The destruction of the earth had interrupted her epiphany, and Fenchurch is now left with a nagging sensation that a tantalising breakthrough is just out of reach – and the thought is making her ill.
Eventually, they are reunited with Ford Prefect, and they set off once again across the universe to visit the planet where God’s Final Message to His Creation is written, in the hope that it might give them some peace. On the way they encounter Marvin, the paranoid android, still as misanthropic as ever, but now some 37 times older than the known age of the universe and on his last circuits.
Neil Gaiman’s introduction reveals some of the pain Adams went through in composing So Long, but if you didn’t know it would probably still be apparent. At one point for example he retells in detail an urban legend (the one about the man sitting opposite you in a cafe who helps himself to your biscuits). It’s exquisitely told, but it’s padding nonetheless. (There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler’s mind.) Gaiman reveals that Adams’ editor moved in with him in a vain attempt to ensure that the book was completed to deadline. This might have led to some of the unevenness of tone of the novel, a feeling that every word was an effort and that the end comes as much to a relief as Adams as it did to Marvin. But a bad book by a genius can’t but help but be a work of genius, even if it is flawed. There are many moment to savour in So Long, not least the title which like many of Adams’s phrases has entered the general lexicon. This is not Adams at his best or his most inventive, and the jokes are a little dated (“There is a feeling which persists in England that making a sandwich interesting, attractive or in any way pleasant to eat is something sinful that only foreigners do.”) but it must still be treasured as part of the wider contribution he made to our culture.