Oh, dear. Oh dear dear dear. What can have happened? It's hardly surprising that, following the combined success of the radio show, the first two novels, and the TV series, Douglas Adams would want to keep the gravy train chugging along. Sadly, the results with the third Hitchhikers novel seem oh so blasé. The book feels uninspired, perfunctory, just plain not very funny. It doesn't even read like a Hitchhikers novel; it reads like someone's imitation of a Hitchhikers novel. Here, wacky spontaneity gives way to simple incoherence; gags are painfully labored and dragged out to interminable length; and, most alarmingly, the light-hearted air of the originals has been, in some instances, invaded by a palpable and discomforting cynicism.
Adams seems even to have lost his grip on his own characters. Nobody seems like their old selves. This time, Ford and Arthur scarcely seem like the two hopelessly lost hitchhikers we've come to know and love; Marvin's moroseness is no longer funny, and he begins to annoy us the way he always did the rest of the cast; and Zaphod's hilarious egotism and uncool "coolness" has mutated into something irksome and unpleasant. Doug, what the hell?
Now, to be fair, the book is not an utter loss, and once you're about halfway through the skeleton of a plot begins to grow flesh. But it's true that most of the magic is missing. (Particularly those delightful passages excerpting entries in the HHG itself. Whatever happened to those?) Basically the storyline is this: Ford and Arthur, after having spent four years living on prehistoric Earth, where they had been deposited with the Golgafrinchans, manage to hitch a ride back to the 20th century on a piece of free-floating space-time detritus (an old sofa, actually). There they meet again with Slartibartfast, the old fellow from the first book who was responsible for designing Norway; Slartibartfast is now engaged on a quest to prevent the vicious natives of the planet Krikkit from emerging from the stasis field that surrounds Krikkit, and relaunching their campaign to destroy all life everywhere.
If that sounds like a surpringly grim plot premise for this series, you'd be right. Sure, Adams has taken us to the very end of existence itself, has introduced us to vile aliens like the Vogons, and has forced poor Marvin the Paranoid Android to hang around in a parking lot for umpteen million years waiting for our heroes to come collect him. But as you can tell from what I just wrote, there's an abiding sense of Looney Tunes silliness about all of that, that made the evil in the early Hitchhikers stories such a hilarious subject of farce and absurdism. The Krikkit thing is delivered (quite possibly unintentionally) with a bit of a nasty edge that causes more discomfort than it should as you read it. Some humorous passages (such as the bit about Lallafa the poet, or the running subplot of a character who keeps being accidentally killed by Arthur, then resurrected only to be killed by him again) in the early vein only serve to throw Adams' newfound cynicism into high relief. But finally it must be said that this book's principal failing is that it just isn't all that funny. Something is different here, and the few chuckles Adams does manage to generate this time out have an odd habit of sticking in your throat.