tek's rating: ½
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, by Douglas Adams (pub. 1984)
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Well, this is the fourth book in the series, which is still referred to as a "trilogy." I've always thought the idea that a trilogy could include more than three books fits in perfectly with the absurdity of this series, and it's probably the only series (of books or movies or anything) in which I find it acceptable to do so. (Not that there aren't equally absurd series, out there, but it's sort of a tradition with this series to call it a trilogy, a tradition that is observed by a great many fans, and I'm not inclined to share the tradition with other series.) The book came out in 1984, but I probably didn't read it for the first time until, like, the mid- to late-90s. At the time, I may have considered it my very favorite book in the trilogy, or maybe I didn't feel that way til a bit later... for personal reasons that I suppose it would be best not to reveal. In any event, I reread the book in 2018 (finishing it on my 43rd birthday, and writing the review a couple of days later). At that point, I decided it's really only my second favorite book in the trilogy, after the original. But it remains a close call.
The book begins with a prologue which is, up to a point, virtually identical to the prologue from the first book. At one point in that prologue, a young woman suddenly realizes how to make the world a better place, but fails to inform anyone of her epiphany, because the Earth was suddenly demolished by Vogons. In the first book, the prologue says "This is not her story," and then goes on to explain a bit of what the story is actually about. However, in this book, when the prologue reaches that point, it says "This is her story." And then just stops, and we move on to chapter 1. I thought all this was a very nice touch. Although I'm afraid that the book actually turns out to be rather less about the young woman than it is about Arthur Dent. Still, she is important enough to the story that we get to know her well enough that I can say I quite like her. And I quite like the romance that develops between her and Arthur. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Arthur arrives on Earth, after hitchhiking through the galaxy, finally returning home after having lived for some time on the planet Krikkit. I have no idea how he learned that the Earth had come back into existence, but I suppose it's not important. The important thing is he's home. Um... the book also introduces us to a dismal man named Rob McKenna. I don't really feel like revealing anything about him, since he's of relatively little importance to the story. Still, I felt it was at least worth mentioning him in passing. We also get to see a bit of what Ford Prefect is up to, in other parts of the galaxy. (I never remembered much about his part in the story, but one thing I did always remember is that the edited version of his entry about Earth in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which said just "Mostly harmless," was finally restored to the much longer full text he had written about the planet over the course of the fifteen years he spent stranded on Earth. Sadly, we don't get to read all of it, but the bits we do get are quite fun.) Meanwhile, Arthur gets a ride from a rather grumpy man named Russell, whose sister, "Fenny," is passed out in the back seat. Despite her being unconscious, Arthur falls in love with her at first sight. He also learns from Russell that the Vogon ships which had destroyed the Earth had in fact not destroyed the Earth, but simply disappeared, and had since then been taken by everyone on Earth to have been a mass hallucination. All that had happened about eight years ago, from Arthur's perspective, but somehow, from everyone on Earth's perspective, it had only been about six months ago.
He also finds that his house has not been demolished, as it had been in the first book, shortly before the Vogons demolished the Earth. Aside from several months worth of accumulated junk mail and dust, the one different thing his house now contained was a fishbowl with the message "So Long, and Thanks..." engraved on it. Anyway, he goes about the business of getting back into his old life, including meeting up with old friends and telling tall tales about his having been in California during his half year's absence. And eventually, he happens to spot Fenny, and gives her a ride to a train station, where they stop and have drinks while she waits for her train. They get to know each other a bit (including the fact that her name is actually Fenchurch), and it goes pretty well, and she gives him her phone number, which, for reasons I won't get into, he loses. But he eventually finds Fenchurch again, some weeks later. And the two of them begin a quite delightful relationship (which includes his teaching her to fly). And Arthur eventually learns that she had had a great epiphany, which she completely forgot after the Earth was demolished, and very much wants to remember. She seems to be the only person who didn't really think the alien ships destroying the world was a hallucination, but of course Arthur knows it wasn't. So it seems they really do have a deep and unique connection that makes them seem, in my opinion, more like genuine soulmates than any other two people you might care to mention, real or fictional.
Arthur also learns that at the time of the Earth's destruction, all the dolphins in the world disappeared, a fact which everyone else has long since accepted, but is of course shocking to him. Though Fenchurch has heard of a man in California who apparently knows more about dolphins than anyone on Earth, and she was thinking of going to see him. Arthur contacts a very odd journalist acquaintance of his, hoping to learn something about the man in California. He does manage to get his phone number, and talks to the man's wife. The man's name is John Watson (presumably no relation to Sherlock Holmes's partner), though he prefers to be called Wonko the Sane. His wife is called Arcane Jill. And... Arthur and Fenchurch finally do fly (on an airplane) to California, to meet Wonko. It's definitely an unusual meeting, but an interesting one. I won't give away too many details, but I will say he had a fishbowl just like the one Arthur had found in his home when he first returned. We also learn that Fenchurch had such a bowl, but Russell had stolen it. The bowl has a use neither Fenchurch nor Arthur had been aware of, and it finally reveals to them how the Earth came to be in existence despite having been destroyed. It (the planet), like the fishbowls, was a gift from the dolphins.
Events lead to Arthur telling Fenchurch about God's Final Message to His Creation, the location of which he had learned from Prak at the end of the previous book. And Fenchurch wants to go see it, in the hopes that it would remind her what her own epiphany had been. Which means they'll have to try to spot an alien ship, which Arthur doesn't really want to do, because he hated his travels in space so much. But he's willing to do it, for Fenchurch's sake. As luck would have it, Ford shows up before long. And... things happen involving the spaceship on which Ford had hitched a ride to Earth. I don't want to get into all that, but by the time the ship is ready to leave again, he and Arthur and Fenchurch manage to board it and hitch a ride away from Earth. (Oh, but there was a bit about how the people of the planet the ship hailed from are ruled by lizards, whom the people all hate, but continuously vote into office anyway. I thought it was a very amusing and entirely apt metaphor for many of the real democracies on Earth, most certainly including the United States.) Also I should say that Trillian and Zaphod are mentioned in passing, but don't actually appear in this book at all. Anyway, Arthur and Fenchurch finally arrive on the planet where God's Last Message is located. (Ford is no longer with them. I don't know where he's off to, but I suppose he wasn't interested.) On their trek to the message's location, they run into Marvin, but I won't spoil anything about what happens with him. I also won't spoil what the actual message turned out to be. I thought it was fairly fitting, for what it was meant to be, but not particularly useful. Still, all three of them liked it, and Fenchurch remembered her epiphany, though I still don't quite see how this message could be put into actual practice, in the way we were led to believe Fenchurch's idea could be. But if they're happy, I'm happy.
Then there's a brief epilogue that has nothing to do with anything.
I hope I'm not forgetting anything I wanted to say. But, you know, it is all just as amusing as any other book in the series, even if it's not quite as absurd as the others. (It's more down to Earth, both literally and figuratively... except when Arthur and Fenchurch are flying.) And it's really nice to see Arthur happy, for a change, and back in his element. And I really do love Fenchurch.