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Culture Re-View: How Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy changed sci-fi language

42, the number forever associated with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
42, the number forever associated with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Copyright Canva
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By Jonny Walfisz
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On this day, episode 1 of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy debuted. The whimsical radio sci-fi show has gone on to influence almost all of science fiction.

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8 March 1978: The first chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It was a quiet, late winter night for the British public when they tuned into BBC Radio 4 and entered the weird world and wonderful of Douglas Adams.

On this day, the very first episode of English author Adams’ legendary series 'The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy' was released. In just the first 30 minutes of the masterpiece of comedy sci-fi, we meet hapless human Arthur Dent. He’s woken up to find his home is set to be demolished. But that isn’t half of his problems. His friend Prefect quickly whisks him away as the entire Earth is about to be destroyed.

The first episode set the tone for one of the funniest examples of British writing ever put to tape.

The pilot was originally commissioned in 1977, the first series debuted in 1978. The show was a success and Adams adapted it into a novel. Adams then followed the first series with a second helping for radio, as well as a novel adaptation called 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe' in 1980.

Over the next 12 years, Adams published five novels in the Hitchhiker’s series, which he described as “a trilogy in five parts”.

It’s hard to understate the influence that Adams’ series of sci-fi novels has had on the arts - everything from his characters to his tone have inflected public consciousness.

Quotes like “Don’t Panic” are emblazoned on countless t-shirts and other memorabilia, while characters like Marvin the Paranoid Android was the inspiration for the title of a Radiohead song.

Touchstone Pictures
Warwick Davis, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def and Martin Freeman in 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'Touchstone Pictures

One of the biggest imprints that an idea from the series has had on other art forms is with the number 42. 

At one point, a supercomputer is asked to provide “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything”. After centuries of computation, the number “42” is given as the only answer.

Many people have theorised why Adams chose 42. He answered the speculation once and for all though. 

“The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do' I typed it out. End of story.”

Still, the number 42 shows up in just about every sci-fi vehicle at some point, including Doctor Who, Star Trek, The X-Files, and Lost - showing the influence Adams has had on other writers.

Another phrase that’s entered the lexicon thanks to Adams is what the dolphins say when leaving the planet before imminent destruction: “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

Sadly, Adams died in 2001 aged just 49. He leaves behind a legacy of some absolutely brilliant writing. The radio show and the books are widely available and are all worth digging into, as is an alright film adaptation for those too lazy to read or listen.

So long and thanks for all the fish!

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