When we talk about books that made us, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a key foundational text for me. Granted, I played the text-based video game first before reading the book, but it was the first book I read that really broke all the rules of literature.
It was the first absurdist book I truly had read. There were sentences like “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” It’s often used as an example of bad descriptions but I beg to differ. The scenarios, the characters, etc. were so pitch perfect and strange. Perfect for me. Plus a five-book trilogy? Yes, please. I even like the BBC television show with the low-tech special effects — Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head is clearly a mannequin head. Plus the animations for the Guide were actually really good. Sadly, the recent movie was not up to snuff.
The book inspired my Twitter handle that I am still holding on to today — Vogon Troubadour — despite everything. I even co-published some terrible poetry under that pen name recently, as well as made a pilgrimage to Douglas Adams’s gravesite by accident, which I feel is the best way to have done it. (We went to Highgate Cemetery because it sounded interesting and it turns out he was buried there. And so was Karl Marx. Go figure).
So naturally, when I hear a book compared to Hitchhiker’s, I am interested in learning more.
So here’s a list of books that I feel maintain the spirit of Douglas Adams’s absurdity and imagination.
Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling, Translated by Jamie Lee Searle
Translated from German, this book envisions a world where algorithms have taken over our lives. Everyone has a score based on their job, and 41 other subcategories that decide everything about your life from whether cabs will take you places to whether your girlfriend will dump you, and even if you can take pictures of celebrities. You never have to order anything; just think of it, and it will show up at your door.
Peter Jobless likes to take in broken robots, and instead of incinerating them like he is supposed to, he keeps them as friends. When an object arrives at Peter’s door that he does not want or need, he ends up on a quest to try to return it. But how can the perfect system be wrong? It’s like Brave New World and Hitchhiker’s had a baby.
Guards! Guards! By Terry Pratchett
I could have chosen any of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, but this was the first one I fell in love with. It’s the eighth book but also the first book in the City Watch series. The Night Watch is led by the circumspect Captain Vimes and not exactly populated with the best and the brightest. But when Carrot Ironfoundersson shows up with an encyclopedic knowledge of the law and an almost suicidal desire to do good, the Night Watch gets shaken up. Add a dragon and a plot to take down the government and the Night Watch has a lot of work on its hands. The worldbuilding is amazing; the commentary is top notch.
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
This is one of my favorite books from 2021. The story focuses on Katrina, a young trans woman with a love of the violin who has run away from her abusive home. But that’s just the start. She meets Shizuka Satomi, an extraordinary violin teacher who has made a pact with the devil to hand over the souls of seven of her brilliant students to Hell. But then Satomi accidentally ends up in a donut shop run by space aliens who have run away from their crumbling society. The plot is out there with the soul-damning violin teacher and space alien donut bakers, but it works. It’s not as lighthearted as most of the books on this list, but its absurd plot makes me think of Hitchhiker’s. You should read it anyway.
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson
Alcatraz never stayed at any foster home for long. Things would break. A lot. But when he turned 13, he received a bag of sand from the father he never knew. This gift makes him a target of an evil cult of librarians. Yes, librarians. He gets rescued by a ragtag crew and finds out there is a whole world that he never knew about that his parents were part of until he was left. It’s a wild and wacky first book in a series with five current books, and a sixth book that will someday come out. The tone and the world-building screams influences of Hitchhiker’s.
Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
I was hooked the moment I read there was a crime syndicate called the Fridge that freezes people. And there are psychic cats. I mean, come on! With a touch of the animated series Futurama and live action show Firefly, Chilling Effect stars Captain Eva Innocente who runs a spaceship that makes deliveries across the galaxy. Things are getting tight after she stops working for her dad with his less than legal business dealings. When her sister gets kidnapped by the Fridge, she has to take increasingly difficult and sketchy jobs to pay the exorbitant ransom. But as she digs, she finds dark secrets that have her questioning everything. Book three comes out in 2022.
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Imagine a future where historians can use time travel to study their areas of interest, but the system is set up so that they can’t change important events. This is the second book in the Oxford Time Travel series but it also works as a standalone and is the most comedic (by far) of the series. Ned Henry is sent back to get some Victorian monstrosity called The Bishop’s Bird-Stump but when another time traveler brings something back that she shouldn’t have, Ned is pulled into a wacky adventure in the Victorian era trying to fix her mistake. It’s a wonderful tribute to the comedic novel by Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (which is also worth a read).
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
I’m all about the murderous cupcakes. The tagline is “Being a superheroine is hard. Working for one is even harder.” Evie Tanaka is trying to balance being a good parent to her teenage sister and the assistant of Aveda Jupiter, a San Francisco superhero. But when she pretends to be Aveda one night, her own superpowers come to the forefront. With a little romance thrown in, how can Evie get everything done and save the world?
Clovenhoof by Heide Goody & Iain Grant
What if you do your job so badly that you get kicked out of the kingdom? And what if you are Satan and get yourself thrown out of Hell? Satan now lives in a British suburb under the name Jeremy Clovenhoof, but his notoriety goes unnoticed by his neighbors. It’s wacky and overtop with eight books in this series.