I’ve been re-reading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels over the last week. It’s been an odd sort of ride, pulling me deeply into my past in some ways and highlighting the present in other, surprisingly depressing forms.
Encountering the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy proper for the first in thirty years time-warped me straight back to being fifteen and glued to Radio 4 via my family’s one pair of big, padded headphones, waiting at the dinner table for the expansive FM stereo of (unbelievably) The Eagles ‘Journey of the Sorcerer‘ (the rest of the music was provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). It was 1978. In the outside world, things were about to get seriously unpleasant. Then there’d the announcement of the title in those fruity Radio 4 tones that now seem so cemented to a certain time and set of assumptions.”The story so far…”
And then I’d be gone.
On another planet or spaceship or space-time continuum entirely, wrapped up in this strange little world that only I and a few privileged friends at school had heard of. To my family, it was utterly meaningly and once they’d established that there was no swearing, no readily discernible blasphemy and zero sex references (I was very lucky with the ten minutes they actually listened too), they left me and the luxurious headphones to it.
The show was wonderful. And hilarious. And utterly, magnificently true – the Universe (as I was discovering) really did make no sense. Forty two was as good an answer as any. A gang of white mice who were really extensions of pan-dimensional beings conducting frightfully sophisticated experiments on humans was as credible (and certainly more attractive) an explanation as a God who’d let his only son be flogged, nailed to a tree and stabbed with a spear after days of horrible torture.
I think there were many ways I’ve since forgotten in which it must have helped me survive a pretty grim adolescence*.
The book itself came after the radio series in 1979 and I promptly saved up and bought it, along with the first two sequels – The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1979) and Life, The Universe and Everything (1980). After that, I went to university and lost touch with the series. Or did it lose touch with me? Loftier things (the worst relationship in the world, being in dreadful bands, drink etc) got in the way.
Returning to the books, my 49 year old self notices two things. Firstly, I’m now at the age Douglas Adams was when he died (see the extended kvetch on this subject in my last post) and secondly, how astonishing it is in some ways that Adams lasted as long as he did. I can only assume he existed at the same level as some sort of Zen Master, serenely and ironically composed in the face of the singular horror of a universe with no rhyme or reason other than the entirely futile and random rationales that its hapless inhabitants project upon it. These are seriously depressing books if you approach them in the wrong frame of mind. A handful of pages into the first volume, the entire human race is wiped out to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Later, the ‘hero’ (the books don’t really have heroes, actually, except possibly for Trillian), Arthur Dent, finds himself returning to his doomed home planet again and again and each time the horrors and the pathos redouble.
Does anything lighten the existential murk? Well, a few things.
For one thing, the books are funny. Very funny, in the nihilistic, absurdist vein mined by Monty Python or the Goons (especially Spike Milligan). Adams was actually a minor Footlights alumni and had a couple of writing credits for Monty Python. He revels in demented neologisms (“the mattress flurried and glurried. It flolloped, gupped and willioied…” I should mention that we’re dealing with a sentient mattress here), silly names (Slartibartfast? Zaphod Beeblebrox?) and complex puns.
And they’re also bursting with ideas. Like Philip K. Dick, Adams is an ideas man first and a plotter second. One meets SEPs (Someone Else’s Problem) field generators, Infinite Improbability Engines and an altogether convincing general theory of time travel. Doors talk. The mighty marketing machine of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation embeds annoying personalities in every moving part of a space ship. A huge computer and a sentient drinks machine nearly kill everyone trying to solve the problem of how to make tea. And so on. The characters in his books are pretty much identical at the end to the way they are at the beginning. Their lack of progression is almost the whole point.
But as the series goes on (and I’m about to start the fourth volume, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish), it gets darker and darker and the satire shifts its targets from petty bureaucracy and marketing to bigger, less easily laughed away evils – war, genocide, environmental havoc, the entitlement felt by the very rich and the powerlessness of the rest of us to change, well anything. Very little light gets through.
Except for one thing. At the climax of Life, The Universe and Everything, Trillian the closest we get to a sympathetic character in the entire series, notices that the most hideously feared warmongers in the entire history of the universe quite possibly don’t want to kill anyone. They’d rather play ‘krikket’ with them. And for a few pages, a character changes the small, dark space around her through an outpouring of what is, effectively, love. Earlier, one saw her struggle to reach the titanically solipsistic Zaphod Beeblebrox, fail, and quietly walk away. Here, Trillian succeeds, on a planet where a cloud of dust has blocked out any of the light from the surrounding universe from ever reaching it.
Love. Love the people immediately around you. That’s the only meaning the books dare offer, they only way in which they attempt to make any kind of sense whatsoever. As things get bleaker and bleaker (and the books are full of appalling prophecies ranging from Kindles to the deforestation of an entire planet to avoid hyper-inflation of a currency consisting of leaves to a civilisation descended entirely from the survivors of a spaceship full of marketing managers and accountants) it’s as good a message as any.
*Believe me, the Ravenous Blugbatter Beast of Tral** would have been light relief, with or without a towel.
**Read the damn book, ok?