Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever. (Introduction.7)
Adams doesn't pull punches in the introduction: he comes out and tells us this wonderful idea that would make everyone happy is "lost forever." That's a pretty permanent and terrible way for a story to begin. Even worse, the reason this wonderful solution to sadness is lost is "a terribly stupid catastrophe." This is our introduction to the universe according to Hitchhiker's: not just sad, but sad for stupid reasons.
"The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
"'But,' says Man, 'The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
"'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanished in a puff of logic. (6.21-23)
We marvel at this perfect nugget of absurdity: proof of X means not-X. This is a story from the Hitchhiker's Guide (the book inside this book) and it soon tells us that some people don't agree with this proof. But if you buy the premise of this argument (God requires faith, evidence denies faith, the Babel fish is a big piece of evidence), then the conclusion seems undeniable: there is proof God exists—therefore God doesn't exist.
"You know," said Arthur, "it's at times like this, when I'm trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was young."
"Why, what did she tell you?"
"I don't know, I didn't listen." (7.122-4)
As we note in the Writing Style section, Adams loves reworking clichés so that we pay attention to the language. (He also loves long, colorful scarves.) Like here: usually when someone says: "I really wish I'd listened," what that person means is: "I wish I had followed that advice." But what Arthur means is just what he said: he wishes he had listened—and heard. That's only part of what makes this absurd. The other aspect of the absurdity is how specific this scenario is—Arthur's mother presented a lesson that would come in handy for only one very particular event.
The nothingth of a second for which the hole existed reverberated backwards and forwards through time in a most improbable fashion. Somewhere in the deeply remote past it seriously traumatized a small random group of atoms drifting through the empty sterility of space and made them cling together in the most extraordinarily unlikely patterns. These patterns quickly learnt to copy themselves (this was part of what was so extraordinary of the patterns) and went on to cause massive trouble on every planet they drifted on to. That was how life began in the Universe. (9.7)
So many characters in this book wonder about the meaning of life: were we created by a loving god or an evil god or no god at all or by mice? And the answer is that Zaphod's stolen spaceship caused life to begin. Adams uses a bunch of interesting words here to show how strange and terrible the whole thing is: "improbable fashion," "seriously traumatized," "random group," "extraordinarily unlikely," "massive trouble." And then he gives the killer punch line that this terrible trouble is life.
Its crew of four were ill at ease knowing that they had been brought together not of their own volition or by simple coincidence, but by some curious principle of physics—as if relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules. (14.1)
We usually laugh at absurdity, but there's a dark side to it, or at least an uncomfortable side. This is what the crew of the Heart of Gold feels, as if their lives are not under their own control (that's the "volition" part) but also not just random (that's the "coincidence" part). That means that there might be some other reasons for them to be together, some big reason—only they can't see it. Eddie has an opinion on this: he thinks "that most people's lives are governed by telephone numbers" (12.68). But that's absurd, right?
"Is there any tea on this spaceship?" he asked. (16.34-35)
Let's not blame the universe for all the absurdity out there—some of the absurdity in this book has to do with people. So here's Arthur, facing an alien planet (his first—and you always remember your first alien planet). That's an amazing thing (which is why we have more on Magrathea in Awe and Amazement). But Arthur is more interested in something as ordinary as tea, which is an absurd way to prioritize your attention.
Ah... ! What's happening? it thought. Er, excuse me, who am I? Hello? Why am I here? What's my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? (18.22-26)
We had to include the whale (oh, poor, sweet whale), this beautiful, intelligent creature who absurdly gets created from a nuclear missile and then pointlessly crashes into a planet. What makes this absurdity especially poignant is how smart the whale seems, how friendly (even trying to make friends with the ground), and how sincere he is about trying to find the meaning of his life. And it doesn't go so well for him.
Many many millions of years ago a race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings (whose physical manifestation in their own pandimensional universe is not dissimilar to our own) got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life which used to interrupt their favorite pastime of Brockian Ultra Cricket (a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away) that they decided to sit down and solve their problems once and for all. (25.1-2)
This is like an onion: each layer is absurd and it gets more absurd with each layer. First, hyperintelligent pandimensional beings just happen to look like us; second, their favorite game involves hitting people for no reason (so hyperintelligent); and finally, their interest in finding an answer to why we're here is just so their game doesn't get interrupted. While each layer is absurd, notice how Adams uses parenthetical asides to drive home each bit of weirdness.
"Alright," said Deep Thought. "The Answer to the Great Question..."
"Of Life, the Universe and Everything..." said Deep Thought.
"Is..." said Deep Thought, and paused.
"Forty-two," said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm. (27.48-56)
Reading Hitchhiker's Guide is like taking a course in disappointment: long set-up, with a disappointing anti-climax. The centerpiece of this learning experience is probably the long, drawn-out moment, when Deep Thought finally tells the answer that it has taken 7.5 million years to figure out. If you ever write a paper with this many ellipses ("…"), your teacher will probably fail you; but Adams uses a ridiculous amount of ellipses and repetition to make sure we feel the pause before the final, absurd let-down.
10. It said: 'The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.
"For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?" (35.3-4)
Adams uses this pattern of three more than once in order to let us down hard, so that the absurdity of the final element lands as softly as an anvil. "How can we eat?" and "Why do we eat?" are serious questions, questions that science and philosophy may be interested in. But "Where shall we have lunch?" is a completely different type of question, a question that's less scientific and serious. It has more to do with our schedules than with our position in the universe.
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. (Introduction.6)
Hitchhiker's Guide opens up with the promise of an idea that will make everyone happy and good. Of course, the next line tells us that this idea will be lost forever. We probably shouldn't be too surprised by that since history shows us that sadness and meanness seem to be the usual way things go. Still, this opening does remind us that happiness is something that a lot of people want (for some reason).
"Ah. It's been demolished."
"Has it," said Arthur levelly.
"Yes. It just boiled away into space."
"Look," said Arthur, "I'm a bit upset about that."
Ford frowned to himself and seemed to roll the thought around his mind.
"Yes, I can understand that," he said at last. (5.85-90)
Arthur will eventually cry about the whole losing-his-whole-family-and-everything-he's-ever-known thing. But it is interesting to watch him try to deal with the incredible sadness of this event—and to see how Adams keeps this from being a tragedy. For instance, here, both Arthur and Ford discuss the destruction of Earth in a pretty calm and understated way. Instead of crying and hugging each other (the usual response to having a planet blow up), they're just calmly saying, "I'm a bit upset," and "I can understand that."
Visions of it swam sickeningly through his nauseated mind. There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket before and felt a sudden stab—the supermarket was gone, everything in it was gone. (6.29)
Arthur does have to deal with the sadness of losing Earth, and it's not a totally funny sequence. (Now losing Mars would be hilarious.) It is a little funny when Arthur first gets sad about his supermarket, Bogart films, and McDonald's, rather than his family, friends, and other people. But at the same time, this sort of shock seems understandable. So if you squint, this section could either be (1) an example of turning sadness into comedy or (2) a reasonable response to an absurd situation.
Marvin regarded it with cold loathing whilst his logic circuits chattered with disgust and tinkered with the concept of directing physical violence against it. Further circuits cut in saying, Why bother? What's the point? Nothing is worth getting involved in. (11.75)
The "it" in this quote that Marvin hates is the happy door, which makes sense for Marvin: what annoys depressive robots more than happy computers? But we pulled this quote mostly for the way Marvin's depression leads him on towards, well, nothing. This part also makes us laugh because his circuits talk in a very casual way: "Why bother?" is something a fed-up person would say, not the kind of thing we expect to hear from robots.
"Desolate hole if you ask me," said Ford. "I could have more fun in a cat litter." He felt a mounting irritation. Of all the planets in all the star systems of all the Galaxy—didn't he just have to turn up at a dump like this after fifteen years of being a castaway? Not even a hot dog stand in evidence. He stooped down and picked up a cold clot of earth, but there was nothing underneath it worth crossing thousands of light years to look at. (20.5)
First impressions are very important, which is why it's so sad that Magrathea comes off as a dump the first time people see it. (Of course, once you get to know Magrathea, you'll see how, underneath the surface, it's even more terrible.) Here Ford sounds a little bit like Marvin: there's nothing here worth doing, he says, which reminds us a lot of Marvin's depressive quips. (Also, note that "Of all the planets in all the star systems of all the Galaxy" sounds like a parody of Casablanca's famous quote: "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…")
"But that sunset! I've never seen anything like it in my wildest dreams ... the two suns! It was like mountains of fire boiling into space."
"I've seen it," said Marvin. "It's rubbish." (21.17-8)
Here's a great quote if you need evidence that Marvin is more depressed than any other character. (Honestly, you probably don't need our help to find that evidence, since it's all over the book.) Arthur has lost his planet and everything he's known, but he can still find some beauty and wonder in the world. Marvin, by contrast, has one setting: extreme misery. Ironically, this makes him very funny.
"Pity," said Slartibartfast, "that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges. I was most upset to hear about its destruction."
"You were upset!" (24.36-7)
Arthur and Slartibartfast are discussing the loss of Norway, which was a big tragedy for fans of Scandinavian design. As Slartibartfast notes, that was one of his works and maybe the best one. So it's sad for Slarty, but Arthur seems to think that his sadness isn't the whole story. Maybe, you know, the Norwegians might be a little upset, too. But one thing we see in this book is that people sometimes have trouble imagining other people might be sad.
"Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day."
"And are you?"
"No. That's where it all falls down of course." (30.11-3)
Ah, the eternal fight between happiness and… everything else in the world. (Spoiler alert: everything else wins.) Slartibartfast is telling Arthur that he wants to make Africa with fjords in Earth 2.0, even though that's not geographically accurate. But who cares? Slarty loves fjords more than he loves being accurate. Unfortunately, it's hard to be happy in Hitchhiker's Guide, even if you're willing to fudge the numbers—or in this case, the glaciers.
"I don't go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it afterwards in seedy space-rangers bars, like some cops I could mention! I go around shooting people gratuitously and then I agonize about it afterwards for hours to my girlfriend!"
"And I write novels!" chimed in the other cop. "Though I haven't had any of them published yet, so I better warn you, I'm in a meeeean mood!" (32.40-1)
Even minor characters get to be sad in Hitchhiker's. It's that sort of equal opportunity book. Here the cops hunting Zaphod express—very directly—that they've got lots to be sad about. The first is sad about having to go around hurting people, though he won't stop doing that; and the second is sad about not being published yet, which he uses to fuel his violence. So sadness here doesn't always lead to good things. (But check the next quote for more.)
"Simple. I got very bored and depressed, so I went and plugged myself in to its external computer feed. I talked to the computer at great length and explained my view of the Universe to it," said Marvin.
"And what happened?" pressed Ford.
"It committed suicide," said Marvin and stalked off back to the Heart of Gold. (34.27-9)
Sometimes, sadness can be helpful in the oddest ways. For instance, the only reason that Zaphod and the others escape the cops is because Marvin got the cops' spaceship depressed enough to commit electronic suicide. So our last example of Sadness in the book shows that it is useful when it's your enemies who are sad.
This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. (Introduction.3)
Foolishness is clearly related to sadness here: we're not happy, but we're too foolish to find a way out of that unhappiness. Notice also that Adams gets in a little dig about something that a lot of people think will make them happy—money, those "small green pieces of paper." We only think money will make us happy because we're not smart. Does this make anyone else want to take a day off and go to the beach?
Pages one and two had been salvaged by a Damogran Frond Crested Eagle and had already become incorporated into an extraordinary new form of nest which the eagle had invented. It was constructed largely of papier-mâché and it was virtually impossible for a newly hatched baby eagle to break out of it. The Damogran Frond Crested Eagle had heard of the notion of survival of the species but wanted no truck with it. (4.42)
Foolishness isn't just for humanoids anymore. Here the Damogran Frond Crested Eagle has used parts of Zaphod's speech to make a nest that won't work. But note that this type of foolishness is associated with some type of smarts: the eagle has invented this new nest type, which must take some intelligence to do.
Meanwhile, the natural forces on the planet Vogsphere had been working overtime to make up for their earlier blunder. They brought forth scintillating jeweled scuttling crabs, which the Vogons ate, smashing their shells with iron mallets; tall aspiring trees with breathtaking slenderness and color which the Vogons cut down and burned the crab meat with; elegant gazelle-like creatures with silken coats and dewy eyes which the Vogons would catch and sit on. They were no use as transport because their backs would snap instantly, but the Vogons sat on them anyway. (5.4)
And foolishness isn't just for individuals anymore—now you can buy it in bulk for a whole species. The Vogons are foolish bureaucrats (see our breakdown of Politics in "Themes"), but they're also foolish and cruel. That is, here they are, totally abusing the natural resources of their planet, because this is either all they can think to do or because they're jerks. Notice how Adams uses adjectives to make sure we know who is beautiful here: "scintillating jeweled" crabs are pretty; "iron mallets" aren't so pretty. Heck, the Vogons can't even cook their crab properly but end up with "burned" crab meat.
One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and repeating the obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright? (5.18)
But just because Vogons are dumb, doesn't mean humans are off the hook. (We're not smart enough to figure a way off this hook.) Though Adams gives this observation to the alien Ford, this is the kind of thing that we all probably have some experience with. But notice that Adams uses the pattern of three things here: he says one normal, then another normal thing, but then finishes off with a strange thing. We might say "yes, yes" to the first two ("It's a nice day," "You're very tall"), but then we hit the third statement about falling down a well—and that should give us a moment to reconsider: maybe it is foolish to keep stating the obvious.
Trillian had come to suspect that the main reason why he had had such a wild and successful life that he never really understood the significance of anything he did. (11.9)
Then again, maybe a little foolishness is a good thing. Take, for example, Slartibartfast and his fjords: making Africa with fjords is foolish, but if it makes him happy, who are we to complain? Here, Trillian wonders if Zaphod's foolishness is what keeps him from defeat. Is that just for Zaphod or can we all benefit from being a little foolish?
One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn't be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn't understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. (12.25)
Zaphod may be the most foolish character in the book—especially compared to the whale, who is a model of wisdom—but there are lots of different types of foolishness—or types of seeming foolish. Here there are a couple types of foolishness that turn out to be useful for Zaphod: he can be tricky, lazy, or just plain foolish.
Ford's copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy smashed into another section of the control console with the combined result that the guide started to explain to anyone who cared to listen about the best ways of smuggling Antarean parakeet glands out of Antares (an Antarean parakeet gland stuck on a small stick is a revolting but much sought after cocktail delicacy and very large sums of money are often paid for them by very rich idiots who want to impress other very rich idiots), and the ship suddenly dropped out of the sky like a stone. (17.73)
There are a couple layers of stupidity here, one of them nicely marked out by a parenthetical remark. (1) Here the crew of the Heart of Gold is being pretty foolish, stealing a ship that they can't drive very well, leading to it dropping like "a stone." (2) Here's a potentially unhelpful article in the Guide (which wouldn't be the first unhelpful article—see our write-up in "Symbols"). And (3) rich idiots try to impress each other with disgusting Antarean parakeet glands. Nobody comes out of this quote looking smart.
"I freewheel a lot. I get an idea to do something, and, hey, why not, I do it. I reckon I'll become President of the Galaxy, and it just happens, it's easy. I decide to steal this ship. I decide to look for Magrathea, and it all just happens. […] And then whenever I stop and think—why did I want to do something?—how did I work out how to do it?—I get a very strong desire just to stop thinking about it." (20.71)
This is a central problem of Zaphod's character: it's hard to know how dumb he is since he locked part of his brain away. He certainly doesn't sound like a mastermind here—and yet he's the one with the plan. It makes you wonder how foolish the other people have to be to follow him.
It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons. (23.1)
In Hitchhiker's Guide, all the things that we think make us smart—"the wheel, New York, wars"—actually might be examples that we're not so smart after all. This is an example of Adams's comic style: taking something we think and turning it around so it's the reverse. Note that the narrator starts off this section by noting a general truth that we can all agree on—"things are not always what they seem"—but then jokes that maybe the dolphins had it right, and we should've spent all our time frolicking. It's a slippery slope from agreeing with the first part to agreeing with the second.
"That's right!" shouted Vroomfondel, "we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!" (25.68)
Our favorite foolish minor characters are the philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, who even have silly names. (Of course, they might say the same about us. After all, "Shmoop" might seem like a funny name, but it's a family name passed down from generation to generation.) Here Vroomfondel misunderstands some pretty basic concepts and words: "doubt and uncertainty" are pretty vague things, so it would be hard to get "defined areas" of them. And Adams drives the joke home by saying "rigidly" on top of "defined."
By a curious coincidence, "None at all" is exactly how much suspicion the ape-descendant Arthur Dent had that one of his closest friends was not descended from an ape, but was in fact from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he usually claimed. (1.52)
In Hitchhiker's Guide, part of the humor comes from Adams comparing the regular to the weird. Here, we learn that Ford isn't from Guildford (a normal place) but from Betelgeuse (a weird place). But that sort of comparison also is a little awe-inspiring. Seriously, Betelgeuse? Can you feel humor and awe at the same time?
"Listen to me—I've got to tell you the most important thing you've ever heard. I've got to tell you now, and I've got to tell you in the saloon bar of the Horse and Groom."
"Because you are going to need a very stiff drink." (1.90-2)
Amazement is not good for your health, it seems. Ford is going to tell Arthur about the Vogon fleet, but that's the sort of amazing news that might drive someone a little crazy—or as the English would say, "barmy." See the quote below for how some Earth-people do respond to this amazing news.
The barman looked at it and then looked at Ford. He suddenly shivered: he experienced a momentary sensation that he didn't understand because no one on Earth had ever experienced it before. In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth. On Earth it is never possible to be further than sixteen thousand miles from your birthplace, which really isn't very far, so such signals are too minute to be noticed. Ford Prefect was at this moment under great stress, and he was born 600 light years away in the near vicinity of Betelgeuse. (3.29)
Adams introduces this amazing moment by showing how it affects the barman and then explaining the amazing reason for that reaction. And since we start with the barman having a physical reaction that we can all understand ("He suddenly shivered") and then moves into the amazing part, this bit probably hits us a little stronger. Amazement here sure doesn't sound like any fun.
It's difficult to say exactly what the people on the surface of the planet were doing now, because they didn't really know what they were doing themselves. None of it made a lot of sense—running into houses, running out of houses, howling noiselessly at the noise. (3.60)
After the Vogon fleet comes to Earth and announces that Earth is going to be destroyed, no one goes on to talk about how the galaxy is full of wonders and amazing things we never knew about. No, instead, everyone goes a little crazy with fear, just running around and screaming. We should note, though, that Adams never uses the word "fear" here. In fact, he never uses the word "fear" at all in the whole book. Is that because "fear" isn't funny, or because this universe doesn't have anything to be afraid of?
"Wow," said Zaphod Beeblebrox to the Heart of Gold. There wasn't much else he could say. (4.51)
Arthur and the humans (our next band name) may be amazed by aliens and planets and Babel fish, which are all old hat for the aliens we meet, but other characters are also capable of amazement. For instance, Zaphod is amazed by the Heart of Gold spaceship. (It's pretty rare for him to run out of things to say, as he does here.) And the engineers who built the ship are amazed (or at least excited) to meet the president (4.23). So it seems like everyone has something to be amazed at, no matter how experienced they are.
"Space," it says, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-boggingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space. Listen ..." and so on. (8.3)
It's hard to find the right words (other than "wow") to describe really amazing things. The experience of awe and amazement seems to call for repetition (like the repetition of big in "big. Really big"), or for lots of intensifier words like "vastly" and "hugely" and "mind-boggingly." Everything here tells us how amazingly big space is. Too bad it's mostly empty and boring.
Even the most seasoned star tramp can't help but shiver at the spectacular drama of a sunrise seen from space, but a binary sunrise is one of the marvels of the Galaxy. (16.25)
When Adams was writing, "a sunrise seen from space" wasn't a very common sight. (Back then, they still went gaga for photos of Earth from space, like this one.) Adams, though, lets us know that it's both amazing (it causes everyone to shiver, it's "spectacular drama") and also that it's not the most amazing thing in the galaxy. A binary sunrise (where there are two suns in a system) is even better—and that's something that we'll never see from our little solar system except in movies.
It is possible that her remark would have commanded greater attention had it been generally realized that human beings were only the third most intelligent life form present on the planet Earth, instead of (as was generally thought by most independent observers) the second. (19.11)
A large part of amazement in Hitchhiker's Guides comes from learning that we're wrong about… well, just about everything. So when we first learn that humans are only the third most intelligent life form on Earth, that's shocking. What's even more shocking is what we get at the end, after the long delay of that parenthetical remark: that everyone else already knew that we weren't the best.
"I should warn you that the chamber we are about to pass into does not literally exist within our planet. It is a little too ... large. We are about to pass through a gateway into a vast tract of hyperspace. It may disturb you."
Arthur made nervous noises.
Slartibartfast touched a button and added, not entirely reassuringly, "It scares the willies out of me. Hold tight." (24.12-4)
Sometimes, even having some experience with something isn't enough to make one comfortable with it. Case in point: Slartibartfast still gets a little awed by the hyperspace where they build planets. (If you're writing a paper on awe, you should look at the whole experience of "the infinite" that Arthur goes through in that hyperspace area.) This quote makes us think that something that's so amazing might just be a little scary, too.
"A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate—and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the Question to the Ultimate Answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself shall form part of its operational matrix. And you yourselves shall take on new forms and go down into the computer to navigate its ten-million-year program! Yes! I shall design this computer for you. And I shall name it also unto you. And it shall be called... the Earth."
Phouchg gaped at Deep Thought.
"What a dull name," he said […] (28.28-30)
Well, not everyone is amazed all the time in this book, and some people are rude enough to announce that they are not amazed. We might agree with Phouchg that the name "Earth" is not so exciting, which must be disappointing to Deep Thought after it's gone on and on about what a great computer Earth will be. But we may be torn here: we learn the boring name of the computer… but then we learn that our planet is a computer, which is kind of amazing (or, at the very least, absurd).
As soon as Mr. Prosser realized that he was substantially the loser after all, it was as if a weight lifted itself off his shoulders: this was more like the world as he knew it. He sighed. (1.143)
When you come to see defeat as your natural position, it might be comforting to be defeated. Unlike his Khan ancestors, Prosser isn't a great conqueror; he's just a bureaucrat who probably gets pushed around by the bureaucratic laws as much as he pushes other people. It's almost enough to make you sad for him. Almost.
"I thought," he said, "that if the world was going to end we were meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something."
"If you like, yes," said Ford.
"Will that help?" asked the barman.
"No," said Ford and gave him a friendly smile. (3.41-5)
If this were Independence Day or some other alien invasion movie, there might be something to do to fight off the aliens. (Luckily, in Independence Day, the aliens' computers are Mac-compatible.) But in Hitchhiker's, there's nothing to do—Earth was defeated before it even knew it. All of which is emphasized by the ridiculousness of the only suggestion made: "lie down or put a paper bag" on your head. What disasters could a paper bag over the head possibly help with other than a disastrously bad hair day?
By this time somebody somewhere must have manned a radio transmitter, located a wavelength and broadcasted a message back to the Vogon ships, to plead on behalf of the planet. Nobody ever heard what they said, they only heard the reply. The PA slammed back into life again. The voice was annoyed. It said:
"What do you mean you've never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven's sake mankind, it's only four light years away you know. I'm sorry, but if you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that's your own lookout." (3.77-8)
The attempt to convince the Vogons not to destroy the Earth goes about as well as Arthur's attempt to convince Prosser not to destroy his house: it goes badly. This is a defeat for common sense and decency. But let's look at it the other way: it's a victory for bureaucratic politics and general jerkiness. Yay?
"Oh yes, I thought of something," panted Ford.
Arthur looked up expectantly.
"But unfortunately," continued Ford, "it rather involved being on the other side of this airtight hatchway." He kicked the hatch they'd just been through. (7.108-10)
Not everyone takes defeat lying down, or with a paper bag over the head. Here, for instance, Ford heroically kicks the hatchway that's in the way of his plan. Of course, that doesn't actually change anything, though it does probably hurt Ford's foot. We've already seen Arthur and Ford fail to convince Jeltz and a Vogon guard; now they're facing certain death with no hope of escape. That's funny, right?
"Hey this is terrific!" he said. "Someone down there is trying to kill us!" (17.41)
Okay, so defeat can be funny, but an endless string of defeats can also be depressing, and it can lead to the death of your characters. One way Adams keeps defeat funny in Hitchhiker's Guide is to make people's reactions to defeat and danger a little ridiculous. That's Zaphod's cue to come on: here, he's faced with nuclear missiles launched from Magrathea. If he panicked, we might get a little nervous, as Arthur does. But when Zaphod says that it's "terrific" that someone is trying to kill him, we probably laugh at the mismatch.
"OK, Ford," he said, "full retro thrust and ten degrees starboard. Or something ..." (17.69)
It's no wonder that our heroes are so often defeated. (We're using the terms "heroes" and "defeated" pretty loosely here.) They're not brave space rangers with lots of skills or cool gadgets. They're a bunch of bumbling fools most of the time, as we can see here: Zaphod has stolen a ship that he can't really drive, and he's captain (sort of) of a crew that can't really do their job.
"It's the computer," explained Zaphod. "I discovered it had an emergency back-up personality that I thought might work out better."
"Now this is going to be your first day out on a strange new planet," continued Eddie's new voice, "so I want you all wrapped up snug and warm, and no playing with any naughty bug-eyed monsters." (19.15-6)
This is just a tiny joke, but we see what happens when our foolish heroes (or heroic fools) try to solve a problem. The original Eddie personality is totally annoying, so Zaphod switches it… to another really annoying personality. Adams drives home this defeat by giving us Zaphod's plan and then immediately showing us that it has failed. No waiting, here: we get to see pretty immediately that this is another defeat.
"We're going to get lynched aren't we?" he whispered.
"It was a tough assignment," said Deep Thought mildly.
"Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"
"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is." (28.2-6)
If we actually saw Phouchg and Loonquawl get lynched, that might be kind of a buzzkill. Luckily, that doesn't happen, but what does happen is that we learn how deep this defeat goes. Deep Thought has succeeded in finding the answer to life, but Loonquawl and Phouchg are still defeated since they never knew the real question. Even when you think you've succeeded in Hitchhiker's Guide, there's usually a defeat waiting just around the corner—and you didn't even know there was a corner there.
For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across—which happened to be the Earth—where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog. (31.8)
Boy, Adams really loves his anti-climactic let-downs, especially to express defeat. The first half of this sentence is full of exciting words that ramp up the action: the ships are "mighty," they "tore" through space, they "dived screaming." The second half, though, starts to introduce a little defeat when it mentions terrible miscalculation" and "accidentally swallowed." Then Adams hits us with the full force of this defeat: the whole battle fleet was swallowed by a "small dog." That's one heck of a defeat.
"The only thing we can do now," said Benjy, crouching and stroking his whiskers in thought, "is to try and fake a question, invent one that will sound plausible."
Then Frankie said: "Here's a thought. How many roads must a man walk down?"
"Ah," said Benjy. "Aha, now that does sound promising!" He rolled the phrase around a little. "Yes," he said, "that's excellent! Sounds very significant without actually tying you down to meaning anything at all. How many roads must a man walk down? Forty-two. Excellent, excellent, that'll fox 'em. Frankie baby, we are made!" (32.2-11)
After all that defeat, we thought it would be nice to end on a victory, like when Benjy mouse and Frankie mouse come up with a fake question to pass off to unsuspecting rubes back in their home dimension. The whole section is worth looking at just to see what questions they reject. But we mostly pulled this because their victory—coming up with a fake question—is kind of a defeat for the whole project, not to mention for science and philosophy. Now there will be tons of talk shows and books about this question, and only these two mice know the question is bogus. So after all those defeats that make us laugh, here's a victory that makes us cry.
Not only is it a wholly remarkable book, it is also a highly successful one—more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes, and Who is this God Person Anyway? (Introduction.13)
In a book prominently featuring a book, one of our biggest examples of culture is going to be… a book. But books are complicated: big books eat up little books, and some books cause the extinction of other books. Here, we're introduced to the other major books of the galaxy, and what do we see?: a book about house upkeep, a sort of guidebook or coffee table book, and three books of philosophy. That makes it seem like readers in the galaxy really want some guidance or answers in their lives. No 50 Shades of Grey here.
Here's what the Encyclopedia Galactica has to say about alcohol. It says that alcohol is a colorless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars and also notes its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy also mentions alcohol. It says that the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. (2.1-2)
Galactic culture isn't the same everywhere, as we can see in the way these two books deal with the question of alcohol: some people probably prefer the simple, scientific tone of the Encyclopedia Galactica, whereas others probably prefer hearing a drink suggestion from Hitchhiker's. This isn't a case of Earth culture vs. alien culture. Both of these books are thoroughly alien, proving that culture isn't the same all over.
Together and between them they had gone to and beyond the furthest limits of physical laws, restructured the fundamental fabric of matter, strained, twisted, and broken the laws of possibility and impossibility, but still the greatest excitement of all seemed to be to meet a man with an orange sash round his neck. (4.23)
These are the engineers and scientists who created the Heart of Gold spaceship, so they have something to be excited about: they've "strained, twisted, and broken" the laws of physics and probability (and made a spaceship that looks like a sneaker). But still, what really excites them is meeting a powerless man in a sash—the President. In their culture, people drop everything to meet the president. They can break the laws of physics, but they can't break the unwritten laws of their culture.
New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald's, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger. (6.30)
This is the realization that finally brings home to Arthur the fact that Earth has been destroyed: there's no more McDonald's. It's curious that what finally seems to break through to Arthur isn't his dead parents or his vaporized country, but these elements of culture, like Bogart movies and McDonald's. Those elements of culture might seem small, but they are things that he experiences daily.
Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azagoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode To A Small Lump of Green Putty I Found In My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain. (7.1)
That "of course" in the first sentence gets us laughing: the narrator is saying something that is totally new to us, but he just passes it off as something we all agree on. Now, what's curious about Azagoth poetry is that even the Azagoths seem to find it dreadful. It's also funny to imagine something that people usually think of as subjective (we like this poetry; you like that poetry; different people like different poetry) as really objective: this poetry is absolutely the second worst, and even the poet's intestines agree.
The prisoners sat in Poetry Appreciation Chairs—strapped in. Vogons suffered no illusions as to the regard their works were generally held in. Their early attempts at composition had been part of bludgeoning insistence that they be accepted as a properly evolved and cultured race, but now the only thing that kept them going was sheer bloodymindedness. (7.4)
The Vogons used to compose poetry as to prove that they were a civilized culture, though even they recognize that other people don't like what they do. So how do they react? They build torture chairs to make people listen. What kind of culture is that?
"Oh yes," said Arthur, "I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective."
"Oh ... and er ... interesting rhythmic devices too," continued Arthur, "which seemed to counterpoint the ... er ... er ..." He floundered.
Ford leaped to his rescue, hazarding "counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the ... er ..." He floundered too, but Arthur was ready again.
"... humanity of the ..."
"Vogonity," Ford hissed at him.
"Ah yes, Vogonity (sorry) of the poet's compassionate soul," Arthur felt he was on a home stretch now, "which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other," (he was reaching a triumphant crescendo ...) "and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into ... into ... er ..." (... which suddenly gave out on him.) Ford leaped in with the coup de grace:
"Into whatever it was the poem was about!" he yelled. (7.22-30)
Arthur and Ford's analysis of Jeltz's poem is really a masterpiece of empty phooey. It sounds good—"metaphysical imagery, counterpoint, fundamental dichotomies"—but notice that all of this leaves great big holes that Adams wants us to notice: the two of them are clearly just making stuff up, what with all of those "er…" pauses, and they tend to use "this, that, the other" without ever saying what those refer to. This section isn't making fun of the poem so much as it's making fun of people who try to fake their way through poetry appreciation. If only they had Shmoop to help them!
"But listen," he shouted to the guard, "there's a whole world you don't know anything about ... here how about this?" Desperately he grabbed for the only bit of culture he knew offhand—he hummed the first bar of Beethoven's Fifth.
"Da da da dum! Doesn't that stir anything in you?" (7.97-8)
Culture can hurt people, we know (thanks, Vogon poetry and scrapbooking mania), but can it help at all? Here's Ford trying to convince a young Vogon guard that there's more to life than throwing people out of airlocks. But even Ford can't remember that much culture, so this line of reasoning doesn't work.
"Where's the sense in that?" he said. "None that I've been able to make out. I've been doing fjords in all my life. For a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award."
He turned it over in his hands with a shrug and tossed it aside carelessly, but not so carelessly that it didn't land on something soft. (30.9-10)
While we might think that Norway is the result of eons of geologic activity—plate tectonics, glaciers, ice ages, melting ice ages—now we learn that it's really just some art project for Slartibartfast. Not only is Norway a work of art, but it's a little bit of art wrapped up in a whole culture: awards and committees (probably) and Billy Crystal hosting awards shows (definitely). Notice that Slarty seems to think the whole award thing is kind of ludicrous, but he still makes sure that the award doesn't get dented.
It said: 'The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.
"For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?" (35.3-4)
We don't want to give anything away from the sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but we will note how these three questions move from the scientific and philosophical to the purely cultural and sociological—in other words, from questions of survival to questions of cultural sophistication. Seriously, folks: rich idiots eating Antarean parakeet glands on sticks? Culture doesn't seem so great sometimes.
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. (Introduction.1-2)
The very opening of Hitchhiker's Guide tells us how unimportant we all are. It starts with a mix of scientific terms: the western spiral arm of the galaxy is unfashionable, the sun has an unimportant planet at a distance of 92 million miles, and so on. If you know your astronomy, you know that's us. How often do we get a look at our planet from such a cold, distant, scientific viewpoint?
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value—you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you—daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. (3.6)
We don't often think about towels as pieces of technology, the end product in a whole chain of scientific discoveries, but it is. Adams gives us some reason to reconsider towels as technology by showing us everything it can do. While each example has some reminder that this is science fiction, almost every use is something that we could easily be familiar with.
The report was an official release which said that a wonderful new form of spaceship drive was at this moment being unveiled at a government research base on Damogran which would henceforth make all hyperspatial express routes unnecessary. (5.39)
Science and technology march on, but not always quickly enough. Here, Jeltz has just destroyed Earth to make room for a hyperspace express route, but at around the same time, the government unveiled the Heart of Gold, which makes hyperspace express routes as obsolete as cassettes. (We miss you, mix-tapes, but you're obsolete.) If science had only been a little faster, or the Vogons a little slower, we might still have Earth. But that's Hitchhiker's Guide for you, a book in which things rarely work out.
The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood—and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess's undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the Theory of Indeterminacy. (10.4)
How long do you think it would take between the invention of a new technology and someone's total misuse of said technology for pranks or jokes? Our guess is 0.01 seconds. That seems to be the case with improbability generators, which can do amazing things. They can also, as we know, be used to move people's underwear as a party trick. Note how Adams mixes scientific ideas like Brownian motion with non-scientific things like tea or small talk at parties. Science may be pretty amazing, but people can be pretty foolish.
If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea ... and turn it on!
He did this, and was rather startled to discover that he had managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air. (10.8-9)
Like the Babel fish story, this section gives us brain cramp. This student uses the idea that something is impossible to conjure the "Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air." In other words, because it's relatively impossible, it's possible. Oh, our brain. Also, to us, "out of thin air" sounds either absurd or magical, which defines the way a lot of us relate to science: we use a lot of technology that we (non-scientists) don't understand. It would make sense if we stopped to learn about the science, but we're too busy watching cat videos on YouTube.
The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive—you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program. (12.1)
Science and technology march on—but don't mistake "change" for "progress." Sometimes science marches on into a swamp. Sure, radios have more sensitive controls that need less work, but there's a downside too, as Zaphod discovers when he tries to listen to the radio and remain totally still. It's funny to us that the more sophisticated technology becomes in Hitchhiker's Guide, the more you have to simply hope that it will work—like when Arthur turns on the Infinite Improbability Drive as a last resort when the missiles are closing in.
"Same as you," she said, "I hitched a lift. After all with a degree in math and another in astrophysics what else was there to do? It was either that or the dole queue again on Monday." (13.69)
First: "Dole queue" = "Welfare line." Surprisingly, "astrophysics" = "astrophysics." Maybe Trillian is joking, but it does point out that opportunities for scientifically minded people are better out in the galaxy, where there's better technology to play with. But let's be real: with all those degrees, what is it Trillian ends up doing on the Heart of Gold? She reads out some probability numbers, but it's unclear if she's actually doing the math or just reading numbers the computer is giving her. Most of the time it seems like she's just following Zaphod around and helping him in his schemes. That's hardly scientific.
He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject's metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject's brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (17.1)
In the Hitchhiker's version of the universe, technology may be advanced, but that doesn't mean it works right. Sometimes, as with the radio, that advancement means it's harder to use. Adams leads us through this joke meticulously, noting how amazing the Nutri-Matic machine is in one long sentence that lists everything it does, and that's all very scientific. But it seems like it's just for show, since the Nutri-Matic always produces the same drink.
"And it occurs to me that running a program like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone's going to have their own theories about what answer I'm eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?" (25.80)
As we've seen in Hitchhiker's Guide, scientific examination isn't some sacred job that's separate from the rest of life and culture. Here, Deep Thought reminds us how closely these issues are intertwined: while he (scientifically) figures out the answer to a problem, the philosophers can make serious bank by appearing on television and writing popular philosophy books. So this scientific issue will have serious cultural results.
"Yes, an electronic brain," said Frankie, "a simple one would suffice."
"A simple one!" wailed Arthur.
"Yeah," said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, "you'd just have to program it to say What? And I don't understand and Where's the tea?—who'd know the difference?"
"What?" cried Arthur, backing away still further.
"See what I mean?" said Zaphod and howled with pain because of something that Trillian did at that moment. (31.87-91)
The mice are generously offering to replace Arthur's brain with an electronic brain and some money. This is clearly not a good idea, as we can see with Zaphod's "sudden evil grin" and the fact that Trillian is against this idea. (Trillian may not get to shine as a scientist here, but she's a better moral guide than Zaphod.) But notice how Adams plays with Arthur's reactions, making his responses simple: he repeats what Frankie says and says "What?" just as Zaphod predicted. However, since Arthur is our touchstone character, the idea of practicing mad science on him surely shows some downside to science. We don't care if Earth seems unimportant; that's no reason to dice our brains.
Hence a phrase which has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is." (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.) (3.8)
There's not a lot of slang in Hitchhiker's Guide, which is good for Americans, because British slang can be weird. Luckily this little bit of slang comes with its own translation, but notice how silly that translation is: "sass" can mean everything from "meet" to "have sex with," while they have two separate words for different levels of "together guy." And then there's the whole meaning of "towel." This is not slang that's easy to understand for outsiders. But maybe that's the point of slang?
"I like the cover," he said. "'Don't Panic.' It's the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody's said to me all day." (5.56)
Language is supposed to get a message across, whether it's information or advice or just a joke. It almost seems to work here, but, this being the sort of absurd book it is, Arthur isn't so great at following this advice. This simple advice doesn't really help him very much—he soon starts panicking (5.95-8).
"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." (6.26)
We usually think that wars could be prevented if only people could talk to each other and share their feelings. But Hitchhiker's Guide turns this notion around, noting that wars are started because people can communicate. Oops.
With a microsecond pause, and a finely calculated micromodulation of pitch and timbre—nothing you could actually take offense at—Marvin managed to convey his utter contempt and horror of all things human. (11.37)
Marvin may be a robot, but like all robots, he's very subtle with his body language. The narrator really pushes the subtlety at the beginning of this sentence—"microsecond, finely calculated, micromodulation"—and then wallops us the hugeness of Marvin's message: "utter contempt and horror of all things human." That's a huge message to pass in a tiny bit of body language. Do you think anyone there got it?
"That's very good thinking you know. Turn on the Improbability Drive for a second without first activating the proofing screens. Hey, kid, you just saved our lives, you know that?"
"Oh," said Arthur, "well, it was nothing really ..."
"Was it?" said Zaphod. "Oh well, forget it then. OK, computer, take us in to land." (18.14-6)
As we noted in the Writing Style section, Adams enjoys reworking these clichés to make us pay attention to what they actually say. So when Arthur says "it was nothing," Zaphod believes him and moves on. In other words, this moment of communication fails because Zaphod receives the message that Arthur says but not the meaning that Arthur intends.
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now. (18.36)
As with the whale (oh, poor, sweet whale), the bowl of petunias is just talking to itself here—but somehow we get to listen in its final thoughts. Unfortunately, we have no idea what the bowl of petunias was trying to communicate here, and the narrator comes out and tells us as much. If communication worked in Hitchhiker's Guide, we might have a better idea of what all this absurdity means.
"Hey, have you any idea what these strange symbols are?"
"I think they're just strange symbols of some kind," said Zaphod, hardly glancing back. (20.51-2)
Zaphod may be the worst communicator in the galaxy. Here's another example of why he's a terrible communicator: he doesn't bother to search for the meaning of things. Zaphod merely sees the surface of communication—to him, strange symbols are just strange symbols, not a message. Then again, Zaphod might be one of the most successful people in this book. (His planet hasn't been destroyed, after all.) So maybe communication is overrated?
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the "Star Spangled Banner," but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish. (23.3)
In many cases, the narrator likes to present us with the communication and the miscommunication right next to each other. This way, the narrator can stress how far the real meaning is from the received meaning. Here, he tells us right off the bat that the "message was misinterpreted" before he tells us what the message really was. It's also funny to us that the message gets misinterpreted because the humans put it into a context that they understand (dolphins performing tricks) which is not the context that the dolphins understand (that they are smarter).
"Look, sorry—are we talking about the little white furry things with the cheese fixation and women standing on tables screaming in early sixties sitcoms?"
Slartibartfast coughed politely.
"Earthman," he said, "it is sometimes hard to follow your mode of speech. Remember I have been asleep inside this planet of Magrathea for five million years and know little of these early sixties sitcoms of which you speak. These creatures you call mice, you see, they are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusion into our dimension of vast hyperintelligent pandimensional beings. The whole business with the cheese and the squeaking is just a front." (24.51-3)
This is another of those onion comments, where there's layers and layers of things to analyze—well, at least two layers. First, we start off with Arthur's comment, which we can understand because we have the same background as him. Slartibartfast emphasizes this point by noting that he doesn't share a background with Arthur. Second, Slartibartfast notes how the mice have been deceiving humans, sending them a message about how mice are just stupid creatures, instead of the other way around. In other words, the mice are purposely miscommunicating.
"I figure this," said Zaphod. "Whatever happened to my mind, I did it. And I did it in such a way that it wouldn't be detected by the government screening tests. And I wasn't to know anything about it myself. Pretty crazy, right?" (29.38)
But the mice-human relationship is not the only relationship that's based on lies and secrets. Another relationship full of miscommunication is Zaphod and… himself. In this case, the Zaphod-in-the-past thought Zaphod-in-the-present would be better off not knowing something. Here we agree with Zaphod: it is pretty crazy to hide things from yourself, but as he later notes, he (in the past) had a good reason for miscommunicating with himself (in the present) since he's so untrustworthy (29.68).
…. (a Hooloovoo is a super-intelligent shade of the color blue). (4.22)
We pulled this quotelet because The Hitchhiker's Guide is full of new things for us to experience. It is, in the best sense, a mind-expanding experience where we have to wrap our heads around new concepts, like a life form that's a color. We don't quite get it, but we love that it's wearing a prism as formal wear to meet the president.
Arthur prodded the mattress nervously and then sat on it himself: in fact he had very little to be nervous about, because all mattresses grown in the swamps of Squornshellous Zeta are very thoroughly killed and dried before being put to service. Very few have ever come to life again. (5.51)
Even pretty simple words like "mattress" hold whole new meanings out in the galaxy. (And so does the word "killed," by the way. Usually being killed is permanent, but at least a few mattresses have come back to life according to this quote.)
Ford, with a lightning movement, clapped his hand to Arthur's ear, and he had the sudden sickening sensation of the fish slithering deep into his aural tract. Gasping with horror he scrabbled at his ear for a second or so, but then slowly turned goggle-eyed with wonder. He was experiencing the aural equivalent of looking at a picture of two black silhouetted faces and suddenly seeing it as a picture of a white candlestick. Or of looking at a lot of colored dots on a piece of paper which suddenly resolve themselves into the figure six and mean that your optician is going to charge you a lot of money for a new pair of glasses. (5.110)
Just as it's hard to express the absurd or the amazing, it may be hard to describe the totally new. So here, the experience of the Babel fish is compared to figuring out an optical illusion or to taking a color-blindness test, experiences that we are probably familiar with. (And we might be familiar with paying the optician money for new glasses, even though we just got new glasses.)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy says that if you hold a lungful of air you can survive in the total vacuum of space for about thirty seconds. However it goes on to say that what with space being the mind-boggling size it is the chances of getting picked up by another ship within those thirty seconds are two to the power of two hundred and sixty-seven thousand seven hundred and nine to one against. (8.10)
Exploring space is a good way to reduce your grocery bills, because it can kill you pretty easily. This section from the Guide (the book within Hitchhiker's Guide) nicely points up the ludicrously small chance of surviving if you get thrown off a ship. So exploring looks pretty dangerous until you put it into some perspective: traveling the galaxy might kill Arthur and Ford, but staying on the Earth when it got blown up definitely would have killed them.
Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the former Galactic Empire, life was wild, rich, and largely tax free.
Mighty starships plied their way between exotic suns, seeking adventure and reward amongst the furthest reaches of Galactic space. In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged. (15.2-3)
The mighty empire period of the galaxy was apparently the best time to go exploring: people faced dangers bravely and sought adventure. They also made money that was "largely tax free." Let's not forget that aspect of exploration: some people went out for the money. So this time may have been "great and glorious" for exploration, but they had some tax-free rewards in their sights as well.
"Well," said Zaphod airily, "it's partly the curiosity, partly a sense of adventure, but mostly I think it's the fame and the money ..." (16.45)
Zaphod clearly marks out the main reasons for exploration: curiosity, adventure, fame, and money. Zaphod is very clear that curiosity and adventure are fine, but fame and money are what pays the bills, even for adventurous explorers. So exploration seems tied to less-than-noble reasons.
Calm down, get a grip now ... oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It's a sort of ... yawning, tingling sensation in my ... my ... well I suppose I'd better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let's call it my stomach. (18.27)
Oh, poor, sweet whale, trying to explore this new universe in the short time it has. We might contrast this whale to Arthur (which should make Arthur feel better about his body image issues): whereas Arthur at least knows some things about himself and the world around him, the whale is a total blank slate who has to come up with names not just for the things around him ("the world") but for himself as well ("my stomach"). We'll miss you, whale. But the ground won't.
"You know nothing of future time," pronounced Deep Thought, "and yet in my teeming circuitry I can navigate the infinite delta streams of future probability and see that there must one day come a computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate, but which it will be my fate eventually to design." (25.29)
This is Deep Thought when he's asked the question of life, the universe, and everything. He comes off kind of like a pompous jerk here, doesn't he? What's also curious about Deep Thought, besides how much he loves his own voice, is how he's just about the only character to think about the future and how things in the future may be different.
"No," said Arthur, "I mean why have you been doing it?"
"Oh, I see," said Frankie. "Well, eventually just habit I think, to be brutally honest. And this is more or less the point—we're sick to the teeth with the whole thing, and the prospect of doing it all over again on account of those whinnet-ridden Vogons quite frankly gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies, you know what I mean?" (31.55-6)
Why go exploring? Curiosity? Adventure? Fame? Fortune? How about habit? Notice that Adams uses really casual dialogue here: phrases like "sick to the teeth" and "screaming heebie-jeebies." All that casual language drives home the point that these mice are not serious explorers. But then again, who is a serious explorer in this book?
Ford could sense it and found it most mysterious—a ship and two policemen seemed to have gone spontaneously dead. In his experience the Universe simply didn't work like that.
The other three could sense it too, but they could sense the bitter cold even more and hurried back into the Heart of Gold suffering from an acute attack of no curiosity. (34.9-10)
And here we see the great trouble with serious exploration in Hitchhiker's Guide: exploring is hard. Rather than go explore the mysterious dead ship, Zaphod, Arthur, and Trillian would rather stay warm and comfortable. These three sense that something weird has happened, but they aren't curious about it (and on top of that, for Zaphod, there's no money in it). Perhaps Ford is the best explorer in the book, since he seems to be willing to put up with the cold to satisfy his curiosity.
"But the plans were on display..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a flashlight."
"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"
"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'" (1.33-40)
We used to think that politics at its best was a dialogue where everyone was free to speak, but after reading this back-and-forth between Arthur and Prosser we might want to change our ideas: politics is at its best when people speak (check) and listen to each other (no check). Notice how this dialogue lets us see how Prosser will say anything to make his department look like the reasonable member in this disagreement; he does this by redefining the phrase "on display."
Human beings are great adaptors, and by lunchtime life in the environs of Arthur's house had settled into a steady routine. It was Arthur's accepted role to lie squelching in the mud making occasional demands to see his lawyer, his mother, or a good book; it was Mr. Prosser's accepted role to tackle Arthur with the occasional new ploy such as the For the Public Good talk, the March of Progress talk, the They Knocked My House Down Once You Know, Never Looked Back talk and various other cajoleries and threats; and it was the bulldozer drivers' accepted role to sit around drinking coffee and experimenting with union regulations to see how they could turn the situation to their financial advantage. (1.68)
This situation might still be going on if Earth hadn't been destroyed by the Vogons. While the bulldozer drivers might selfishly be thinking about turning this situation to their benefit, notice how Prosser's arguments are all presented as not self-centered: it's all about how knocking down Arthur's house will be good for everyone. Yet, as we see in other moments, Prosser is mostly worried about his own situation here, and he also has a selfish interest in doing this job. It probably doesn't look good if you fail to knock down a house, right? Arthur isn't even making any arguments: while his lawyer might be helpful, his other requests—"his mother, or a good book"—are clearly just to pass the time.
He was far from certain about this—his mind seemed to be full of noise, horses, smoke, and the stench of blood. This always happened when he felt miserable and put upon, and he had never been able to explain it to himself. In a high dimension of which we know nothing the mighty Khan bellowed with rage, but Mr. Prosser only trembled slightly and whimpered. He began to fell little pricks of water behind the eyelids. Bureaucratic cock-ups, angry men lying in the mud, indecipherable strangers handing out inexplicable humiliations and an unidentified army of horsemen laughing at him in his head—what a day. (1.155)
Here's a nice comparison between two political systems: Prosser is a bureaucratic man who, we might say, lives and dies by the bureaucratic regulation. But his great, great, great, very great ancestor had a totally different political way of dealing with his problems: the great Genghis Khan would burn down and kill anyone in his way. As much as we laugh at Prosser, we might be glad that he's not a Khan.
The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. […] His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. (4.14 footnote)
The president's role here is curious, since his job has little to do with power a lot to do with distracting people from the real sources of power. We're never told who really has the power in this government. Is it the civil service bureaucracy, which is full of Vogons? Is it corporations, like the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation? We don't know. All we do know is that power is something Zaphod doesn't have. After all, this is one of only two footnotes in the entire book.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz was not a pleasant sight, even for other Vogons. His highly domed nose rose high above a small piggy forehead. His dark green rubbery skin was thick enough for him to play the game of Vogon Civil Service politics, and play it well, and waterproof enough for him to survive indefinitely at sea depths of up to a thousand feet with no ill effects. (5.1)
What Prosser is to Earth, Jeltz is to the galaxy, which sounds pretty majestic until you realize that he's just a bureaucratic functionary: he's a guy (er, a Vogon) with a job, not some supervillain monster that wants to destroy Earth for some insane but personal reason. It's just a job, but it certainly isn't all that.
"Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy—not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat and recycled as firelighters." (5.63)
According to the Guide, the Vogons are terribly bureaucratic and mean. They're not going to break the rules in order to help you. On the other hand, they're not exactly evil—they're not going to break the rules in order to harm you, either. Still, it may be hard to remember that when you're being chased by the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal while the Vogons are busy going through the appropriate forms.
But so successful was this venture that Magrathea itself soon became the richest planet of all time and the rest of the Galaxy was reduced to abject poverty. And so the system broke down, the Empire collapsed, and a long sullen silence settled over a billion worlds, disturbed only by the pen scratchings of scholars as they labored into the night over smug little treaties on the value of a planned political economy. (15.6)
"Political economy" is either another way to say "economics" or it's a way to refer to the interaction of the political world and the economic world. It's not like people are voting for what form of economy they want. Politics in Hitchhiker's Guide is all about how people organize themselves and live together, so economy certainly falls under that category. As we see here, there are some easy ways for the system to break down. Just as the political president can run away from his job, so can the economic leader bring the economic system to collapse. But here, Magrathea causes a collapse by being so good at their job. That seems absurd: how can a victory for Magrathea cause a defeat for the rest of the galaxy?
"The computers were index linked to the Galactic stock market prices you see, so that we'd all be revived when everybody else had rebuilt the economy enough to afford our rather expensive services."
Arthur, a regular Guardian reader, was deeply shocked at this.
"That's a pretty unpleasant way to behave isn't it?" (22.35-7)
As we note in the Shout-Outs, the Guardian is a left-leaning paper, so what Arthur means is that it's not cool for the Magratheans to sleep through a recession that they partly caused. Rather than working to fix the recession, the Magratheans are waiting for a time "when everybody else had rebuilt the economy." That is, the Magratheans have removed themselves from the economy and the politics of the galaxy. Not only is this bad for the galaxy, but it doesn't seem to be good for the Magratheans, who have passed into legend. And frankly, people don't usually line up to buy stuff from a company that they don't believe exists anymore.
"Yes," said the old man, pausing to gaze hopelessly round the room. "Ten million years of planning and work gone just like that. Ten million years, Earthman ... can you conceive of that kind of time span? A galactic civilization could grow from a single worm five times over in that time. Gone." He paused. "Well that's bureaucracy for you," he added. (30.3)
Slartibartfast could rant and rave about the huge waste and loss of destroying Earth right before Earth was ready to give an answer. (We should point out, though, that the loss of Earth means that the Magratheans will get more business from the mice. So the destruction of Earth is at least profitable for Magrathea.) Instead, Slarty first emphasizes the loss of "Ten million years of planning and work" and then gives the verbal equivalent of a shrug: "that's bureaucracy for you." That's not a passionate statement—Slarty isn't going to rush out to reform the government after this. Nothing is going to change.
"Since when," continued his murine colleague, "we have had an offer of a quite enormously fat contract to do the 5D chat show and lecture circuit back in our own dimensional neck of the woods, and we're very much inclined to take it." (31.58)
Benjy mouse and Frankie mouse are the mouse equivalents of Enron, preparing to rip off a bunch of people. That is, they have a contract where they'll get lots of money in exchange for explaining the meaning life—but they can't do that since all they have is the answer (42). Here we see a breakdown in the system of living and working together, since these two are about to pull off a massive fraud simply for their own gain.