Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Absurdity

By Douglas Adams

Absurdity

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..."
"Yes...!"
"Of Life, the Universe and Everything..." said Deep Thought.
"Yes...!"
"Is..." said Deep Thought, and paused.
"Yes...!"
"Is..."
"Yes...!!!...?"
"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.