The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Awe and Amazement
By Douglas Adams
Awe and Amazement
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." "But why?" "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).