Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Exploration

By Douglas Adams

Exploration

…. (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.