Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The hitchhiker's guide to Douglas Adams

Just finished reading [the first three books of] Douglas Adams' "The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". This is a compendium volume of five of his best known novels. I'd been immersed in the culture of Adams since college. "42", the ultimate answer, "Don't Panic" and "Mostly Harmless" were well known phrases in my lexicon, but I'd never read any of Adams' actual works.

Reading Adam's works is somewhat like reading the script to a Monty Python sketch. Characters may be brutal, but decorum must be maintained. Tea is a priority even if your ship is being destroyed. And like Monty Python sketches, not all story lines are necessarily tied together because that isn't necessarily the intention when the goal is highlighting the absurdness of certain human activities.

The five books should be read in sequence as they are sequels of each other and cannot be made sense of if one hasn't read the predecessors.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Many millions of years ago a race of hyperintelligent, pandimensional beings (whose physical manifestation our universe is that of white mice) got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life, that they built a huge, powerful computer, Deep Thought, to solve their problem once and for all. This gigantic computer was tasked with coming up with “The Answer”, the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything”. It would take Deep Thought seven and a half million years to come up with the answer. When it finally spoke, its answer was “42”. This, it claimed, was the answer to the “Ultimate Question” of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”. But when asked what the ultimate question was, Deep Thought said that it did not know, that it would fall upon the one that came after to calculate it.

So, this race of hyperintelligent, pandimensional beings contracted with some Magrathean engineers and scientists to build a more powerful computer, “Deep Thought II”, to calculate the “Ultimate question” to the “Ultimate Answer” to “Life, the Universe and Everything”. This computer was Earth. However, just before Deep Thought II was to speak the answer to the ultimate question, it was destroyed by a Vogon constructor fleet because it was in the way of a hyperspatial expressway.

The only survivors were:

  1. Tricia McMillan (aka Trillian) – who was now a guest of ex-president of the universe Zaphod Beeblebrox aboard his ship the “Heart of Gold”, which was powered by the Infinite Improbability drive.
  2. Ford Prefect – a denizen of a planet six hundred light-years away in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. He’d been stranded on earth for the past fifteen years while research entries for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
  3. Arthur Dent – a denizen of Earth who was befriended by Ford Prefect and thus whisked off the planet just before it was destroyed, ironically just after his own house was destroyed by a village bulldozer making way for a highway bypass.
  4. Two white mice – these two were, nominally, Trillian’s pets but were in fact members of the race of hyperintelligent, pandimensional beings on Earth to observe the progress of Deep Thought II.

Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent ended up hitching a ride on a Vogon ship just before Earth was destroyed, but because the Vogons weren’t exactly a sociable race they were flung out of an airlock into space. Fortunately they were picked up, just in time, by Zaphod Beeblebrox.

The mice, seeing their investment destroyed figured that since Arthur Dent was a product of Deep Though II (aka Earth) his brain would contain hints to what the ultimate question was. Consequently, they wanted to remove and examine Arthur Dent’s brain. Naturally, Arthur was somewhat resistant to this. Escaping aboard Zaphod’s ship, the group went to seek a place to grab a bite, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe gets its name from being balanced in time just on the edge of the event when the universe comes to an end, drifting back and forth across this event horizon; quite a fireworks show, guaranteed to entertain diners.

In the meantime, the Vogons, not liking leaving a job unfinished, trying to finish off the destruction of earth and all its inhabitants, attacked The Heart of Gold. It appears, however, that the reason for the destruction of earth had more sinister roots. Gag Halfrunt, figuring that discovery of the question to the answer to the ultimate question would put his psychiatric business to an end, paid the Vogons to destroy earth and all its inhabitants.

After escaping the Vogon attack on his ship, Zaphod figured that consulting with the real ruler of the universe, Zarniwoop, would provide them with a hint as to the question to the ultimate answer. Marvin, the paranoid android claimed he could see the question in Arthur brainwaves but refused to say what it was. Zarniwoop turned out to be quite a disappointment. He didn’t believe in much, except his dog for example.

After escaping from Disaster Area’s (the loudest band in the universe) stunt ship, which was diving into the sun as part of Hotblack Desiato (Disaster Area’s front man) opening act, Arthur and Ford Prefect end up on earth of two million years before it was destroyed. They come into contact with two groups of people; the primitive ape men who Arthur had previous assumed (Dr. Darwin call your office) he was descended from and a group of Golgafrincham’s whose ship had crashed on earth. They were the vanguard of the evacuation of their planet which, at least as far as they were told, was doomed. In fact, they were the useless third (hairdressers, TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives management consultants, lawyers and telephone sanitizers) rejected by the actual doers (the leaders and the makers) who stayed home and lived full, rich and happy lives until they were suddenly wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone. When the “apemen” came into contact with the Golgafrinchams, and witnessed their “fire making committee” in action, became so depressed and desperate that they died out. Hence, Arthur realized, he and the rest of the erstwhile Earth's population was descended from the useless one third of the race of Golgafrincham.

Later, still in search of the question to the ultimate answer, Ford Prefect postulates that since Arthur is a product of Deep Thought II and “The Question” is imprinted in his brain patterns, that perhaps he can coax the answer out of Arthur (without removing his brain like the mice wanted to do) by having him draw Scrabble tiles out of a bag; the resulting sentence construct would be “The Question”. Arthur agrees and proceeds to draw tiles.


[Read that carefully and realize that the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything was 42.]

Ford Prefect's Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic hasn't picked up a signal for years, so he and Arthur are well and truly stuck on earth of two million years ago. But Arthur may be finally discovering the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. While talking with Mella and Agda, two of the surviving Golgafrinchams, about what happened (or will happen in two million years) to Earth, and not making much sense, Arthur stops worrying and throws his copy of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" into the river.

Life, The Universe and Everything

On prehistoric Earth, one fine day, Arthur Dent is spectacularly insulted ("You're a jerk, a complete kneebiter") by Wowbagger. Wowbagger is immortal and doesn't instinctively know how to deal with his status, because he wasn't born with it but rather had is thrust upon him due to an unfortunate accident involving an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch and a pair of rubber bands. His purpose, he determined, would be to insult the Universe and he would do it in alphabetical order. His next stop would be Arthur Philip Deodat.

That same day, Arthur and Ford Prefect spot a red couch moving across the landscape. Ford understands its significance (it's a time portal) and they both chase it down and jump on it ... emerging in the middle of the pitch at Lord's Cricket Ground, St. John's Wood, London, toward the end of the last Test Match of the Australian series in the year 198-, with England only needing twenty-eight runs to win.

When they arrive, you meet up with Slartibartfast (remember him? He won an award for designing Earth's Fjords). His ship, disguised as an Italian bistro, was parked just behind the bleachers. Ford Prefect points out an S.E.P. (Someone Else's Problem) just as an alien ship lands disgorging white robots who proceed to kill everyone in sight and leave after taking the Cricket trophy.

Slartibartfast urgently ushers Ford and Arthur to his ship which is powered by a "Bistromathic Drive". Dissimilar to the "Infinite Improbability" drive that powers Zaphod's "Heart of Gold", Bistromathics is a revolutionary new way of understanding the behavior of numbers ... in a restaurant. It operates on three non-absolute numbers, the first of which is the number of people for whom a table is reserved. It varies during the course of the first three phone calls to the restaurant and will finally bear no resemblance to the number of people who actually show up.

Inside the ship, Slartibastfast explains to Ford and Arthur what just happened, and what they must do. The white robots were foot soldiers of the planet Krikkit, a small planet surrounded by a huge dust cloud. The people of Krikkit were peaceloving people who, because the dust cloud obscured their view of the sky, believed they were completely alone in the universe. When a derelict spaceliner, the starship "Titanic" built as one of the first experimental ships to be powered by a prototype of the Infinite Improbability drive , crashed onto Krikkit, the people of Krikkit realized that they were not alone. They built a ship which took them beyond the Dust Cloud, into the starry, inky blackness of the infinite universe beyond. Upon seeing this infinite universe, the people of Krikkit decided that "It will have to go!". Overnight the whole population of Krikkit was transformed from being charming, delightful, intelligent, whimsical ordinary people, into charming, delightful, intelligent, whimsical manic xenophobes. The succeeding destruction, Slartibartfast told Ford and Arthur, was long and violent and came to be known as the Krikkit Wars.

The wars were finally won, and the people of Krikkit contained, when His High Judgmental Supremacy, Judiciary Pag, L.I.V.R. (the Learned, Impartial and Very Relaxed), Chairman of the Board of Judges at the Krikkit War Crimes Trials sentences them to be encased for perpetuity in a "slo-time" envelope, shut and closed by a lock placed on an asteroid slowly orbiting the envelope. The key was the symbol of the peaceful Galaxy (peaceful after the Krikkit Wars), the Wikkit Gate. The "slo-time" envelope would deflect all light and escape from it was impossible. It was intended to slow down the progress of time on Krikkit, thus rendering the people of Krikkit harmless until the end of the universe, when they would reemerge and continue on, alone.

The key consists of three vertical pillars, connected at the top by two bails. The pieces were scattered.

When the envelope was put into place, a missing Krikkit warship, presumed destroyed but actually only missing, remained outside the envelope. The Krikkiters aboard this ship zoomed around the galaxy retrieving the five pieces of the key.

  1. The Steel Pillar -- one of Marvin the paranoid Android's legs,
  2. The Plastic Pillar -- the royal scepter of some or other (I forgot the name) minor deity,
  3. The Wooden Pillar -- the reconstituted ashes of a cricket stump burnt in Melborne, Australia, in 1882, to signify the death of English Cricket,
  4. The Silver Bail -- part of A Rory, a small silver thing set on a large black base, the award for The Most Gratuitous use of the word Belgium in a Serious Screenplay.
  5. The Golden Bail -- the heart of The Infinite Improbability Drive aboard Zaphod's ship, The Heart of Gold.
Slartibartfast explained that they must proceed to Krikkit and prevent the opening of the lock and stop the Krikkiters from activating the ultimate weapon that would destroy the universe.

After reconstituting the key and unlocking the slo-time envelope, the Krikketer's proceeded with their plan to destroy the universe. They'd invented (or thought they had) a small bomb that was actually a junction box in hyperspace that when activated would connect the heart of every major sun, thus turning the entire universe into a hyperstatial supernova.

However, with Trillian's shoulder to cry on, they apparently had a change of faith with regards to the whole universe destruction thing.

Trillian told them a story. Hactar, a supercomputer, was contracted by the super violent race Silastic Armorfiends of Striterax to built the ultimate weapon: a junction box in hyperspace that when activated would connect the heart of every major sun, thus turning the entire universe into a hyperstatial supernova. Hactar designed in a flaw hoping that, upon sober reflection, no one would use the bomb. The Silastic Armorfiends disagreed and pulverized the computer. Hactar was build like a brain; each and every cellular particle carried the pattern of the whole. Hactar ended up as the impenetrable dust cloud around the planet Krikket. He felt bad about not fulfilling his function by introducing the flaw in the ultimate weapon he built for the Silastic Armorfiends and nurtured the Krikketers in their xenophobic binge of destruction, thus allowing Hactar to fulfill his function by proxy. And now his plans were foiled again.

Arthur returned to Earth, to bring back the ashes of the burned cricket stump. Standing on the pitch at Lord's Cricket Ground, he found a small red ball in his bag and had an urge to bowl it at a White Robot that miraculously appear in front of the wicket. [The little red ball was another bomb planted there by Hactar while he and Trillian were in the dust cloud over Krikkit] While bowling, he was distracted and discovered that he could fly if he forgot to hit the ground while falling. The bomb, which would have been activated had the White Krikkit Robot hit it with his club, sailed harmlessly off into space.

Arthur, having saved the universe twice in one day and seeking a quiet place was dropped off on Krikkit, which had by then returned to being an idyllic place, where he pursued his desire to learn how to fly more effectively and to talk with the birds. To his astonishment he realized that most of what birds talk about was exceedingly boring, having to do with wingspans, weight-to-power ratios, etc. He "settled" for living on the ground.

The game of Cricket, on Earth, is a echo of the memory of the Krikkit wars, a White Robot hitting a little red ball being one of the most heinous images to the rest of the galaxy. One has to wonder what Douglas Adams thought of the game of Cricket. :-)


Suprita said...

Heh.. You've actually managed to remember the completely unrelated sequence of events. And his style of writing has rubbed off on you..
Thanks for the write up. Got me all nostalgic..

Felix Estrella said...

Suprita: you mean the run-on sentences that cover half-a-page? ;-)

Weetabix said...

Did you make all that up just to make fun of Highspeed?

Actually, we made Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters in college (they were quite good), and I occasionally indulge myself in writing Vogon poetry (it's quite bad).

Felix Estrella said...

Making fun of Englishmen is a special treat. ;-)

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