Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 1: "Don't Panic"

This is the story of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor -- more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than 53 More Things To Do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Coluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is This God Person Anyway? 
And in many of the more relaxed civilizations on the outer Eastern rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch-Hiker's Guide has already supplanted the Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, because although it has many omissions, contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important ways. First, it is slightly cheaper, and second it has the words 'DON'T PANIC' inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover.
To science fiction fans of a certain generation, these words will evoke the sound of a melancholy banjo plunking and the thunderous chords of the Eagles's Journey of the Sorcerer. And a smile.

Because Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ranks among the funniest Space Odysseys this side of the Barnard's Star roundabout.

The way Douglas Adams told the story, he got the idea while hitch-hiking around Europe with a copy of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to Europe. One night, while lying in a field near Innsbruck after having a bit to drink and watching the stars spin over his head, it occurred to him that there really ought to be a Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well.

At least that's the story he always told; although he also admitted that he had told the story so many times that he was no longer sure whether he remembered it happening that way, or if he just remembered telling the story that way.

But the book was a hook for a bigger idea he wanted to explore. He was writing comedy for the BBC and it struck him that although rock 'n' roll albums had benefited greatly from advances in audio production since the release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, radio comedy hadn't progressed much farther than the stock sound effects used since the 1930s. He wanted to do a comedy program, as he said, that would "sound like a rock album."
I wanted the voices and the effects and the music to be so seamlessly orchestrated as to create a coherent picture of a whole world -- and I said this and many similar sorts of things and waved my hands around a lot, while people nodded patiently and said 'Yes, Douglas, but what's it actually about?'
I first heard Hitchhiker around my junior or senior year in high school, when it was aired on National Public Radio. I had become interested in radio drama a couple years earlier when a local station had played a BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds, but this was mind-blowing. My brother and I recorded the series off the radio on cassette tapes which we played on long car trips to visit relatives in Minneapolis, and we both could quote long passages from the program verbatim.

I suppose that is why I have always considered the radio version to be the Ur-Text of Hitchhiker. The TV adaptation was fun, but limited by tacky visual effects. The novels were entertaining, but I began to lose interest in them as they went off in their own direction. Call me a Hitchhiker Fundamentalist, I guess. That is why I'm basing this look at the Hitchhiker's Guide off the radio scripts written by Douglas Adams and edited by Geoffrey Perkins.

We are introduced to the story by the Guide itself, an electronic book which provides narration, commentary, and helpful excerpts explaining the bizarre things our hero encounters. The Book's calm, authoritative voice is the aural equivalent of the Large, Friendly Letters on the cover of the Guide.

The story's central character is Arthur Dent, an ordinary ape-descendant from a planet so distressingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. Today, of course, we think that electronic books are a pretty neat idea. I guess that's progress.

Arthur has gone off the idea of Progress, "It's overrated," because it entails the city knocking down his house in order to build a bypass through the London suburb in which he lives. It is while Arthur is lying down in front of one of the bulldozers that his friend Ford comes to tell him something extremely important.

Ford is not actually from Guildford. He is an alien from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and is visiting Earth in order to gather material for the Hitch-Hiker's Guide. He chose the name "Ford Prefect" because he originally misidentified the dominant life-form on the planet and thought it would be inconspicuous.

The Ford Prefect was a make of automobile sold in Britain in the mid-20th Century. The movie version has a cute bit in which Arthur meets Ford when the latter has just arrived on Earth and is trying to make friends with the local inhabitants by standing in the middle of a road and extending his hand in greeting to oncoming traffic.

Ford now wants to warn Arthur of the impending destruction of the Earth. As it happens, just as Arthur's house is slated to make way for a bypass, so is the planet scheduled to be obliterated by the Vogons to make room for a hyperspace bypass. And sure enough, minutes later a fleet of huge, yellow, rectangular spaceships, hanging in the air in precisely the same way that bricks don't, arrive over the Earth.

Moments before the Earth is demolished, Ford rescues Arthur and himself by hitching a lift on one of the ships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet.
Excuse me, are you trying to tell me that we just stuck out our thumbs and some bug-eyed monster stuck his head out and said 'Hi, fellas, hop right in, I can take you as far as the Basingstoke roundabout'? 
Well, the thumb's an electronic sub-ether device, the roundabout's at Barnard's Star six light years away, but otherwise that's more or less right. 
And the bug-eyed monster? 
Is green, yes.
Ford gives Arthur a fish to stick his his ear. This is the legendary Babel Fish, which feeds on brainwive energy and telepathically translates languages. In a comic inversion of the argument for Intelligent Design, the Book explains how the existence of such a mindbogglingly useful creature is clinching proof of the non-existence of God. Most leading theologians claim this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but Oolon Colluphid still used it as the central thesis of his book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.

But the Vogon Captain has no fondness for hitch-hikers nor for stowaways. When the crew of the ship capture Ford and Arthur, the Captain tortures them by reading some of his poetry, which the Book assures us is the third worst in the Universe, after that of the Azgoths of Kria and Ms Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Earth. (In the original version, Adams used the name of an actual British poet but was required to change the name to avoid lawsuits).
So Earthlings. I present you with a simple choice. I was going to throw you straight out into the empty blackness of space to die horribly and slowly. But there is one way, one simple way in which you may save yourselves. ... Now choose! Either die in the vacuum of space or 
... Tell me how good you thought my poem was.
Ford and Arthur try their best to bull their way out of their situation. ("...interesting rhythmic devices too which seemed to counterpoint the ... er ..." "...counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor...") But the Vogon Captain isn't buying it. Arthur and Ford soon find themselves in airlock, about to be flushed into space.

Writing about the story later, Adams admitted that he had badly written himself into a corner at this point. He was pretty much making up the plot as he went along, an occupational hazard for writers of serial literature. He couldn't think of any way of rescuing his heroes from certain death that wouldn't seem ridiculously improbable. So, inspired by a TV programme about Judo, he decided to solve his improbable problem with improbability.

The Infinite Improbability Drive is possibly the most creative piece of FTL technobabble in all science fiction.
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 under-garments simultaneously leap one foot to the left, in accordance with the theory of indeterminacy.
Sending a spacecraft across the depths of space "without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace" requires a device capable of generating infinite improbability. One of the side effects of this spacedrive is that it causes incredible coincidences to occur, such as picking up Ford and Arthur in the critical thirty-second window between being sucked out into space and dying of asphyxiation. Another coincidence is that the spaceship Heart of Gold which is powered by the Improbability Drive is being piloted by -- and in fact had been stolen by -- Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, accompanied by Tricia McMillan, a nice Earth girl whom Arthur once met at a party (and totally failed to impress).

Zaphod Beeblebrox is a brash, narcissistic rogue with an ego -- as we find out later in the series -- larger than the Universe itself. He invented the Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, and until stealing the spaceship Heart of Gold, was the President of the Galaxy. He has two heads and three arms, one of the many "audio sight-gags" which work better in radio than they do in film or television.

Arthur has also met Zaphod, at the same party. "He only had the two arms and the one head and he called himself Phil." He and Zaphod do not get along.

Tricia McMillan, whom Zaphod calls Trillian, is very intelligent girl with a degree in mathematics and another in astrophysics. What she sees in Zaphod is hard to fathom, unless, as the movie version suggest, she simply took up with him because she wanted to see the galaxy. "Sorry I missed that Wednesday lunch date," she tells Arthur, "but I was in a black hole all morning."

Rounding out the Heart of Gold's crew are Eddie the Shipboard Computer, and Artificial Intelligence with an annoyingly upbeat personality, and Marvin the Paranoid Android, a hyper-depressed robot with, as he likes to observe, "a brain the size of a planet," and a terrible pain in all the diodes down his left side. Marvin is easily the most popular character in the entire story.
The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The Marketing Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as 'Your plastic pal who's fun to be with.' The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines the Marketing Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as a 'bunch of mindless jerks who'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes'...
Introductions having been made, the crew of the fugitive spaceship Heart of Gold continues on it's journey to... ah, but where are they going?
Hi there, this is Eddie your shipboard computer, and I just want to mention here that we are now moving into orbit around the legendary planet of Magrathea. Sorry to interrupt your social evening. Have a good time.
NEXT:  The Legend of Magrathea! The Mystery of the Missing Mice! And the Secret of Slartibartfast!

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