Friday, August 16, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 5: The Bird-Men of Brontital

Continuing our look at the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series by Douglas Adams.

Everyone is once again on board the spaceship Heart of Gold. Well, almost everyone. Trillian, as we saw last time, got written out of the story, and the helpful Roosta, after providing some exposition last time, just sort of fell out of the plot. But Ford Prefect Arthur Dent are here, having been rescued from Earth's Prehistoric Past. So is Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has survived his sentence to the Total Perspective Vortex, thus proving that his ego really is as big as the entire Universe. Marvin the Paranoid Android is also here; although he probably wasn't asked if he wanted to come along, no one ever does; and Eddie, the ships excruciatingly chipper computer.

Perhaps now Ford and Arthur can get back to working on research for The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Good luck with that.

Ford and Arthur are chatting in the control room of the Heart of Gold while Zaphod is in his cabin autographing pictures of himself; ('To myself with frank admiration...'). Something is puzzling Ford. What really happened to the Earth? This annoys Arthur, and possibly the audience as well, because Ford was there; he knows bloody well that the Earth was demolished by the Vogons in order to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

But that's the thing. "Nobody makes bypasses anymore." The invention of the Infinite Improbability Drive made "all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace" obsolete. But then why was the Earth destroyed?
Ford only brings this up because he's just noticed that there's been a Vogon fleet following the ship for about half an hour now and he's starting to wonder if there's a connection.

There is. The fleet in question is commanded by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, captain of the constructor fleet which originally destroyed the Earth. I suspect that Douglas Adams was working on the first Hitchhiker novel at the same time as the this part of the radio series, because we are here re-introduced to Vogon Jeltz and the Vogons in general in a word picture that sounds very much like a narrative passage from a book -- and which was re-used in its entirety in the novel itself.

Vogon Jeltz is in contact with another familiar voice, that of Gag Halfrunt, Zaphod's private brain care specialist. Jeltz informs Halfrunt that he has located the ship bearing the Earthman. Halfrunt and a powerful consortium of high-priced psychiatrists were the ones who hired the Vogons to destroy the Earth in the first place. Why? The reason doesn't come up in this conversation, although later on the Narrator suggests that if the Ultimate Question to Life the Universe and Everything is ever found -- and the Earth, we have learned, is actually a massive planet-sized computer designed to calculate just that -- then the Universe might become a good and happy place, putting all the psychiatrists out of business.

Arthur is the last loose end. There must be no survivors.

(Well, Trillian is a survivor of Earth's destruction too, but since she left much earlier, the Vogons presumably aren't aware of her existence).

Gag Halfrunt is troubled to learn that Zaphod Beeblebrox is also on board the Heart of Gold. Zaphod is one of his most profitable clients. "He has personality problems beyond the dreams of analysts." But Halfrunt reconciles this ethical dilemma by trying to collect Zaphod's unpaid bills before ordering the Vogons to attack.

Unaware of this impending danger, Arthur has wandered off to the ship's cafeteria in search of a nice, hot cup of tea. He winds up arguing with the Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser, a machine designed to analyze a person's dietary needs, taste buds and flavor preferences to dispense the perfect beverage, which for unknown reasons always turns out to be almost, but not quite entirely unlike tea. Arthur hurls the cup of non-tea at the machine in disgust.
NUTRIMAT: If you have enjoyed the experience of this drink, why not share it with your friends?ARTHUR: Because I want to keep them. Will you try and comprehend what I'm telling you? That drink...
NUTRIMAT: That drink was individually tailored to meet your personal requirements form nutrition and pleasure.
ARTHUR: Ah. So I'm a masochist on a diet am I?
NUTRIMAT: Share and Enjoy.
The Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser was made by the Sirius Cybernetics corporation, which designed the A.I.'s in the ship's doors, floors and ventilation system; ostensibly to make their user's life better, but they never seem to. Here Adams is sort of the Anti-Hugo Gernsbeck; instead of wondering over the Marvels of the Future, he anticipates that the most incredible achievements of technology will be subject to the same SNAFUs as those of the Present.

"Then why did you create us?" the machines ask Arthur. They were built in order to serve people, albeit badly, but that's not their fault. Arthur didn't ask to have his needs anticipated by a faulty microprocessor; he just want's a cup of tea.

The Nutrimat cannot cannot comprehend this; it is counter to its programming. And when Arthur rhetorically asks if it knows why he likes tea, the machine takes it as a request for information; and, unable to derive an answer, routes the question to Eddie, the ship's annoyingly helpful A.I.

Which is why when, on the bridge, Zaphod orders the ship to activate the Improb Drive to get away from the Vogons, Eddie can't help them.
Sorry guys, I can't do that right now. All my circuits are currently engaged on solving a different problem. Now I know this is very unusual but it is a very difficult and challenging problem, and I know that the result will be one we can all share and enjoy.
Under imminent threat of obliteration by the Vogon fleet, Zaphod decides to hold a seance in order to contact his great-grandfather, Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth.
Yeah, I'm Zaphod Beeblebrox, my father's Zaphod Beeblebrox the Second, my grandfather's Zaphod Beeblebrox the Third ... There was an accident with a contraceptive and a time machine, I can't explain it now.
Great-Grand-dad is not too happy with young Zaphod. "We've been following your progress with considerable despondency," he says, "Not to say contempt." When Zaphod counters that he was President of the Galaxy, Great-Grand-dad is unimpressed.
You and I know what being President means, young Zaphod. You know because you've been it, and I know because I'm dead, and it gives one such a wonderfully uncluttered perspective. We have a saying up here. Life is wasted on the living.
The truth of the matter is, as the Narration explains, that Galactic President is an entirely ceremonial job, the purpose of which is to draw attention away from those who really wield the power -- "and if someone sufficiently vain and stupid is picked he won't realize this" Zaphod was a very good Galactic President.

As he was supposed to. "Zaphod, you became President for a reason. Have you forgotten?"
Yeah, of course I forgot. I had to forget. They screen your brain when you get the job you know. If they'd found my head full of subversion I'd have been right back out on the streets with nothing but a fat pension, secretarial staff, a fleet of ships and a couple of slit throats.
Everything Zaphod has done: getting elected President, stealing the Heart of Gold, searching for Magrathea and his unsuccessful attempt to find Zarniwoop; have all been part of a conspiracy so secret that he had to block the knowledge away from himself and he still doesn't fully realize what he's trying to do.

Great-Grand-dad agrees to help Zaphod, (after liberally dispensing some more abuse). Suddenly, Eddie the Shipboard Computer snaps brightly to life having solved the problem of why Arthur likes tea. "This unearthly voice came and solved my problem for me". Arthur likes tea "Because he's an ignorant monkey who doesn't know better. Cute, Eh?"

The ship improbs out, just in the nick of time; arriving... where?

"We seem to be in some kind of cave, guys," Eddie tells them. "Do you like caves? There's something very strange about this one." It is very cold and very circular and appears to be made of marble. This is because it is not exactly a cave as much as a huge marble statue of a cup, suspended some thirteen miles above the surface of the planet, which is named Brontitall.

In exploring the cave, Zaphod slips and finds himself clinging precariously to the rim, high about the ground. Arthur, who went off a moment earlier, has fallen off too and is now plummeting to the ground much like a rather surprised sperm whale, whose fate he undoubtedly would share if not for fortuitously landing on the back of a large passing bird.

The bird is an angry one, and resents having a passenger land on his back; but learning that Arthur fell out of the cup, swings around to show Arthur the entire statuary piece. "Only decent thing our ancestors ever did," the bird says.

It's a statue of Arthur Dent.

Upon learning that Arthur is the original model for his planet's greatest monument, the bird takes him to the rest of his flock, who are nested in one of the statue's ears. Their leader, the Wise Old Bird tells Arthur of their planet's history and of the two great blights which afflicted their planet. The second of which... they don't talk about; but the first of which was the Blight of the Robots.
ARTHUR: Tried to take over did they?WOB: My dear fellow, no. Much worse than that. They told us they liked us.
In short, the people of Brontitall suffered from the same kind of over-helpful droids that
Arthur found so annoying on the Heart of Gold. Until one night, an improbable warp in reality opened up in the skies and the people saw the image of Arthur Dent arguing with the Nutrimat and throwing his cup at it.
In a moment we realized the truth! Just because the little wretches liked us, it didn't mean to say we had to like them back! And that night we rounded up every last one of the little creeps...
The people of Brontital set the robots to work building the statue of Arthur Dent Throwing the Nutrimatic Cup as an eternal reminder. But by then, the second and more deadly blight was too far advanced and their civilization perished. The Wise Old Bird still refuses to elaborate on what this other blight was, but whatever it was it caused them to desert the planet's surface, evolve into birds, and shake the dust of the earth off their...

"...from our things, our whatchamacallits."

In order to find out what this other blight was, Arthur is directed to go down to the planet's surface.

Ford and Zaphod are on their way to the planet's surface too. At Zaphod's panicked urging, Ford finally tries to pull him up from the mouth of the cup; but they wind up both falling.

"I suppose we couldn't get picked up by a bird on the way down do you think?" Ford asks. Naturally they do.

Arthur arrives at the surface, via an express elevator in the statue's spinal column. Almost as soon as he emerges from between two of the statue's toes, he finds himself under fire from a limping footsoldier with a zap gun. Fortunately, he is pulled to safety by a female archaeologist.

She is on Brontiall to unearth the planet's history, and it has something to do with why those soldiers are limping.

NEXT:  Why are those soldiers limping? What was the the Second Blight which doomed the planet Brontitall? What is the Horrible Secret of the Lintillas and the Mystery of the Spaceport of the Damned. And remember Zarniwoop? All this and an Old Man with a Cat, next time!

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