Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part 6: Spaceport of the Damned

It is possible that this week, in which we conclude our look at Douglas Adams' radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, we will discover the purpose behind Zaphod's quest, the tragic past of the Birdmen of Brontital and the mystery of the limping footsoldiers.
It is even possible that pigs will fly, or that everyone will live happily ever after. In an infinite Universe everything, even The Hitch-hiker's guide to the Galaxy, is possible.
Arthur Dent has left the Bird-men of Brontitall, who live in the ear of a gigantic statue of Arthur hurling a cup built by their ancestors, (the statue, not the cup), and has escaped capture by some limping footsoldiers.

He has met an archaeologist named Lintilla. This is another of the women who occasionally appear in Hitchhiker who are beautiful, intelligent and with whom Douglas Adams seems to have no idea what to do. Trillian is one. Fenchurch, from the novel So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is another.

Lintilla is voiced in the radio series by none other than Rula Lenska, who baffled American audiences in the late '70s by appearing in TV shampoo ads purring "I'm Rula Lenska" as if that meant something. I seem to recall Johnny Carson mocking her in a sketch. My brother and were boggled to learn that she was connected with something cool, but actually she appeared in a lot of British television and radio programmes in the late 1970s.

Like Arthur, Ford and Zaphod have also fallen out of the gigantic cup suspended thirteen miles in the air, and like him, they have been rescued by landing on the back of a large passing bird. Unfortunately, this bird is not particularly friendly. Ford takes a page out of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook and wraps his towel around the bird's head to encourage it to Straighten Up and Fly Right. Once it deposits them safely on the ground, however, the bird and its friends take their revenge by dive-bombing Ford and Zaphod, who find themselves fleeing for safety.

Arriving at Lintilla's archaeological dig, Arthur meets her fellow archaeologists, Lintilla and Lintilla. "Why are there three of you?" Arthur asks. "Why are there only one of you?" they quite reasonably reply.

The Lintillas are clones and actually there are seventy-eight thousand million of them, only three of which, thankfully, are here at present. They are the result of an accident with a cloning machine that had been set to make six copies of a highly intelligent and attractive woman named Lintilla for an escort agency, while at the same time cloning five hundred bored businessmen, to maintain the laws of Supply and Demand. Because of a malfunction, the machine started creating each new clone before the previous one was finished, resulting in a thorny problem in bioethics: It became impossible to turn off the machine without committing murder.
This problem taxed the minds first of the cloning engineers, then of the priests, then of the letters page of the Sidereal Record Straightener, and finally of the lawyers who experimented vainly with ways of redefining murder, re-evaluating it and in the end even respelling it in the hopes that no one would notice. A solution has now been found, but since it is not a particularly pleasant one, it will only be revealed if it becomes absolutely necessary.
The other Lintillas have exciting news. A deep hole has mysteriously appeared near their camp which has opened up a new strata of rock. (The hole is actually an impact crater caused by Marvin, who has also fallen out out of the cup; he didn't land on the back of a bird as Arthur did, because he isn't that lucky; and he wasn't smashed to pieces because, once again, he isn't that lucky.)

The layer the Lintillas have discovered is composed not of rock, nor of stone, nor of some different sort of rock the name of which temporarily escapes Arthur; it is composed of compressed shoes. This confirms a theory the Lintillas have, but before they can explain it, they are all surrounded by a group of footsoldiers led by a belligerent executive.
I only happen to be Hig Hurtenflurst, I only happen to be the risingest young executive in the Dolmansaxil Shoe Corporation, I only happen to have masterminded the entire rationalization of this planet to total shoe orientation, I only happen to be sitting on top of the biggest development deal in the entire history of footware, and I only happen to be very deeply disturbed at finding my planet riddled with subversives bent on undermining the whole structure of the Dolmansaxil operation and thus the very economic future of the Galaxy itself, and I only happen to think that I would be very well advised to have both of you weirdos and the other two chicks revoked on the spot, does that answer your question?
Hig Hurtenflurst decides not to have Arthur and the Lintillas revoked ("K-i-l-l-e-d, revoked") but rather to take a liking to them. "I've decided to take these two back to my office and like them. ... I think I'd like them on the wall..."

Back at his office, Hurtenflurst explains how the planet Brontital is a test project for his company's Aggressive Marketing Initiative. They have constructed a "Shoe Shop Intensifier Ray" on the far side of the planet's moon, which caused its inhabitants to become gripped by an insane, irrational desire to build shoe shops.

Arthur is shocked to learn that Earth was also a planet the company had "declared Marketing" on. "That's where I come from! But it's been demolished," he says. "In which case it's escaped a very nasty fate," Lintilla whispers back.

In order to keep people buying shoes, the manufacturer keeps changing styles every year and producing shoes of increasingly poor quality so that the consumers have to keep buying more. (The reason all of the Footwarriors hired by the company limp, Hurtenflurst explains, is because their feet are the wrong size for their boots). To meet that demand, even more shoe shops are built. In the end, every shop on the planet was converted into a shoe shop. The footware bubble collapsed. Economic chaos ensued, followed by rioting, and military intervention by Dolmansaxil.

At this point, Hurtenflurst's presentation is interrupted by the power going out. Marvin shows up; he got tired of sitting at the bottom of his pit ("I was starting to like it too much") and has climbed out. "I suppose you'll want to be rescued now."

Here the narration explains that the Shoe Shop Intensifier Ray does not actually work and is only a gimmick to make Dolmansaxil Shoe Corporation executives feel like they're doing something. In actuality, what happened on Brontiall is a sad but natural part of the Economic Cycle called the Shoe Event Horizon.
It is explained through an extended bit which, sadly, is too long to quote in its entirety and which I don't think appears in any other Hitchhiker incarnation. It takes the form of a classroom lesson between a pupil and his computer tutor.
COMPUTEACH: Good morning, life form. 
PUPIL: Hi, Teach. 
COMPUTEACH: Are you sitting comfortably? 
PUPIL: Yes. 
COMPUTEACH: Then stand up. Harsh Economic Truths Class 17.
Through a combination of Socratic dialogue and positive reinforcement, ("You may press the button." "Thank you! Oo, that feels nice.") we get an outline of the theory. If you are living in an exciting, vibrant civilization, you are looking up at the "open sky, the stars, infinite horizons." Contrawise, if you are in a stagnant, declining civilization, you are more likely looking down, at your shoes. And what do you do to cheer yourself up? "I buy a new pair!"

This is the true catalyst for the vicious cycle of shoe shops which leads to:
PUPIL: The shoe event horizon. The whole economy overbalances. Shoe shops outnumber every other kind of shop, it becomes economically impossible to build anything other than shoe shops, and bing, I get to press the button again.F/X: THRILLING ZING AGAIN 
PUPIL: Weeehoo! 
COMPUTEACH: Wait for permission!
The final stages lead to: "Famine, collapse and ruin. Any survivors eventually evolve into birds and never put their feet on the ground again." Which as we've seen is exactly what has happened on Brontitall.

The lesson ends, and the Computeach tells the student to press the other button.
COMPUTEACH: Oooooohhhhh!!! That's so nice.
Meanwhile, Ford and Zaphod have escaped the continuing and messy vengeance of the Bird Folk and have come across an old, abandoned spaceport. Most of the ships there are wrecks, having undoubtedly been destroyed in the fall of Brontitall's civilization and left to rust of nine hundred years; but one of them is pretty much intact and still attached to its supply lines. Listening in on the ship with a makeshift stethoscope they learn that the ship is still under power, and they hear something which horrifies them.

Arthur and the Lintillas are still fleeing from the Footwarriors. For a change, Arthur gets to act like an action hero. He has acquired a zap gun and shoots back at the Footsoldiers to cover their flight. In the middle of this running gun battle, a curious fellow shows up and introduces himself as Poodoo, accompanied by three identical guys named Allitnil and a priest named Vartvar, ("Varntvar"). "He's a priest you see. Does marriages and other things, but mostly marriages..."

Poodoo asks if Arthur would introduce his three friends to the ladies. "We've brought some drinks. We can just have a quiet social get together. And some music of course. Got to have some music."

Arthur does not think this is the time or the place for social interactions, but as soon as the Lintillas meet the Allitnils, they fall deeply in love. Poodoo puts on some romantic music and pours the champagne as Arthur becomes more and more annoyed. "Well, I'll just get on with the shooting and saving everybody's lives then shall I?" he complains bitterly.
POODOO: No kissing now, lovebirds. Very old fashioned sector of the galaxy, this. No kissing allowed without names firmly on the marriage certificates. 
(Burst of disappointment from the six lovers) 
POODOO: Oh, looks like a cue for action from you then doesn't it padre? And I just happen to have the warrants for your marriage, sorry, licences about my person...
Here things happen very quickly. The couples sign the certificates; Poodoo switches the music to the "Wedding March"; The Footsoldiers ask if they can come to the wedding, ("No! Stay Back!" BURST OF GUNFIRE); Varntvar pronounces the three couples man and wife and...

As they kiss, two of the couples unexpected vanish in what the narration calls "a puff of unsmoke" and the remaining Lintilla survives only because Arthur is able to shoot the other Allitnil in time.

The "marriage licenses" are actually 'Agreements to cease to be' drawn up by the lawyers of the cloning machine company; and the Allitnils, (spell it backwards; but you probably figured that out by now) are anticlones sent by the company to wipe out the surplus Lintillas.

Back at the abandoned spaceport, Ford and Zaphod have entered the derelict ship. They find that the passenger compartment is full of passengers in suspended animation. They have been sleeping for the past nine hundred years, except for breaks every decade or so when the ships computer wakes them for coffee and biscuits. The computer does so now, and Ford and Zaphod find themselves surrounded by a pack of frenzied, panicked passengers who are desperately trying to get out. Ford and Zaphod barely escape to the flight deck with their skins intact.

On the flight deck, the ships autopilot coolly requests that they return to their seats. "We're not passengers," Ford says. "Return to your seats."

"What happened on this hell ship?" Ford asks. The autopilot tells them that they are experiencing a slight delay as the ship is waiting for a shipment of lemon-soaked paper napkins to be loaded. Until then the passengers are being kept in suspended animation for their comfort and convenience.

"Have you seen the world outside this ship?" Ford asks. Civilization on the planet has perished. "There are no lemon soaked paper napkins on the way from anywhere." The autopilot's reply is chilling.
AUTOPILOT: The statistical likelihood is that other civilizations will arise. There will one day be lemon soaked paper napkins. Till then, there will be a short delay. Please return to your seats. 
FORD: We are not ... 
AUTOPILOT: Please return to your seats! Return to your seats! Return to your seats! Return to your seats!
The Autopilot's voice becomes impassioned and almost visionary as it speaks about the lemon-scented future. Then, just as suddenly, it becomes cool and mechanical again as it reverts to the public-service message; and then colder and harsher and louder with each repetition. Ford and Zaphod flee from the flight deck and into the ship's cocktail lounge where they meet...
MAN: Zaphod Beeblebrox? ...My names Zarniwoop. You wanted to see me.
When Zaphod was looking for Zarniwoop before, he was told the man was in his office... on an intergalactic cruise. Zarniwoop tells Zaphod that this is correct. He has an artificial pocket universe created in his office. "You've been in it for quite a while now."
ZARNIWOOP: It's modeled very closely on the real one you know, with just a few ... differences. 
ZAPHOD: But when did we get into it man, I mean like, where, when? 
ZARNIWOOP: You didn't notice? Well, (He laughs slightly) I'll let you work it out for yourself.
This is something of a cheat, and I think Adams knew it. Logically, Zaphod should have entered the pocked universe at some point between meeting Roosta at the Guide's offices and his arrival on the Frogstar. This would explain how Zaphod was able to survive the Total Perspective Vortex: In this artificial reality, he really is the most important person in the Universe. But if that were the case, he would have had to exit the pocket universe in order to rescue Ford and Arthur from Earth's prehistoric past and then re-enter it again. Unless the Ford and Arthur who he rescued are also alternates from the artificial universe and the real ones are still stranded in the past.

So by the chronology of the radio series, they must have entered the pocket universe when they arrived on Brontitall. Douglas Adams must have found this dissatisfying too, because when he wrote the novels, he re-arranged events to make a little more sense.

The reason for all this is that years ago Zarniwoop, Zaphod and some others decided to find out who was really ruling the galaxy behind the President's back. Zarniwoop found out where this person was located and retreated to the safety of his pocket universe to hide from the Government. Zaphod's part of the conspiracy was to steal the Infinite Improbability Drive ship which was they only way they could get past the barriers that have been set up around the Ruler of the Universe.

Now that all the pieces are together, Zarniwoop can disassemble his artificial universe, they can pick up Arthur, Marvin and the Lintillas, and they can all fly off in the Heart of Gold. As they do so, the Narration gives us a lovely meditation on the realities of government.
The major problem -- one of the major problems, for there are several -- one of the many major problems with governing people is that of who you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. 
To summarize: It is a well know and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to to it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. 
And so this is the situation we find: a succession of Galactic Presidents who so much enjoy the fun and palaver of being in power that they never really notice that they're not. And somewhere in the shadows behind them -- who? Who can possibly rule if no one who wants to can be allowed to?
The Heart of Gold arrives outside a small shack in the rain on a small, otherwise uninhabited planetoid in the middle of nowhere. An old man lives in the shack with his cat. Or at least the old man imagines that it's a cat. And maybe it is.

"Er, excuse me," Ford asks, "do you rule the Universe?"

"I try not to. Are you wet?"

The old man is remarkably unhelpful, particularly regarding questions about the past. "How can I tell that the past isn't a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensations and my state of mind?" As far as he's concerned, he cannot be sure that anything is real. "For all I know, these people may not exist. You may not exist. I say what it occurs to me to say."

He admits that from time to time men come to his shack and ask him questions about things, which he answers as a purely academic exercise, because to him it's all hypothetical.
The men who come to me, say, so and so wants to declare what we call a war. These are the facts, what do you think? And I say. Sometimes it's a smaller thing. They might say for instance that a man called Zaphod Beeblebrox is President, but he is in financial collusion with a consortium of high powered psychiatrists who want him to order the destruction of a planet called Earth because of some sort of experiment...

Arthur runs off in a rage. Zarniwoop, not caring about Arthur or Earth, tries desperately to pin the Old Man down in a logical debate, but the Old Man's cheery solipsism is impervious; he might as well try arguing with the Old Man's cat.

They hear the sounds of the Heart of Gold taking off. Arthur is leaving Ford and Zaphod behind on the planetoid. "I want you to know that I respect you," Ford says turning to Zaphod. "Just not very much... that's all."

And here the series ends. Adams expected the programme to be extended for a third series, but it didn't happen. Eventually there were additional radio programmes, but these were adaptations of the later novels and pointedly did not pick up from the second radio series. Which perhaps is just as well. I'm not sure how Adams could have resolved that last big plot twist of Zaphod's complicity in planetary genocide.
And so the last episode finishes with a host of unanswered questions, not the least of which is:
Will there ever be another series of that wholely remarkable and mystifying entity The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy? ... Find out if you can!

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