How to Miss the Point of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Listen.

I know I am prone to making grandiose statements, but this one, while particularly gigantic in its grandioseness, is probably very true. I will not deign to think that I know everything about you, or indeed anything at all about you. I'm only going to tell you what I know.

And what I know is that I probably like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy a whole lot more than you do.

I'm not saying that I know more about it than you do, (even though that is probably true!) I'll just say that there's a good chance that I enjoy it, that I adore it, that I hold it in esteem far higher than than you do, more, likely, than any being on Earth capable of holding things in states of esteem, be they high or otherwise.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the reason I'm the cynical bastard I am today. I've recently finished reading the series for the eleventh time, I own it in every available format, I use it as a blueprint for making important life decisions, and it has proven to be handy in more than one scientific, political, or alcoholic argument.

I work in technology, which means I often work with nerds. Every once in a while, someone makes an oblique reference to the Hitchhiker's Guide and proceeds to giggle themselves silly, because they hold the understanding that referencing something that's very very clever automatically makes them someone very very clever.

The exchange usually goes something like this:

Them: "Hey, do you know what the answer to everything is?"

Me: "..."

Them: "It's forty-two!"

 

And then they make this hideous noise, whatever the fuck that means.

And when I make no acknowledgment of their perceived cleverness (which is far more polite than heaving an impatient sigh and rolling my eyes) they mistake my non-gesture for being ignorant to the reference they just made. And then- get this!- they ask, “What, do you not know about the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or something?”

This was the most relatable image I could find when searching for

See, I can reference internet culture too.

“Yes, I... know... about it,” I would often say carefully. “You're just doing it wrong.”

“Doing what wrong?”

“Understanding anything about the Hitchhiker's Guide.”

“How so?”

Well, hypothetical straw-man, allow me to demonstrate.

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This made a lot of people upset and is widely regarded as a bad move.

This line is in the very first book and sets the tone for the whole series. Often people talk about the Hitchhiker's Guide series as if it's a rollicking, toe-tapping, finger-snapping feel-good time. It is that... sort of. Yes it's funny, but is it feel-good?

People often mistake good humor for optimism.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the story of Arthur Dent, a hapless human being who works for the BBC in a vaguely defined field of radio. In the first chapter, he awakens to the sound of bulldozers, there to knock down his house, which is in the way of a planned bypass that would not ever be built. The Planning Council made very little effort to tell Arthur about the impending destruction of his habitat. Sure, they posted a notice, but it was “on display” in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “beware of the leopard.”

Luckily, his best friend Ford Prefect saves the day by whisking Arthur down to a pub and also by being from space. Apparently there is something far larger about to happen that only Ford knows about, and it doesn't matter a pair of dingo's kidneys whether Arthur's house is knocked down or not. After their visit to the pub, Arther of course sees his house being wrecked by the Planning Council, much to his chagrin.

Moments later, a fleet of Vogon constructor ships from the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council arrives. The Vogons are a race of bureaucratic, callous, slug-like beings genetically incapable of sympathy and endowed with a special fondness for excessive paperwork.

They are there to destroy Planet Earth, which is in the way of a planned hyperspace bypass that will not ever be built. Sure they made efforts to warn Earthlings of the impending destruction of their habitat: Plans were on display at the local planning office on Alpha Centauri four light-years away.

Ford, an accomplished intergalactic hitchhiker, saves Arthur by hitching a lift on one of the very ships there to destroy planet Earth, moments before they destroy planet Earth. It turns out that he's a researcher for the amazing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the greatest and bestselling book ever to come from the major publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. He'd been on Earth for far longer than he'd wanted to, though, having planned for a week and instead got stranded for fifteen years. He'd known about the Vogons all along and decided that Arthur should probably know about them too, over several pints of beers, of course. And now they were trapped on a Vogon ship.

They have a run in with the captain of the Vogon ship, and after being forcefully read the fourth worst poetry in the Universe, they get ejected off the ship and into deep space. Fortunately, by a mind-boggling statistical improbability, they get rescued by none other than Zaphod Beeblebrox, Galactic president and Ford's cousin, and Trillian, another Earthling who Zaphod had met at a party that Arthur, by yet another coincidence, had tried to pick up at that same party. These sort of stupefyingly improbable events are bound to happen when Zaphod's ship, the Heart of Gold- which is powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive- is involved.

And thus begins the journey of Arthur Dent, hapless Earthling, and Ford Prefect, space-faring vagabond, on an improbable journey across space, time, and various intergalactic places to drink.

While I may have butchered that description, you might be able to see where I'm going here. The irony is perfect, the setup beautiful, the circumstances peerless in its cleverness. But try telling that to Arthur, a man who had watched both his house and his home planet destroyed within minutes of each other, in both cases by unsympathetic, unfeeling bureaucrats who were just doing their jobs.

And then we come to the number forty-two. It's a central plot point in the first novel and crops up repeatedly in the second through fifth, and nerds love it. It's the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life the Universe, and Everything.

It was discovered when a group of enlightened beings from some of the higher, sophisticated, and more unbearable dimensions decided to finally discover, once and for all, the elusive meaning of life. This caused tremendous controversy throughout the entire galaxy. Philosophers hated it, because it threatened their lifestyles. Psychologists hated it, because it threatened their paychecks. But the higher-dimension creatures went ahead and did it anyway. They built a gigantic city-sized supercomputer in order to figure out the answer for them. They asked the question, “What is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything?”

This was it; they would finally know the meaning of life, once and for all.

It wasn't as satisfying as the high-dimensional beings were anticipating, because a) the answer took seven and a half million years to calculate, and b) it was forty-two.

The higher-dimension beings asked, “Are you sure?

The computer replied, “Yes. I told you you weren't going to like it.”

The computer also made sure to specify that they had asked the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. When they insisted that it was the question, the computer pointed out that this was not in fact a question, and the higher-dimension beings had to concede that they didn't know what the Question to the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything was.

And so the higher-dimension beings were forced to develop another computer, even larger and more powerful- the size of a planet, in fact- and this one is designed to determine the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything.

But because of the aforementioned conflicts with philosophers and psychiatrists, the computer is never able to finish its work. People, governments, and various interest groups scatter themselves throughout the Galaxy and time itself in order to find the Question to the Answer, or to prevent the finding of the Question to the Answer.

Eventually, Arthur Dent meets a man named Prak (who had once, through an accident with truth serum, become a temporarily omniscient being), who reveals that it will never work. The Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer simply cannot exist in the same Universe, or they'd cancel themselves out and take the Universe with it. The Universe has its Answer, it cannot have its Question now.

And so that should be the end of forty-two. It isn't the answer to everything, it's the answer to nothing at all. Anyone trying to find out What It All Means is destined only to waste their time and possibly die humiliatingly in the process.

That, in a nutshell, is the point of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

In the Hitchhiker's universe, your planet can be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass that will not actually be built.

In the Hichhiker's universe, entire solar systems can be sucked through black holes in space and their planets used in a game of billiards.

In the Hitchhiker's universe, you will find yourself, and your entire species, stalked relentlessly by slug-skinned bureaucrats who will stop at nothing exterminate you and all iterations of yourself in all parallel universes just so they can put a checkmark on a little box on a form.

What I'm saying is, the universe is a cold unfeeling vacuum that does not care for your well-being, because it does not care for anybody's wellbeing.

But, you know, it's really really entertaining about it. It can be hard to see the true meaning amongst all the silliness. This is, after all, a book/radio/television series that demonstrates infinite logic loops using herring sandwiches. Who doesn't like herring sandwiches? Herring sandwiches are hilarious!

If you think that sounds like a cynical, extraordinarily negative interpretation, I will have to agree with you, because I'm a cynical, extraordinarily negative person (but a nice one! Just throwing that out there).

But consider this: The most depressed and miserable character in the whole series is hands-down Marvin the Paranoid Android. He's a robot gifted with extraordinarily intelligence but also cursed with ceaseless depression, thanks to the technological geniuses of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Marvin was designed with their advanced, cutting-edge Genuine People Personalities (against his will, mind you), which gives their robots mannerisms indistinguishable from people. The personality he'd been programmed with is that of a chronically depressed person. Marvin is a servant bot capable of extraordinary problem-solving- not that he'd ever willingly solve one of course. His intelligence has saved the Universe on several occasions, even though if he'd had his way the Universe wouldn't have been made in the first place. But still, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation decided to create him anyway, just to see what happens.

This sort of behavior is why the Complaints Department for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation takes up all of the major landmasses on the first three planets in the Sirius Tau system.

Hilarious? Absolutely! But try telling that to Marvin.

The reason I bring this up is because Marvin is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy character that Douglas Adams says he identifies with the most. And I will have to say the same of myself. So if Douglas was a Marvin-like character, you can bet he poured his bleak understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything into every sentence.

There are probably only two people in the entire Hitchhiker's Guide series who seem to know what to do with themselves, and neither of them spend much time at all contemplating the meaning of life. They are Ford Prefect and Trillian. Ford, a world-wise researcher for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is much more concerned with bumming about the universe, using his position as a Guide field researcher to get free drinks, and causing such disturbances in intergalactic pubs that it might be easy to mistake him for a small company of soldiers on leave who cannot hold their alcohol.

Trillian, on the other hand, likes to think her way through situations. She doesn't show up nearly as much in the series as Ford does, but when she does, she tends to be the only competent person around for miles. Whether it's flitting off to become a superstar radio host for a clairvoyant future news network despite being from a planet (formerly) full of people so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea; or using her knowledge of astrophysics and trigonometry to guide a ship- one which had recently had its automatic systems jammed- out of the path of incoming nuclear missiles; or talking a race of xenophobic hateful maniacs out of igniting the galaxy in terrible war like they had done tens of thousands of years earlier; Trillian doesn't slow down long enough to contemplate her purpose of the universe, being far too busy owning every single situation she finds herself in.

Neither Ford nor Trillian complain about what they deserve, or how things should be, they just take what they are given and either (in Ford's case) ingest it or (in Trillian's case) turn the situation to their advantage, because they know that the Universe is not bound to be kind to them anytime soon, because the Universe isn't kind to anyone.

It's difficult to write about my most favorite thing in the whole world. It's hard for me to put into words what the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy means to me. Everyone enjoys things at different levels. The Hitchhiker's Guide is, after all, a piece of art, and everyone has their own right to interpret art however they see fit. I myself won't put an iota of effort into dissecting Star Wars, so I can understand if someone doesn't want to look very far into the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

But if, for some strange reason, one ever wishes to understand why I am the way that I am (I wish you luck and urge you to take up more sensible hobbies like skee-ball or shark punching), one should first start trying to understand the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

So next time you meet someone who makes a reference to the Hitchhiker's guide and chuckles themselves silly with self-congratulatory pride, or someone who tells you without apparent irony that the meaning of life is forty-two, point them this way.

And you can tell them that I urge them, as the ruined billboard at the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Department reads after collapsing halfway into the ground under its own stupendous weight, to go stick their head in a pig.

  • Daremo
    Comment from: Daremo
    07/06/13 @ 11:16:21 pm

    “So next time you meet someone who makes a reference to the Hitchhiker’s guide and chuckles themselves silly with self-congratulatory pride…”

    http://www.giandosigurani.com/blog/blogs/blog5.php/how-to-miss-the-point

    I think this guy would like a word with you.

  • Comment from: Giandroid
    07/06/13 @ 11:50:42 pm

    I recall no chuckling on my end. I’m serious business about H2G2.

  • Nick Joll
    Comment from: Nick Joll
    07/09/13 @ 12:39:14 am

    Dear Giando

    To take up your challenge: I might love it more than you do! I love it so much I produced a book on it . .

    Also, I think you might be overestimating the cynicism displayed by the books. For (though I do recognise that this one bit of evidence of quasi-evidence is hardly conclusive) Adams is the man who said (in an interview) that ‘the opportunity to spend 70–80 years of your life in such a universe [as ours] is time well spent, as far as I’m concerned.’

  • Comment from: Giandroid
    07/09/13 @ 08:17:10 am

    Thanks for commenting Nick! I kind of feel the same way… the post was mostly that there is no conclusive, definitive point of life, not necessarily that life is not amazing (though for Marvin types it can feel that way sometimes).

    Every once in a while, though, I have the revelation, “Oh my god, I’m alive, my DNA is a bunch of organic compounds strung over several thousand miles and wrapped in a tight bundle smaller than the head of the pin on which a thousand tiny angels can dance, we’re using technology synthizised from dirt and metal to communicate over enormous distances in a blink of an eye, and yes, I really do like my digital watch,” and I can’t help but feel overwhelmed about the amazingness and improbability of life.

    But then I’m reminded that I have to share my Universe with people like the Vogons, and the sense of wonder quickly vanishes.

  • Nick Joll
    Comment from: Nick Joll
    07/09/13 @ 09:50:56 am

    Ah; ‘no conclusive, definitive point of life’ - i.e. no point that is entirely there to be found (or we might say discovered) as against made (or we might say invented or chosen). Well, that might well be true. (I have not got to the bottom of the matter!) As to Vogon-esque types taking the joy out of life: well, yes. It is interesting, though, that the Adams universe sees to contain no-one truly malicious . .

  • Comment from: Giandroid
    07/09/13 @ 12:38:29 pm

    And that there is possibly one of my most favorite things about the Hitchhiker’s Universe. There is nobody Good, and nobody really Evil. Just people interested in certain things. The Vogons are interested in filling out paperwork, however, they do so by toying with Reverse Temporal Engineering and destroying a whole planet and the billions of people on it, in addition to all iterations of that planet in its various parallel universes (which aren’t actually parallel, and aren’t actually universes), so they can put a checkmark on a box on a form. They don’t hate Earthlings; they don’t care enough about Earthlings to hate them. That is, possibly, even worse than hating them.

    The only thing described as “Evil,” really, is the Total Perspective Vortex, and even that isn’t really evil. It’s just something we really, really don’t want to know about: Our true place in the Universe. But the Total Perspective Vortex will tell us our true place whether we’d like to know or not. The Total Perspective vortex does not hate us, it just has information we’d never want to know.

    I love Harry Potter as much as the next guy, but I can’t like it as much because there are “bad guys” and there are “good guys.” I don’t think it’s just so cut and dried. The “bad guys” might hate you, but hey, that means they care.

    And what’s so bad about that?

  • Comment from: Giandroid
    07/09/13 @ 12:41:42 pm

    By the way Nick, I totally own your book. I bought it ages ago when I worked for Barnes and Noble. I just haven’t cracked it yet. But when I saw that cover after looking you up I knew it looked familiar!

  • VRoboV
    Comment from: VRoboV
    07/09/13 @ 05:50:17 pm

    Before I read your 5 comments above and mess up my train of thought, I am going to give you MY (albeit Marxist) take on what Hitchhiker’s Guide could mean. Let me preface this by saying, I do not disagree with your reading, at this time. Here is my more different reading:

    It’s about class systems (not just planet classes). The aliens that want to build the highway that will never get built are the bureaucrats that sit above everyone - a metaphor for capitalists. And lest you should be confused, the laborer who works shifts for dollars paid after the labor is completed, is not a capitalist. The capitalist is the man (or woman) with the capital.

    Capitalists in the modern era (not this one - we have already gone past post-modern era, even), were pretty stupid. They wanted to work the worker until the worker died, not accounting for the fact that if the worker is treated well, then the worker will work harder, and with better results. Instead, the modern capitalist was after the surplus value that could be gained. Why? Greed. Except greed is an abstract concept.

    So the short of it (I’ll just jump right to it and skip all the boring middle bits) is that the answer is 42. A number that could be any number. The question - could be assumed to embody whatever question we might ask a capitalist when we wonder things like, “why child labor?” “why use naked women in mines working alongside men for no pay?” “why invent a machine to feed a worker who operates a machine so the machine and the worker never stop and thus kills the worker?” - What would be the ultimate question you might ask all the capitalists about why they do really stupid shit that is actually contrary to what would create a more sustainable, reproducible system of surplus value creation?

    Where do the characters fit in this metaphor for capitalism (and arguably imperialism too, because let’s not forget how British everyone is in this scenario)? Clearly Arthur is a displaced worker, and so is Ford - they both have metaphorical car names. The Earth could represent one type of exploited laborer, while Marvin could represent the over-used, not well-oiled machine who doesn’t necessarily agree with his use in the exploitation of the laborer. Trillian - not sure about this one, and Zaphod is clearly the upper-division management - or is he a capitalist - I clearly need to read this again.

    I hope you have enjoyed my metaphor.

  • Comment from: Giandroid
    07/10/13 @ 03:06:25 pm

    I know that Douglas Adams definitely mentioned economics. In the first book he said that a lot of problems on Earth were caused by “the movement of little green bits of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the little green bits of paper that were unhappy.”

    Later on Arthur Dent reminisces about the amazing damage to the Earth that humans will do for minor conveniences. Like knocking down forests and dredging up oil to build highways so they can drive cars that pollute massively to places that aren’t really that much different from each other in the first place. I don’t know the exact wording that he used off the top of my head but that’s pretty much the gist.

    He talks about the Galactic Economy as well. Millions of years ago, when men were real men, and women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri, the Galactic Economy was booming. Nobody was really rich, and nobody was really poor either. But when the corporate elites became tired that they couldn’t retire to a planet where everything was exactly to their standards due to the massive diversity of the galaxy, they turned to a new service: Custom luxery planets by Magrathea.

    Eventually, Magrathea ends up with the lion’s share of the Galactic wealth, and the Galactic Economy collapses.

    Magrathea, in response, decides to put their whole planet asleep with a computer checking up on the galactic stock ticker until the Galaxy is able to afford their expensive services. When Arthur points out that this is a shockingly unpleasant way to behave, Slartibartfast says, “Is it? I’m sorry I suppose I’ve been pretty out of touch lately.”

    Wow, that’s some Occupy Wall Street stuff going on there! Hmm.

    I think Douglas had some semblances of capitalism in mind when he wrote the series, mostly because he mostly lamented ALL systems, economic or otherwise. Capitalist, socialist, free market, etc. It seems like he was mostly concerned with the unpleasantness and the perplexity of the Universe. People do perplexing, unpleasant things, not because there doesn’t exist a good enough system for them, but because the Universe is simply too large to have any kind of functional system whatsoever.

  • jim
    Comment from: jim
    09/13/13 @ 10:29:23 am

    When I look down at my hitchhikers omnibus brick of a book, I get a feeling of calm and a wry little grin stirs in my heart. Nobody actual knows whats going on, no one has full control of their life, and reality is far more improbable and mystifying than what we see and touch. And any one who thinks they have it figured out is, lets face it, probably mistaken. To me this isnt a point for cynicism, but for liberation. Its about doing what you can moment to moment, just rolling with the punches. And hey you might have the time of your life. Or maybe you will be inexplicably crushed by a confused whale. who knows?
    The whole not a caring universe thing… well yes thats undeniable really, but ford didn’t have to save arthur. I think zaphod cared for trillian. Ive always thought that even the “good” characters just couldn’t bare to care about much when they have seen half the galaxy (and you know the galaxy is really big). I think the only being who cares about it all is marvin, and look where that got him. But what the characters care for defines them.

  • Urinalbeast
    Comment from: Urinalbeast
    06/19/14 @ 02:51:16 pm

    i think this is really cool because maybe sometim I like to read book but sometimes book to hard so you explain for me ty

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