Relatability in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy by Douglas Adams
There has been a big growth in the importance and the presence of entertainment in our daily life and of course with such large demand there has also been a large supply of content ranging from books, to movies, comic books and a plethora of others. Sci-fi (or science fiction) is one of the genres that had the biggest growth this century, amassing many fans and avid researches of the genre, exploring many different subjects, from wars, space exploration, plain survival and even the detective genre. With one of its core features being high tech computers, advanced science and many fantastical scientific explanations with no basis in real life, it is able to capture the interest of many different people as a fantasy space, a place in which real life doesn’t matter and the events of that world are all that is of importance at the moment.
A very common theme explored in sci-fi ironically enough has nothing to do with science but with sociology, so much that a paper was published discussing the use of science fiction as an introduction to sociology and critical thinking. The paper focuses on how being able to think of real ‘fictional’ problems the student may be able to develop a more skeptical questioning stance then on real life because they are seeing the problem from a different point of view then of their personal bias towards their own society and status quo.
It is fairly easy to notice that most science fiction plot are leaded by some sort of social questioning, be it in the famous franchise Star Wars (1977) or in this case The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. He was one of the most influential science fiction writers of the past few decades, inspiring many even after his death with his book series, that made various satirical remarks and questions towards our society, morals and values. What really makes his work interesting and perhaps why it has impacted so many people, is his ability to talk not only about society’s struggles, but also about one’s struggles towards existence, anxiety and fears that lurk deep inside our consciousness, resonating with many people even today.
On one of the first lines of the book we are met with the statement that human population were unhappy and trying to solve it by circulating “[…] small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” In the book Adams trivializes and satirizes big problems using absurdity and humour. At the start of the book the Earth is exploded and Arthur Dent, the main character, is the only human able to escape alive the total destruction of the planet by hitchhiking on a spaceship along with an alien friend of his. During this escape sequence, before the Earth is exploded the Vogons (alien race) explain that it’s not their fault and people shouldn’t complain, for the planet was being demolished to make way for an intergalactic highway and papers for the construction had been available for a long time asking for the planet to move away to somewhere else before it gets exploded. The way an impactful event such as the planet exploded is explained by a bureaucracy filled process to build a highway creates two distinct feelings on the reader, one of them being the humour projected in such an absurd scenario being diminished to paperwork and the other being a sense of dread that the same thing might as well be happening in a smaller scale on our on planet right now and corporations will do whatever it is that they are being paid to do and have the ‘legal’ paperwork to.
Following these events, Arthur Dent embarks on a myriad of different aventures through many planets and galaxies, each being more absurd than the last. But as we, readers are experiencing Arthurs point of view much of the time, we are also led to feel his anxiety and extreme fear during the entire series. While many of the other characters are mainly focused on the politics or the inner workings of whatever lies ahead, Arthur is usually only thinking about how not to do anything to change the state of things, because of the initial shock of losing his home planet, he avoids any and all possible situations, usually reverting back to his main scapegoat that is thinking about having a nice cup of tea. His anxiety comes from the opening of possibilities that happened to his life and the fear of what doing or not doing any of them might affect his life even more.(
On a certain occasion after learning that the Earth was actually a giant bio-computer that was being used to calculate the ultimate question to life, the universe and everything, Arthur explains he always had the feeling that he was part of something greater, that life was always missing a piece, thinking to finally understand what that feeling was, only to be corrected by the planet’s manufacturer that it is perfectly fine paranoia and every thinking life form in the universe has the same feeling, as to why the Earth was built in the first place. Leading us on a rollercoaster of emotions from the feeling that an answer was found to very rapidly learning that this feeling is not exclusive to us and that everyone was just as vulnerable and unable to do anything to change it. One of humanity’s common fear towards alien species is that we are somehow inferior to them and could easily by dominated or invaded easily if they wanted to, completely overpowering us. This happens on a scene where Zaphod (the captain of the ship) entertains the idea of replacing Arthur’s brain with an electronic one. “’Yeah,’ said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, ‘you’d just have to program it to say What? And I don’t understand and Where’s the tea? – who’d know the difference?’”. Arthur at this point had already been demeaned many times during the trip, is barely shaken by the statement that humans are considered as simple as building machines. On another part of the book Arthur gets really offended that the Earth’s description in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reads only ‘Mostly harmless’, feeling small and diminished that his whole planet, culture and millions of years of evolution had been reduced to just two simple words. Showing in fact how much we derive the notion of worth or importance by the approval of others, Arthur is pretty shaken by that statement, feeling once again small and insignificant to the scope of the universe. As Adams wrote once, the idea to the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy came from a trip he did to Paris on his own, carrying only an exemplar of the hitchhiker’s guide to Paris. He suffered a lot from outdated informations and noticed that it was only the point of view of one person’s experience about the place, and no one could really experience and know everything, thus being a fairly shallow representation of what the place has to offer this is really clear in the mostly harmless description of Earth.
Not only does the book plays around with our anxieties and fears, it also poses some questions about our moral values, how we were brought up to think about things and the status quo of the life we perceive around us. Arthur and his friend are at a restaurant in space, when they are posed the question if they would like to meet the dish of the day, quite rapidly followed by the entrance of a large talking bovine specie, gladly offering parts of his body along with meal suggestions. Arthur is taken aback by the whole situation, feeling uneasy to eat a living being that could talk to him as an equal and wanted to be eaten, he then orders a green salad, to which the large bovine disagrees. After explaining that many vegetable species have raised concerns against being eaten, his species was developed so it could state his desire to be eaten clearly and so no one would feel bad, before leaving to shoot himself the bovine makes a snarky remark of being very humane to Arthur. Here Arthur gets caught in a complex situation, his values basically dictate that we shouldn’t eat those that we consider equal, but when faced to the fact that he would rather eat living things that he couldn’t understand and didn’t want to be eaten, then eating the one who clearly could state so, Arthur panics and decides it’s better not to think of it, asking only for a water. At that moment Arthur decides not to perturb his perception of the status quo of how food is supposed to work, even after being presented with the whole situation he prefers not to think of it, shielding himself from the anxiety that comes with this new knowledge and the impact it would have on his life.
Zaphod’s character also makes the reader question free will and what it means to take a decision. As the story progresses he learns that his memories have been erased by someone and later learns that someone is himself. Not knowing why he did it to himself, he is in a constant state of doubt, in which whenever he takes any decision he doesn’t know if he really wants that or if that was an idea implanted in him by his earlier self before the mind operation, making him question his own will and how much of it was in his control and what wasn’t. Using absurdism again, Adams is able to infer the idea that some of our actions are not in our complete control, but in the control of another part of the self, like impulse actions or thoughts that can’t be explained, they feel almost foreign, but they are coming from inside ourselves, a metaphor for our subconscious and the constant struggle for the conscious mind to understand what is it that the deeper layers of our consciousness are trying to tell us. Another example of this can be found on another one of Adam’s work called Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency(1987) where after being hypnotized by Dirk Gently, Richard question his own free will on the night he climbed into his girlfriend window by impulse, only later to learn he was being possessed by a ghost, that was using him to send a message. This lack of understanding and consequently fear of the subconscious is present in all of his works, it resonated with people when the books launched and it still resonates to this day, debatably even more, now with so much more access to information thanks to the internet and widespread media, people are more aware now then never about the inner workings of the mind, or better, how much we still don’t know about those inner workings. As a society we had a great increase in therapists and psychologists and even more so of people seeking those professionals for help, this is deeply related to this fear of not understanding how our own mind works, because if we are our mind and we don’t even understand it, what do we understand. So we as a society try to find those answers as to try and stop having fear. Just like in the end, the Earth, the bio computer supposed to give us the ultimate question, was destroyed by very rich therapists which basically ruled the universe, for the only thing technology could never figure out was the existential void inside every living being, giving them the most lucrative business in the universe, which is an absurdist representation of a form of control, exposing how much we are controlled by the fear of the unknown, and how much we are willing to pay to make it go away.
Adams’s books are great fantastical adventures with really engaging and entertaining plots and writing style, but where he shines the greatest is his ability to evoke feelings of anxiety and doubt out of the reader but without making it a negative experience. His works sometimes act as mirrors to problems and questions about our society and just as well as it is a mirror to ourselves as people, he exposes some of humanity’s biggest fears and doubts without overwhelming the reader or losing the humour at any point, using of clever plays of absurdist situations and even more absurd explanations, to break our expectations and surprise us. The combined experience of having these big questions imposed on us with the complete unsuspected turn that Adams takes us, makes for a really memorable situation in which you can go back and ponder upon, heavily increasing the effectiveness of his message. His work makes the reader feel at home with the story, because even with such incredible out of this world plots, the fundamental doubts and feelings of the characters are all so human like to their core, usually exposing the most primal emotions and instincts of living creatures in such humorous manner that it makes the reader able to laugh at these big demons and process them better.
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