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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

Happy Towel Day!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams

I finished up a couple of books last week and have been wavering on what to read next when I came across a post anticipating this week's second most confusing celebration, Towel Day. So I took the opportunity to finally get around to Douglas Adams's funny, clever, mind bending, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


For those who are unfamiliar, this was his 1979 novel in which Arthur Dent is narrowly saved from the destruction of Earth by his friend--an alien going by Ford Prefect--, a girl he once met at a party, and the guy who totally interrupted the conversation, President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox. That's where we start.


Much of the the story, and the appeal as well, lie in the building of this universe. Reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy  is a bit like watching Jeopardy! if it was run by Nickelodeon. The way he deploys concepts of advanced theoretical science demonstrates understanding and knowledge, but he is eager for the opportunity to pour slime on the whole thing. He starts out by knocking human's down a peg. Within pages it is revealed to Arthur Dent--and the reader by extension--that we're not alone in the universe, that we're only the third most intelligent species on our planet, and that we're minor enough that our whole planet is being destroyed for the sake of a galactic freeway. The opening lines put us in "the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy". Much of the first part of the book looks at life on Earth with the same bemusement we observe in poop-flinging apes and dogs that chase their tails. The entry for Earth in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (the colloquial galactic reference device from which this book takes it's title) reads only "Harmless". Ford Prefect, after fifteen years on the planet has written a new entry for the next edition. It is to read, "Mostly harmless". 


This might be enough to put off some people of a serious disposition--the sort that take interest in watches--but as the book continues and Earth is left behind, it reveals that life among these more intelligent and sophisticated beings is every bit as trivial and silly as our own. They bicker and wage wars and are revealed to be every bit as small as humans in their concerns. One intergalactic war, inadvertently sparked by the words of Arthur Dent, lasts for thousands of years and ends with an attacking battle fleet being swallowed accidentally by a small dog.


In other ways, this book seems on a much more personal level than most Science Fiction. It's common for alien planets and species to serve as allegory for race and foreign relations, but the aliens in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are more interested in reflecting light on ourselves. My favorite are the Vogons. They are usually tied to the concept of bureaucracy, because they serve as the bureaucrats of the Galaxy, but it would be boring to stop there--is it really a revelation at this stage to see bureaucracy as cold and miserable? I really enjoyed the Vogon chapters, there is so much to read into and perhaps, after all that, nothing to read into at all.


At first I wanted to label them. Are they an allegory for big government? Do they stand for the joyless, old conservatives? Maybe it's just a guilty pleasure, and they are nothing but the projected personalities of the person who cut you off in traffic, the rude barista, the parking attendant, etc. Then I started to think they were the most human of all. Who of us doesn't smirk at the comeuppance of our enemies. I saw a scary amount of myself when the leader hopes his chair will break so that he would have an excuse to lash out. If nothing else, and it may well be nothing else, they are just a great, funny invention. Joyless and confounded, they make a fantastic foil and stand well on their own as curmudgeonly bickerers.


Oddly, (and why not, everything else about this book is) the strongest passages tend to be ones with almost no interest in the story arcs. There is a wonderful two-page bit following the thoughts of a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias that have been suddenly brought into existence several miles (an falling) above the surface of a planet. There is also the introduction, a page detailing the consequences of the next scene (as to relieve your stress and anxiety about the fate of the crew),a description of the best drink in existence, and, of course, a discussion on the importance of towels. 


Today, May 25, is Towel Day. I haven't bothered to look into how it started, maybe this was once a holiday about towels, it's not something I feel like applying much thought to. Since the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" has recommended always carrying a towel and celebrated it's many uses, it has become a sort of rallying point for fans of the work and the author. If you do find a Towel Day event in your area, it is recommended that you check it out, it may be one or more of many things but boring is probably not one of them. Or just follow the example of Ford Prefect and prepare yourself for anything this week with a handy Towel, and a copy of the indispensable, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy