Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Don't Panic

And now for something a little more light-hearted. Anyone who likes science fiction has probably already read the classic satirical comedy which is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. For those who have not, you need to run out and get a copy. Do not in any way rely on the recent film adaptation (which is still a fun watch) or other video mediums to convey the exquisitely humorous penmanship of Mr. Douglas Adams (God rest his soul). The first of the five books in the series is probably the most loved parody of science fiction literature ever, especially among college folk. In fact, it was at college that I first learned of the book from fellow students and sat down to read it during finals week, that period with not much to do besides study and wait for testing time. I was so drawn into the book from page one that I could barely put it down. Perhaps the stress of finals week heightened my reaction, but I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever read, and at times found myself putting the book down so I could roll over onto the floor in side splitting laughter. It was quite therapeutic.

To start with, Adams has that seemingly inborn British wit and a nose for good satire. But in order to get the full effect of this book, you really have to be a sci-fi fan and have watched and/or read a good number of serious stories from the genre. Adams likes to poke fun at beaurocracies, politicians, and the less noble aspects of the human race in general. His particular way of doing this is to use the already accepted outrageousness of sci-fi literature as an expose on life, while rarely stepping out onto a pulpit above his readers. The story begins with the total destruction of Earth by a galactic construction crew (Vogons) making way for an intergalactic hyperspace highway. The few characters that escape begin a wild adventure. Each chapter begins with a supposed excerpt from the Hitchhiker's guide on some phenomenon encountered in the story (such as the "Babel fish" in one of the quotes below). It turns out the Earth was a giant computer designed to find the answer to the meaning of life and construction on a new one is already underway.

The second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, is just about as good as the first, featuring Marvin the depressed robot. The third installment devolves into relying too much on crude humor and cheap one liners, but the fourth, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, is a bit of a comeback. I could not even begin to describe all the memorable little side stories and anecdotes here, but in order to wet anyone's appetite that might be interested, I will leave with some quoted sections. The first is the full introduction to the first book, which gives a good feel for the type of writing you'll encounter further on. Oh, and if anyone ever answers a question with the number 42, you'll know they've read it. I apologize for the length of the text, but I hope it is worth it. And now for our featured program...

==== HGG Intro =============================================
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.

This is not her story.

But it is the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.

It is also the story of a book, a book called The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy — not an Earth book, never published on Earth, and until the terrible catastrophe occurred, never seen or heard of by any Earthman.

Nevertheless, a wholly remarkable book. In fact it was probably the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing houses of Ursa Minor — of which no Earthman had ever heard either.

Not only is it a wholly remarkable book, it is also a highly successful one — more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch Hiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words Don't Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.

But the story of this terrible, stupid Thursday, the story of its extraordinary consequences, and the story of how these consequences are inextricably intertwined with this remarkable book begins very simply.

It begins with a house.

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

"The Babel fish" said The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconsious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the consious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish."

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:

`I refuse to prove that I exist, says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'

`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'

`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic."

`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

"Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his bestselling book, Well That About Wraps It Up For God."

"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.

Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending destruction of the planet Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger; but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits, so they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means shortly before the Vogons arrived.
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the 'Star Spangled Banner', but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.

"The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.

"For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?"

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