Gray Tradition: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appears to be a colourful, zany knockabout comedy, a Pythonesque spoof of space opera. In actuality … well, yes, it is that. It’s mainly that, in fact. It also, though, presents a profoundly depressive and ultimately depressing view of the universe.

Right … the first thing I need to say: I’m deeply suspicious of any attempt to apply an author’s biography to a discussion of their work. Obviously writers bring their own personalities and experience to their writing. But we tend to interpret all this teleologically. We take the crumbs of what we know about authors’ lives and write Just So Stories. Take a few of the writers on my list from last time: Borges becomes defined by the fact he’s blind and Argentinian, as if this was the first time such a conjunction occurred. Why, Lord Asriel must surely be representative of Pullman’s psychological yearning following the early death of his father. We ignore the facts that don’t fit the model, turn authors into nothing more than semi-autobiographers.

So we have an image of CS Lewis, say, with his books and his warm-beer-and-Anglicanism view of the world. He lived with his mother into middle age, you know. A lot of authors write themselves into their own stories (that they often do so explicitly is actually common in the books I’m discussing). Lewis is clearly the kindly Professor Kirke from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That’s obvious. Except … that wasn’t his mother. Actually he’d moved in with Jane Moore, the mother of a friend who died during the First World War. They very possibly had a sado-masochistic relationship, with her as the dominant partner. Lewis just told everyone she was his mother. So we do a 180 on our perception of CS Lewis … but, wait: now there’s a new Just So Story. Don’t you see? Remember the White Witch and her whip and furs and demands for obedience? See, that was autobiographical! It fits in with what we know about the author!

Writers tend to encourage this mythologising. Douglas Adams worked, as the biographical paragraph in his books said, as a chicken shed cleaner and bodyguard. Why, what a colourful and varied life, no wonder his books are so wacky! But … no. He got the same sort of menial summer jobs as every other young person. He was 25 when he started The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The chicken shed and bodyguard line was there to pad out his CV, not secret origin. But wait … surely it gave him insight to write for Hotblack Desiato’s bodyguard, and possibly the Vogon guard? And there’s that scene with all the birds in Arthur Dent’s ear on Brontital. Surely no one without Adams’ unique chicken shed cleaning experience could imagine a room full of birds is noisy and smelly …

I’ve read three biographies of Douglas Adams. I am – not exactly uniquely – a huge fan. He wrote nine books. According to Library Thing, I have sixty-eight of them. I met him once, for a couple of minutes at a signing. I would not go anywhere near presuming I knew him, knew how his mind worked or what made him tick, or that I have any insight into the private man.

So, when I say that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a depressive’s view of the universe, that is not to diagnose its author. When I say ‘Adams thinks’, I am not performing some act of telepathic communion. It’s a figure of speech meaning ‘I presume to think that Adams thinks that’.

And now that’s understood, here’s some autobiography: I performed my first act of literary analysis when I was nine. I recognised that when Earth gets demolished in Hitchhiker’s, it’s like Arthur Dent’s house being demolished. It’s an important joke. The galactic civilisation Arthur comes into contact with is exactly like Earth, only everything is moreso.


Lots of science fiction stories have Galactic Empires. The one in Adams’ books contains perhaps the largest of the best-known Galactic civilisations in fiction. Star Trek’s Federation contains hundreds of planets, Paul Atreides controls tens of thousands in Dune, the Old Republic in Star Wars has millions. Iain Banks’ Culture is so advanced that ‘civilisation’ doesn’t begin to cover what its thirty trillion inhabitants have going. Nevertheless, at various times the Culture, like the other examples there, faces rival powers of similar size and capability. Hitchhiker’s depicts a single galactic civilisation that dwarfs them all, one that spans the entire galaxy under a single system, can reach the farthest points of time and space.

And this should be utopia, as it’s a place of infinite possibility. Science fiction tends to focus on the technology, and Arthur Dent quickly encounters aliens, hyperspace, spaceships, talking computers, aircars and robots – all of which are absurdly advanced, to the point that hyperspace is old hat and the computers can work out the answer to everything. They built a burger bar at the Big Bang. But it’s all more advanced – the bureaucracy, the economy, even the psychiatry, philosophy and theology. And … isn’t our life complicated enough? In space everything has become so complex it’s impossible to understand anything at all. You can’t walk through a door or make a cup of tea without technology interposing. Even the secret shadow government that’s running things isn’t clear on what’s going on.

And in this infinite universe, nothing is impossible. We’re told of Veet Voojagig, a ‘brilliant academic’ who studies ‘the wave harmonic theory of historic perception’ and has worked out that there has to be a planet populated by biros, and that has to be where all his missing biros have ended up. Elsewhere, we learn that the galaxy doesn’t bother making mattresses, it gets them by going to a planet of sentient mattresses and slaughtering them.

It’s not a coincidence that the people (and also people) of the galaxy make the Encyclopedia Galactica, Oolon Colluphid’s books about the God delusion and – of course – The Hitchhiker’s Guide into bestsellers. Anything to make sense of things. But these books aren’t full of wisdom, they’re full of reassurances. God’s made plenty of mistakes, but don’t panic. (The other bestsellers we hear about are all sex manuals).

As Adams says, the problem is that anything compared to infinity might as well not exist. Here’s what a creative writing manual would describe as the ‘controlling idea’ of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘the universe is infinite, everything possible exists … so you are, to all intents and purposes, nothing and everything you do is pointless’.

A being with the brain the size of a planet considers the matter in the first book:

“Marvin regarded it with cold loathing whilst his logic circuits chattered with disgust and tinkered with the concept of directing physical violence against it. Further circuits cut in saying, Why bother? What’s the point? Nothing is worth getting involved in.”

Our philosophers and scientists would object. They would say that ‘everything’ doesn’t mean ‘everything’. An omnipotent being can’t do everything. ‘Everything’ actually means ‘everything possible’. If we live in an infinite universe (or even multiverse), it doesn’t mean that if you travel far enough, you’ll find anything you can possibly imagine, that it must exist. We can imagine a force powerful enough to instantly destroy our whole universe, for example … clearly that doesn’t exist. The way philosophers have tended to explain it is that everything (even God, the theologians chip in) is beholden to the rules of logic. 2+2=4. Even an omnipotent being can’t make 2+2=5. An omnipotent God could change one of the 2s into a 3, or miraculously change the value of all 2s to 2.5. He couldn’t make 2+2 equal anything that isn’t 4. That would lead to an absurd universe in which ‘meaning’ could not be discussed in any useful way. A planet of lost biros is not possible.

Theologians nowadays accuse Douglas Adams’ friend Richard Dawkins of being woefully ignorant of their discipline. Is Adams guilty of a fundamental failure to understand what ‘infinite’ meant? Let’s consider the evidence. According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ultimate question is ‘what do you get if you multiply six by nine?’ and the ultimate answer is ’42’.

The universe is ultimately meaningless. There are no sensible questions, let alone answers. That’s the secret of life, the universe and everything. Who is this God person, anyway?

So, how to cope? One way is ignorance. The books are full of the willfully and inadvertently stupid. Ford gets drunk (a lot of people get drunk in the books), Slartibartfast keeps his head down, Zaphod’s ego blinds him (and he’s voluntarily had a couple of lobotomies), the Vogons lack imagination. When faced with a machine that can solve the greatest problem of philosophy, the first instinct of the Philosophers’ Union is to try and get it switched off.

The other response, and perhaps the only honest one, is mental illness, and the books are full of that, too. The most famous example is Marvin, who is described as a manic depressive, paranoid android. He’s not manic, he’s never obviously paranoid. He is, as the passage I quoted just then demonstrates, depressive. One of the great joys of the series is that Marvin is endlessly entertaining and quotable. But that’s only true for the audience, and never for the characters. He’s an endless downer, who makes just about everyone he meets miserable, and he manages to get a number of other robots and computers to kill themselves after a short conversation.

Arthur Dent is the everyman figure in the book. He might seem to be normal, and much of the book is about what counts as normal. It’s easy to see him as an English stiff upper lip type, an oasis of reasonableness. The cosmic straight man among all the two-headed aliens, monsters and robots. This is how Martin Freeman plays him in the movie. It’s not how Douglas Adams wrote him or how Simon Jones plays him.

One of my favourite lines is Arthur’s reply to Ford’s question, which was surely intended to break things to him gently: ‘what would you say if I told you I wasn’t from Guildford after all, but was in fact from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse?’, which is (altogether now) ‘I don’t know. Why? Is it the sort of thing you’re likely to say?’. There are no defined responses for any of the situations Arthur finds himself in. He’s glad to be told ‘Don’t Panic’ by the cover of the Book (it’s a fantastically counterproductive piece of advice, of course). Arthur has clearly gone mad by the beginning of Life, the Universe and Everything, talking to trees and hallucinating. The exact point he went mad is unclear – when we meet him the council are knocking down his house, so we’d expect him to be a little manic and upset, which he is. Throughout the radio and TV series, Simon Jones plays him as either wide-eyed and frightened or sullen and withdrawn. Arthur acts in a way that’s far more paranoid and bipolar than anything Marvin ever does. Whenever he seems to be enjoying himself, another character is always quick to shatter his momentary sense of peace. His soulmate, Fenchurch, is completely barking mad.

One key line is this one:

‘[Earth’s] been demolished … it just boiled away into space.’

‘Look,’ said Arthur, ‘I’m a bit upset about that.’

Even in the novel, which allows for introspection in a way other media can’t, this can be interpreted as Arthur possessing a Princess Leia level of nonchalance. Planet blew up, a bit upset for one scene, now let’s move on. Dig a little deeper, that’s not what’s happening. Arthur is clearly traumatised by the Earth being destroyed. He’s been uprooted, and finds himself constantly on the move, constantly finding out that everything he knew and believed is false. The best Arthur can hope for is a temporary respite – on prehistoric Earth, on the reconstructed Earth with Fenchurch, on a planet where he’s revered for his sandwich making. In those moments – all of which come to an end sooner or later – we see Arthur at rest, ‘acting normally’, in control of his situation, and the contrast with how we’re used to seeing him is so striking that he’s practically a different character.

One of the common themes of many of the books I’m grouping together is that our world is simulation, or that we are simulations. That we’re, as Plato had it, shadows on a cave wall or at the very least that the world in which all human endeavour is contained is tiny. That everything we think we know is so far off reality that it’s ‘not even wrong’. The protagonist sees his world shattered – although never more literally as it is in Hitchhiker’s.

Marvin’s depression is, technically, merely the simulation of depression. But that he has been designed this way, that it’s down to the programming of his (and this is a nested irony) logic circuits, is, of course, depressing in and of itself. One of the more horrific moments in Hitchhiker’s is when the mice propose to replace Arthur’s brain with a perfect simulation, with even his colleagues suggesting that no one, not even Arthur, would be able tell the difference.

In a lot of the books I’m talking about, the revelation that the world is not as everyone always thought it was is the first great Call to Adventure and there’s a promise of operating on a transcendent scale. There will be atonement with the universe, a point where our full understanding of what’s really going on gives way to a better future. Not a perfect one – it’s often bittersweet or ambiguous – but an empowering one. Often literally empowering, in the sense that the protagonist gains superhuman abilities. The end of the Narnia series (which I’ll discuss at great length next time, you lucky people); the founding of the Republic of Heaven at the end of His Dark Materials; Ozymandias’ brave new world order at the end of Watchmen; the Culture. These are utopias as a journey, not a destination, and there’s always a bodycount in the millions.

Hitchhiker’s never merges onto the road to utopia like a lot of those other books do. A lot of books ask the question ‘what’s the point?’. Hitchhiker’s constantly presses home that it’s a rhetorical question, that there’s no valid possible response, that it’s pointless even to ask. Out of all the stories on my list, Hitchhiker’s is the funniest, but it’s also perhaps, ultimately, the most profoundly depressing and hopeless.

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