Wednesday, January 21, 2009

So long, and thanks for all the fish

John A. Van Devender reviews The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
The HitchHiker is 20th century satire, probably at its best, which is an implicit condemnation of all other competitors to that title. Adams has a few quotes in these books that rank right up there with the best of them. I particularly liked his description of humankind as - ape descended life forms (who) are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. We humans are prone to be so distracted by novel and neat ideas that we never quite get around to assigning them a value that really reflects their place in the wider scheme of things. This is Adams at his best.

The problem with the Hitchiker is that its message is delivered through farce and farce wears extremely thin after about an hour. After two hours all hope of entertainment is lost and all that remains is gold-mining, sifting through endless grains of sand, in the hopes of finding another nugget that makes the whole enterprise worth while.

Adam's primary message is that the universe is absurd, having no sense or purpose to it at all. He cannot quite break away from his humanist roots and there is within his writing, a certain nostalgic longing for the days when truth and virtue actually meant something to people. But Adams is way too far gone to ever grant his characters any real contact with virtue and truth. The one character who comes closest is probably Trillian, the woman who left earth before it was destroyed in search of ... something. Even here, we see Adams lampooning the idea of virtue as a guide to wisdom. Virtue is too easily mislead to be a strength. It's not a bad point. But it is tiresome to have it endlessly repeated through pie-in-the-face slapstick, even if it is imaginatively done.

There is power in the argument that the world is absurd. But it is the power that lives in the world of impressions, not the world of realism. A fellow called "The Preacher" wrote about that 3500 years ago in a book called Ecclesiastes. He makes the same point a lot more clearly and, quite frankly, with far more zeal.

Live life, enjoy what you get out of it, take pleasure in doing the work God has given you to do and contentment is possible.

But thanks for all the fish anyway.


  1. I would love to have had Douglas Adams debate a Christian presuppositionalist - as far as I know he never did, and he's dead now, so there that is. But I read an interesting interview of his with an American atheist society, and his attitude towards Christianity was interesting. He was plainly puzzled by the interviewer's obvious attempts to make him say that he'd been persecuted by religious people. On the other hand, when asked if he knew any theists he said something along the lines of "I don't tend to associate with that sort of people, any more than I associate with people who watch EastEnders"... in other words, the crass and bumbling hoi polloi. One can't help but wonder if he was even aware of intelligent Christianity as a phenomenon - surely he would have appreciated Lewis' anthropological insights, or Chesterton's (Catholic, but still)?

    At any rate I disagree with the reviewer on one point - HG2G is more than just farce. The structure of the book is taut and brilliant, making it immensely re-readable. Adams' philosophy may have been off but dayum, he knew how to put a story together! The gems are good, but I've re-read it for the pacing alone.

  2. Hm, that's an interesting question. I'm not sure if Adams ever had any interest in Christianity let alone whether he read CSL or Chesterton or others.

    I do think the HG2G series is pretty hilarious, although it got progressively worse with each successive book (as I remember).

    BTW, I noticed this interview with Adams from way back when. Haven't listened to it though.

  3. Here's an interesting tidbit: I think it was Charlie Sebold who once told me Adams introduced Richard Dawkins to his future wife, who was the ex-wife of Tom Baker (of Doctor Who fame).

  4. From his works I get the impression he was vaguely fascinated by religion and philosophy in the way a lot of humourists are (Terry Pratchett comes to mind). He makes quite a few references to it, including the ambiguous one with the Babel fish and the whole Deep Thought chapter.

    The books did get worse as they went on, sadly. More scatty. The Dirk Gently books are worth reading though, if you like his writing style.

    I know Adams was a fan of Dawkins - the latter wrote an intro to The Salmon of Doubt, which was a collection of stories, essays and interviews with Adams published posthumously. Interesting about his wife!