May 19, 2005
by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI InstituteIt began as a BBC radio program. Then came the books, the records, and a TV show. Inexorably and inevitably, Douglas Adams’ raucous Baedeker for the Milky Way has now found shelf space at your local cineplex.
"The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" isn’t really about where to book a cheap, but clean, hotel in the Perseus Arm, or how to avoid dicey neighborhoods like the galactic center, where you risk being fricasseed by radiation or dismembered by a massive black hole.
No, this movie is about coming to grips with the immensity of space, and making it psychologically accessible. In the near future during which the story is set, the tractless wilds of the galaxy are not so alien, in a manner of speaking. What’s out there, spread among the stars, is an out-of-kilter version of contemporary earthly society.
The Milky Way has a president (a part-time job), and the extraterrestrials are far more prosaic than the robotic, slime-packed killing machines that Hollywood usually orders from Central Casting. Instead, they’re hunched-over shleppers called Vogons, with mouths that twist and pucker like Charles Laughton’s, stuffed with bad teeth. The Vogons are officious civil servants who make the local Department of Motor Vehicles look good. Their most odious offense is to inflict awful poetry, the third-worst in the galaxy, on agonized listeners. They occasionally go into attack mode, but not to worry – they’re bad shots.
Space, in other words, is recognizable, and even familiar. No call for steely-eyed, baritone-voiced pioneers to pull on their sausage-like uniforms and boldly go where no one has gone before. An unwitting stumble into space by ordinary folk will do. Imagine that.
The film dutifully acknowledges the five gazillion (at last count) "Hitchhiker" cult members by noting who really runs Earth (small rodents), and showing a computer the size of the Paris Opera House – known as Deep Thought – cranking away for seven million years to come up with the answer to life, the universe, and everything. As just about everyone over the age of eight knows, that answer is 42. What’s remarkable here (other than the long compute time, which suggests a lot of hard disk fragmentation) is that the answer is an integer. Had it been a number like "two pi", it would have had an endless train of non-repeating digits, and the cottage industry of sleuths who look for predictions of disasters and unexpected stock dividends using "Bible codes" could find anything and everything in Deep Thought’s answer. But 42?
The defining event for "Hitchhiker’s Guide" is right up front, when Earth is obliterated to make way for a hyperspace bypass. There’s no arguing with this… the need for a bypass is unchallengeable, as any highway department will tell you. Still, atomizing the Earth seems excessive. Larry King got a bypass, but he wasn’t blown up. It’s this kind of arbitrary wackiness, this lack of rationality, that characterizes Douglas Adams’ view. Physicist Steven Weinberg famously said that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Adams clearly agreed. Pointless, but amusing.
The "Hitchhiker’s Guide" is not, of course, a conventional take on our future, and its studied lack of idealism is in contrast to some other, equally well-known space-opera icons. "Star Wars" is religion in space, complete with a virtuous hero and a bad guy (Darth "The Devil Made Me Do It" Vader) who eventually achieves redemption. The troops wear white and black, which is handy if not subtle. There’s a Jedi order with its own rituals, and, of course "the Force" (heavy chords).
"Star Trek" is Lyndon Johnson’s domestic program and foreign policy, catapulted a few thousand light-years beyond the White House. The crew is rigorously multicultural, and the slanty-eyebrowed Romulans are nice stand-ins for the Soviets. There’s a premise here that logic, diplomacy, and the occasional laser torpedo can effect a better galaxy.
But "Hitchhiker" refuses to succumb to either nicety or optimism. The universe, as the very British Adams saw it, is in many ways as familiar as the lads down at the Basingstoke pub. But that aside, it is still brutally chaotic, and ultimately unpredictable.
In the mid-seventeenth century, when it was realized that the stars were suns, and desperately far away, Blaise Pascal was moved to write that "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me." Had he seen "Hitchhiker’s Guide," he would no longer be terrified. Merely panicked.