The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

October 12, 2011 | 25 comments
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I read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy over the weekend for the first time since high school. I was glad to see that it’s a book that ages well. As a teenager I enjoyed it as a fun, imaginative science fiction romp. Now I appreciate it as a commentary on the absurdity of life and the immanence of death. (Speaking of which, this book fits in quite nicely with my previous post on Halloweeen. Hitchhiker’s Guide is definitely a Halloween classic, at least in the way I look at Halloween.)

The story is essentially a series of unrelated and random events, all designed to illustrate that life is senseless and bizarre, and that trying to find any sort of meaning in it is an exercise in futility. The vignette that best sums up what I believe to be Adams’ thesis is the bit about the nuclear missile that turns into a sperm whale, which I’ll quote in full here:

Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.

And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.

This is a complete record of its thoughts from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.

Ah … ! What’s happening? it thought.

Er, excuse me, who am I?

Hello?
Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?

What do I mean by who am I?

Calm down, get a grip now … oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It’s a sort of … yawning, tingling sensation in my … my … well I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let’s call it my stomach.

Good. Ooooh, it’s getting quite strong. And hey, what’s about this whistling roaring sound going past what I’m suddenly going to call my head? Perhaps I can call that … wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do … perhaps I can find a better name for it later when I’ve found out what it’s for. It must be something very important because there certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of it.

Hey! What’s this thing? This … let’s call it a tail – yeah, tail. Hey! I can can really thrash it about pretty good can’t I? Wow! Wow! That feels great! Doesn’t seem to achieve very much but I’ll probably find out what it’s for later on. Now – have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?

No. Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation … Or is it the wind?

There really is a lot of that now isn’t it?

And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like … ow … ound … round … ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!

I wonder if it will be friends with me?

And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.

The point is that we are the whale; we come into life with no context at all, we do our best to transform our sensory experiences into some sort of framework that makes sense and gives us purpose, and then we splat into the ground before we can figure it all out.

The good news of the gospel is that the ground is only an illusion. It only looks like we die — in reality our work of making sense of things continues beyond death.

The bad news of the gospel is that the ground isn’t the whale’s real dilemma. The issue isn’t that the whale dies; it’s that he’s there in the first place. Why is he there at all? On that question, the scriptures and prophets are silent.

“Why are we here? Because God made us”

“Why did He make us? To bring to pass our immortality and eternal life — because He loves us and wants us to be with Him forever.”

Those are forward-looking questions and forward-looking answers. They don’t ask, “Why are we here?” but rather, “Given that we are here, what should we do about it?” The gospel has a lot to say about that.

But the backward-looking “Why are we here?” in the sense of “Why is there anything at all? Why are we something rather than nothing?” All the wind in the world won’t help the whale answer that question.

25 Responses to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  1. Dan on October 12, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Excellent book, and a fine movie adaptation too, if you haven’t seen it yet. I love the absurdism of the story.

  2. Ben S on October 12, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Good stuff, loved that series.

    “Why is he there at all?”
    Umberto Eco takes this on in “Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition”; his answer, after lengthy philosophizing?
    “Why is there being rather than nothing? Because there is.”
    Source

  3. Eric Nielson on October 12, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Why are we here?

    Because We’re here, roll the bones.

  4. Rameumptom on October 12, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Obviously you need to reread the book. It contains the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. The answer is: 42.

    Now, if it isn’t a satisfying answer, that’s because you aren’t asking the correct questions!

  5. Dane on October 12, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Dan — I’ve been meaning to watch the movie for a while. I saw the BBC one in high school, which was both great and cheesy.

    Ben S and Eric — Yup, I expect that’s as good (and perfectly useless) an answer as we’ll get.

    Rameumpton — But do you remember what the question was according to the book? Because it definitely brings “42″ in line with everything else there.

  6. Rameumptom on October 12, 2011 at 8:26 am

    (SPOILER ALERT)

    The question was not created prior to the answer. The computer created to form the perfect answer was not big enough to create the perfect question. This is why the earth was created by the mice – to obtain the perfect question to the perfect answer. Alas, the earth was destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway, which is what begins the book. So the question really does not come forth in any real sense.

    BTW, will you read the other books in the 5 book “trilogy”? Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe is just as good.

  7. Tim on October 12, 2011 at 8:33 am

    A Rush reference. Awesome.

  8. Jax on October 12, 2011 at 9:29 am

    I’ll have to put in my vote for the BBC version of the movie (which is really 8 tv episodes stuck together) over the more recent made for theaters one!

    And Rameumpton is right, ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42!

    My first reaction when you said you were going to use a scene was an assumption you would use the talking pig who recommends himself to the diners at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe… He knew why he was created, was willing to accept it, and embraced his role.

  9. Dane Laverty on October 12, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Rameumptom, the question does come later in the series (sort of), and it’s true to form with the rest of the book — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrases_from_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy#Answer_to_the_Ultimate_Question_of_Life.2C_the_Universe.2C_and_Everything_.2842.29

  10. Frank McIntyre on October 12, 2011 at 10:03 am

    “Oh no, not again”

  11. Matt W. on October 12, 2011 at 10:06 am

    Rameumpton, don’t forget Eon Colfer’s Sixth Book “And Another Thing”. It is worth reading as well.

  12. Rameumptom on October 12, 2011 at 11:38 am

    (Spoiler Alert)
    Dane,

    But the true and correct question is never really arrived at. The mice make up a question to fit the answer. Arthur’s brain does not have all the data to come up with the correct question. Besides, both cannot be in the same universe at the same time, hence, we cannot know the perfect question!!!!

    I have not read Eon Colfer’s book, and not sure if I will. He is not, nor ever has been Douglass Adams, and I fear I would be comparing the two all the time in it (Douglass would have written this instead of what Eon wrote….).

  13. Eric Nielson on October 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I thought the ultimate question was, ‘What do you get if you multiply 6 X 9?’ But that was what the mice came up with. Now I remember.

    And I agree that the BBC television version was way better than the movie.

  14. H.Bob on October 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    What was best was the BBC radio version (oh, yeah, I was a HUGE geek in junior high/high school–as were my friends). The whale part was probably the first time I ever laughed uncontrollably over something I was only hearing, and not seeing. God bless Douglas Adams and the British sense of humor.

  15. Jax on October 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I was going to order me a Babel fish on Ebay, but the shipping was out of this world!

  16. Frank Pellett on October 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Look for the BBC version of Marvin the Robot in the recent movie version, in a queue on the Vogon planet ;)

    For the books, the last message from God to his creation is also entertaining.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    As I understand it, our core intelligence has always existed, so there was no REASON for our coming into being. It is the same as asking “Why does ANYTHING exist?”

    If you want to get into cosmology and physics, Brian Greene’s new book about various kinds of parallel universes possible within the current theories of science, “The Hidden Reality”, is pretty good. Even there, the only kind of universe where it is possible to even frame the question of “Why does it exist?” is a multiverse that is entirely a simulation running on a super-duper computer, that has an inherent Matrix-like quality of being wholly created at some point in time. In the more widely accepted Inflationary Universe theory, where new universes are constantly budding off and expanding into existence, there is neither end nor beginning, and it is thus a multiverse that seems compatible with Mormon concepts of eternity stretching into past and future (and distinct from the original form of the Big Bang Theory, with a single point of creation of space and time that the Catholic church likes to talk about, but which isn’t really the state-of-the-art model now).

  18. Kent Larsen on October 12, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Is it a coincidence that the last Priesthood lesson I taught was lesson #42? Or that I live in apartment #42? I think not!

  19. Rameumptom on October 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    42 hit me today also unawares. In my New Testament blog I mistakenly thought I was on lesson 42, and so finished it. Afterward, I noticed I didn’t have a lesson 41 completed, but was still working on it from a few days ago. So, 42 rules!

    Joel’s Monastery NT lesson 42

  20. Alison Moore Smith on October 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    [SPOILER ALERT!]

    Just kidding.

  21. Rameumptom on October 12, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I now always include Spoiler Alert on any and all posts that have a book or movie in it that I discuss. Why? Because on a blog once I forgot to put Spoiler Alert and someone raged at me for discussing a spoiler in a Harry Potter movie, even though the movie had been out for months, and the book for several years.

    Given that Adams’ works are less than a century old, there’s still a chance one person hasn’t read it or seen the movie or British tv series, etc. In the chance that that one person finds himself reading this blog, I don’t want to destroy his entire life by not including Spoiler Alert.

    BTW, Harry kills Voldemort at the end of the books and movie….

  22. Eric Nielson on October 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    What?! Harry kills Voldemort?

    My life is now destroyed. Thanks a lot.

  23. CS Eric on October 13, 2011 at 12:39 am

    [SPOILER ALERT]

    Luke Skywalker has a twin sister.

    My favorite version of the Guide is also the BBC radio version. My favorite bit still makes me laugh:

    “I wish I had listened to my mother.”
    “Why? What did she say?”
    “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening.”

  24. Rameumptom on October 13, 2011 at 6:15 am

    Eric #22,

    Darn! I knew I forgot to put a Spoiler Alert somewhere! Well, just as long as you don’t know that Harry marries Ginny, it won’t matter….

  25. J.A.T. on October 13, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Because we were driving in Improbability Drive, of course.

    Or, were were adopted intelligences/lights? (PoGP, Follet Discource, J.S.’s adoptive language) as opposed to heavenly parenthood co-creationism?