Monday, January 3, 2022

Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

Source of book: I own this, but we listened to the audiobook on one of our trips. 


Back when I first read the entire Hitchhikers series in my teens, the third book, Life, The Universe, and Everything was my favorite. Probably followed by the first book, the second book, and the fifth book. The fourth book was my least favorite, and seemed kind of meh if I recall. I haven’t read that one in years, so who knows? 


I tend to quote all the books quite a bit - they are some of the most quotable ever written - but the occasion that makes me most proud is that time I referred to an unresolved issue in a family law case as being in a “someone else's problem field.” And got the judge to laugh. That idea comes from this book. 


Now that I revisited the book, I remember exactly why I liked it the best. For one thing, I think it is literally the only one of the five that could be said to have an actual plot, rather than a series of episodes. Somehow, miraculously, Adams managed to create an actual narrative arc and a coherent story that seems self contained, rather than a string of humorous occurrences. 


The other is that Life, the Universe, and Everything is philosophically coherent and can even be said to have a consistent theme that is explored throughout the book. The satire is pretty good too, particularly the strong anti-war message - one that sounds all too relevant after 20 years of meaningless killing in Afghanistan. I think that Adams also says a very unpleasant truth about war: while it is often about money (resources, land, whatever wealth is most valuable at the time), there is another irrational and emotional core to so many wars which can be boiled down to “I hate people different from me.” This is the very worst of human evil, the love of violence for the sole purpose of causing pain and death to others. And it is far more common in the human psyche than we want to admit. Case in point: I have been shocked how many people I thought were compassionate humans who have literally advocated for shooting border crossing immigrants on sight - men, women, and children. They seem pretty much like the inhabitants of Krikkit, including the easy manipulation by powerful and malevolent sorts. 


While the central plot is pretty tight, the beginning and the end of the book are more related to each other than to the rest. The beginning is easy to explain: at the end of the previous book, Arthur and Ford were stranded on a prehistoric earth, and, well, they had to get off of it somehow. So, in one of my favorite scenes, Arthur decides to go crazy, and makes a halfhearted attempt at it (poor guy is incompetent at pretty much everything…), before a spacetime anomaly makes a couch appear in the middle of the swamp, they catch a ride, land at Lord’s Cricket Grounds, and the main plot is in motion. 


The epilogue seems totally divorced from the rest of the book, except for the way it ties to the “go crazy as a means of coping with an irrational universe” idea. If Adams had ended the book before that, I think it would have been pretty much perfect.


One thing I did not know when I first read this, was that the Krikkit plot was from a Doctor Who episode that Adams wrote, but that never made it to the screen. Since it wasn’t used, he revised it a bit to fit the Hitchhikers universe, and the rest was history. Now that I know this, I can’t unsee it. Slartibartfast is the Doctor, the Bistromath is the Tardis, and presumably Arthur is the Doctor’s Companion, with Ford and Trillian and Zaphod the extras dragged in. (Even more of a rabbit hole: the source for this is book written by Neil Gaiman and a couple others back in 2003 about the Hitchhikers series. I also had no idea this existed.) 


The center of the book, as we discover, is the threatened extermination of the entire galaxy by the inhabitants of Krikkit, a planet on the edge of the galaxy surrounded by a dust cloud. One day, a spaceship crashes on their planet, and they are shocked to realize that they are not alone in the universe. And decide that this offends them so much, they have to destroy it. (They aren’t the brightest, so they never realize that they would be included in the destruction of the entire universe, which also sounds a bit too realistic for comfort.) 


The Krikketians tried this once before, but they were stopped by the combined effort of, well, everyone else, and their planet was locked away in a “slow time field.” The key was intended to be destroyed, but instead got broken up and lost in the spacetime continuum, and never found. Well, until the last remaining Krikkit robot ship starts traveling through time to reassemble it. 


Slartibartfast, Arthur, and Ford then set off to try to stop this apocalypse, in the end discovering the real genius (if that is the right word), behind the genocide. 


In addition to the Someone Else’s Problem Field (which is the perfect way to hide a spaceship - or anything else - in plain sight), the best invention of this book is Slartibartfast’s ship, the Bistromath. The Infinite Improbability Drive (which drives Zaphod’s stolen cruiser, the Heart of Gold) is now outdated, because deeper mathematics have been discovered - hiding in plain sight in the Italian dive bistros scattered across London. 


(Story here: I ate at one of these back in 1999, on our law school trip to England. We found this random basement joint near Baker Street, and had some amazing and inexpensive pasta there. We never time traveled, although we did get to have a fun conversation with one of the young immigrants running the place. Good times.) 


There are so many great scenes in this book, that I suspect I will post this and then slap myself for forgetting one. But I’ll try to name a few. 


First, the whole idea of making the game of Cricket into an entirely tasteless “racial memory” of the Krikkit Wars is hilarious and brilliant. At the time, I wasn’t that familiar with Cricket, but did a little looking up to get the gist, and even then, it was hilarious. And that’s before I discovered P. G. Wodehouse (the Psmith books) or Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. So, even though I am still far from a Cricket expert, I know enough to find the jokes quite funny. 


Second, how about that whole “You have been diverted” scene with Agrajag, the hapless being who is reincarnated over and over, only to be killed (accidentally or otherwise) by Arthur Dent? That one never fails to amuse. 


I also love the flying party. Which is both the “booze and dancing” sort of party, only it has now lasted for several generations; AND, it has become a raiding party - pillaging to get fresh supplies of cheese and booze. Oh, and it is (of course) attended by that famous lunkhead, Thor. 


And that brings me to one of the best scenes, that almost didn’t make it into the book. So, the insufferable “Hollywood” guy, who wants to be asked about the “Rory” award he recently won, originally won it for "The Most Gratuitous Use of the Word 'Fuck' in a Serious Screenplay.” Which isn’t bad as satire. But apparently, while the UK is fine with a bit of swearing, the US publishers got their panties in a knot, and insisted he change it. So, Adams used “Belgium” instead, and included a truly hilarious backstory on why “Belgium” is actually the most obscene word in the universe, despite the fact that earthlings use it all the time. Perhaps proof that censorship not only never makes the censors look good (the incident is definitely a spoof on censors) and sometimes results in great art when the artist decides to work around the restriction while delivering a giant “Belgium You” to the censors. (See also, Shostakovich and “Your Business Is Rejoicing.”)


Although this book may not be quite as quotable as the original, there are some great ones. For example, this timeless gem:


“The Guide says there is an art to flying", said Ford, "or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.” 


Or this one:


“It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.”


Or this one, that even we religious sorts find hilarious:


“He hoped and prayed that there wasn't an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn't an afterlife.” 


Or, from the relentlessly nihilistic Ford Prefect:


“What I need... is a strong drink and a peer group.”


And, of course, the incompetently narcissistic Zaphod Beeblebrox:


“He was alone with his thoughts. They were extremely unpleasant thoughts and he would rather have had a chaperon.” 


“The lights were off so that his heads could avoid looking at each other because neither of them was currently a particular engaging sight, nor had they been since he had made the error of looking into his soul.

It had indeed been an error.

It had been late one night-- of course.

It had been a difficult day-- of course.

There had been soulful music playing on the ship's sound system-- of course.

And he had, of course, been slightly drunk.

In other words, all the usual conditions that bring on a bout of soul searching had applied, but it had, nevertheless, clearly been an error.” 


I would be remiss, as well, if I left out the explanations of the two greatest technologies in the book:


“Numbers written on restaurant bills within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe. This single fact took the scientific world by storm.”




“The Somebody Else's Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what's more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery. This is because it relies on people's natural disposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain.”


While many things in Science Fiction are clearly made up, this one is not. In fact, my house seems to be absolutely drenched in these fields, at least from what I can tell from observing things around here. 


As with the first two, the books made my kids laugh, and made the miles slip away. But don’t miss the more serious ideas hidden behind the zany humor. 


A bit about the audiobook. Ours was narrated by Martin Freeman, whose main fault was not being Stephen Fry, who only narrated the first two. Since nobody is Stephen Fry, this is not Freeman’s fault. His various voices were actually quite good. 


There were two issues with the audiobook, neither of which had to do with Freeman. First, the mix was a bit light on the treble, which made it so we had to turn it up pretty loud for car travel. Second, and related, the various echo-y voices that had to be done were interesting, but a bit muddy, which again made it a little hard to make out while driving. On the plus side, the compression was good, so at least we didn’t have to keep fiddling with the volume as with some. So, overall, pretty good. If we listen to the last two, those are also narrated by Freeman, and we will probably go with those if we can. 


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