(Wrote this in 2012, I think, for the old blog. I miss him. –w.)
The quite good joke that leads off the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — in which Arthur Dent’s house is destroyed to make way for a bypass, but he’s not around to see it because he’s fleeing Earth, which is being destroyed to make way for a (hyperspace) bypass — deepens by degrees throughout the first four volumes of the series, until it attains a kind of comic grandeur. A quick overview:
- In the first volume, we start with the aforementioned good (but simple) joke on mindless bureaucracy. The planet is blown up, and the earthlings’ protests come too late — the plans have been on display at Alpha Centauri for decades. But it gets better: Earth wasn’t even a planet, it was a computer designed to find the Ultimate Question, destroyed at the moment of readout. Life on Earth was just part of a computer program.
- In the second volume (Restaurant) we find out that (1) Arthur has the Question in his brain, (2) it’s not even the right question, and (3) the reason for this cockup is that the simple peaceful cave-mammals populating prehistoric Earth were killed off by a bunch of idiot telephone sanitizers and management executives judged too stupid for their own planet. Earth was, it turns out, a backwater’s backwater. And by the way, the Vogons were actually hired by Zaphod’s analyst — who didn’t want the Ultimate Question interfering with his business. Even that cosmic conspiracy is absolutely petty in motivation. (And the whole thing might take place in Zarniwoop’s literal ‘pocket’ universe anyhow. Adams was fearless about tossing out his premises…)
- Then we get to Life &c. — in which we revisit Earth but just twenty pages or so at the beginning and another five or ten at the end, where we encounter one bloody clusterfuck after another, mostly revolving around the Ashes, which (I’m told) are something to do with cricket, which is what Englishmen play when they find baseball too fast-moving and stress-inducing. Earth — basically a floating calculator populated by stumbling morons, our hero included — is a bit player in the great drama of Krikkit. Arthur and Ford hang around long enough to be annoyed, and Arthur asks to be dropped off elsewhere.
- But in So Long and Thanks, he comes back — and meets Fenchurch, the crazy woman who figured out the answer to the Earth’s many problems on the first page of the first volume. They have a bit of sex on the wing of a plane and end up leaving Earth anyway. The series’s recurring nostalgia object isn’t, in the end, worth the trouble. There are other matters to attend to anyhow — the laughing truth-teller and God’s last message to His creation among them.
- I can’t remember Mostly Harmless but I’m sure it’s nice. There’s food in it, and some jokes about TV.
One extraordinary thing about this series of increasingly Weird treatments of Earth and its fate — too big to be a comic ‘runner’ but so lightly handled that it’s easy to miss its centrality to the (ahem) trilogy’s (ahem) philosophy — is that Douglas Adams kept finding new ways to tell grand jokes about the true nature of the human race and its beautiful, broken planet. The bit about the mice would’ve been a fine topper to the initial gag, but the Golgafrincham sequence manages to strip away its sentimentality while achieving real emotional resonance — we killed what was true and good about the Earth long before the Vogons justifiably did us in.
The contemptuous ease with which various beings (mice, Vogons, Halfrunt, the galactic judiciary, Disaster Area’s stage crew) kill off or otherwise terrorize various other beings (usually Arthur and his companions, but also the entire population of Earth, the telepathy-stricken inhabitants of Belcerebon, Prostetnic Jeltz’s crew, the billiards-ball planet in Ford’s story, et al.) is the blackest joke in the whole series. Of course in Adams’s ass-over-other-bits Darwinian cosmos, this is the nature of life, universe, everything. Which makes his ‘true’-nature-of-Earth revelations all the more bleak: they follow an emotional line straight toward dissipation and despair, and Arthur can only respond with an exhausted shrug.
Here’s one of Adams’s bleakest interpolated narratives, in full:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it’s always reality that’s got it wrong.
This was the gist of the notice. It said ‘The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.’
This has led to some interesting consequences. For instance, when the Editors of the Guide were sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Tralal literally (it said ‘Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists’ instead of ‘Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists’), they claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing, summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was Life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true. The judges concurred, and in a moving speech held that Life itself was in contempt of court, and duly confiscated it from all those there present before going off to enjoy a pleasant evening’s ultragolf.
The entire Hitchhiker’s Guide universe runs just like that. The destruction of Earth in chapter 1 of the first book fits this pitch-black comic mood perfectly, but it’s also a comfortingly benign event at the time, because it seems so utterly out of measure with readers’ expectations. After all, England runs more or less the same way, is the obvious satiric point, but it’s all more civilized in a way, isn’t it? There’s contempt and then there’s contempt, right?
Well. By the end of the series, in an ironic ‘triumph’ of worldbuilding, Adams has lifted up Earth — or rather the various mutually-contradictory Earths — to the status of full participation in the carnival of malice and cruelty and offhand, even accidental, genocide which is his (nonetheless quite funny) titular Galaxy.
The only consistently nice, earnest, curious creature in the whole series is a mattress, which flollops around in a swamp.