Believe Care Invest: Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

  • A British suburb in 1979: 30-something BBC employee Arthur Dent wakes up with a hangover, then suddenly remembers that bulldozers are coming to tear down his house to build a bypass. He lays down in the mud to stop them, but soon his friend Ford Prefect, who is secretly an alien, comes along and convinces him to go out drinking at a pub instead, because the world is about to end, and they’ll have to be drunk to hitch a ride off the planet.

This book actually begins with a few pages about Earth and its unawareness of the existence of the titular ebook. These pages establish that we’ll have an omniscient voice with a wonderfully funny and skewed point of view. We love it, but we still long for a hero we can identify with. We’re not too worried, though, because what we’re reading is in italics, and if we flip ahead a few pages, we’ll note that “Chapter 1” hasn’t begun yet, so we know our real hero is still coming.

Then chapter one begins and we meet Arthur. Continuing with the omniscient voice, we can see what hungover Arthur doesn’t: That his house is surrounded by bulldozers. The fact that the narrative voice is omniscient prepares us for the long sections where we’ll leave Arthur behind to jump across the galaxy, but Adams knows that, in order to get us to commit to the book, we’ll need a hero to believe in, care for, and invest in, and we’re about to meet a wonderful example.

So why do we quickly come to identify with Arthur Dent?

Believe: In the first paragraph of chapter one, we get the following description of Arthur’s house:

  • It was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

By the time the book ends, we’ll learn that the meaning of life is 42, which is to say that this is a book that will derive humor from attempts to quantify the unquantifiable and it’s already doing that here: how can windows exactly fail to please the eye? It’s absurd, but it’s also endearing, because we know what he means. Finding out about the house’s imperfections makes us more concerned that it will be torn down, because now it feels real to us.

We then meet Arthur and find out, “the thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about.” This is a universal emotion we’ve never heard described before in quite that way, which is the always the goal.

Care: It’s pretty easy to care for Arthur. After all, his planet is about to be destroyed to make way for a galactic highway! Of course that’s a little big for Arthur or the reader to conceive of, but it just so happens that Arthur is already dealing with an exactly analogous situation: His Earth house is about to be torn down to build an Earth highway.

In order to bond us with Arthur, Adams must make this as exasperating as possible, and once again, he achieves this through outrageous absurdity. As Arthur lies in the mud, he spars with the foreman in charge of tearing down his house:

  • “But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
  • “Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
  • “But the plans were on display …”
  • “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
  • “That’s the display department.”
  • “With a flashlight.”
  • “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
  • “So had the stairs.”
  • “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
  • “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”

It’s too absurd to be remotely realistic, but we still strongly identify with Arthur’s frustration because this feels like the sort of thing we’ve all been through when dealing with bureaucracy.

Invest: Ultimately, Arthur will hardly be a bad-ass in this series, but Adams knows he must get us to invest in his hero right away, so Arthur starts out by doing the bravest thing he’ll do in the whole saga: blocking a bulldozer with his body. This is a hero! If he just stood there stammering while they tore his house down, we wouldn’t bond with him. Of course, in the next chapter, he’ll basically just stammer as another foreman destroys his planet, but we know that, when he could act, he did.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The Archive

Ford and Trillian don’t get action figures? I can’t imagine why not. (They do get plushies, though.)

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Absurdity Clash with Meaning

“A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is beloved by nerds everywhere, many of whom, like myself, are atheists, and indeed Adams defined himself as a “radical atheist”, but he followed that up with “I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I've thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.”  Indeed, let’s look at that prodding.  First we get this exchange, about the Babel fish:

  • Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some have chosen to see it as the final proof of the NON-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:
  • “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
  • “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don't. QED”
  • “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn't thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
  • “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

But of course, God is right there having this conversation, isn’t he? He doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny, so he must go, but only after he created the universe: “In the beginning the universe was created. This made a lot of people very unhappy and has widely been regarded as a bad move.”

So, setting aside what we know of Adams, the theism of the book is ambiguous. What about Christianity specifically? Right there on the first page, we get praise for Jesus...

  • And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…

Then there’s the issue of the larger quest. We later find out that humankind has a greater purpose. It has been determined that the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is “42”, but then what’s the question? It turns out that Earth were invented to discover that question. In other words, life on Earth is a search for meaning.

By the fourth book, Earth has been recreated, and presumably that search is still going on, but the characters get distracted by another quest, to find “God’s final message to his creation”. The fact that they even seek this out is telling. It turns out the message is “WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” So we get the sense that Adams, and by extension, his characters, are really deists: God created us, and gave us a purpose, but then we banished him with a “puff of logic” and now have to search out his meaning on our own, using the scraps he’s left behind.

We love these books for their absurdity, but Adams’s grappling with God give them a lot of their power. Absurdity is more powerful if it clashes with meaning.

The Meddler: Making Arthur a More Satisfying Hero in “Hitchhiker’s Guide”

Arthur Dent in “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” starts off as a very effective hero. We get everything we need in the first few pages to believe, care, and invest:

  • Believe: We get odd little specifics about his life, like the fact that his beloved house has oddly unpleasing windows. This makes us say, “oh, I’ve never heard that detail before, but it sounds like a real concern, so this must be a real person.”
  • Care: Arthur realizes the house is about to be torn down, and he’s been treated in a way that makes us burn with indignation.
  • Invest: Arthur then acts heroically to save the house, lying down in the mud to block the bulldozers. This is a hero willing to do what it takes.

So we’re off to the races, right? But we quickly have problems:

  • Arthur is, it seems at first, the only survivor of the destruction of the planet Earth, which is a perfect set-up for a hero, but one key reason is missing: Why? What did he do differently than everybody else?
  • The bigger problem is that Arthur then suddenly becomes very passive for most of the book. Once Ford sweeps back into his life, Arthur just stumbles after him, mouth agape, for basically the rest of the book (and the next two) passively taking in information and complying with Ford’s orders semi-competently.

So let’s meddle with it.  Two minor fixes:

  • We never have a sense of how Arthur and Ford became friends. I think that it would greatly strengthen Arthur as a hero to show a moment in the past where he did something nice for Ford. That nice action would then result in Ford saving his life someday, making Arthur more the hero of his own story.
  • It’s okay for Arthur to be trailing behind Ford for a lot of the book if he comes into his own in the final quarter, and the book kind of does that by having the rest of the gang get sidelined while Arthur meets with Slartibartfast the planet-builder, but that meeting is too inconsequential and Arthur doesn’t say much. Give Arthur a little moment where he convinces Slartibartfast to recreate the Earth just as it was (so that we can keep trying to find the question to the answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

The movie did a slightly better job with this: Giving Arthur a moment in his restored home before he decides to travel the galaxy some more, but ultimately it, too, was unsatisfying.

In some ways, this series is like “A Song of Ice and Fire”: a writer who seemed allergic to satisfying endings kept stretching out the story into sequel after sequel. In this case, the fears of Martin fans were realized: Adams died young after writing a particularly unsatisfying installment, before he could provide the happy ending Arthur deserved. Martin fans, beware!

Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Masterclass in Comedy (And One Pet Peeve)

“A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is one of the funniest books ever written and any writer can learn a lot from it, whether you aim to be a comedic writer or simply sprinkle some comedy into any kind of book. In many ways, the humor is particularly British, but that’s no reason that anybody can’t emulate it. Let’s look at some of Douglas Adams’s tricks:

  • It’s always funny to try to be precise about imprecise things: “four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye” (Of course, “42” is the ultimate example of this.)
  • A list of mundane things with something bizarre in the middle that the hero fails to register: “At eight o’clock on Thursday morning Arthur didn’t feel very good. He woke up blearily, got up, wandered blearily round his room, opened a window, saw a bulldozer, found his slippers, and stomped off to the bathroom to wash.”
  • Connected to that, obliviousness to danger is always funny. In that case it was unconscious, but it can also be willful: Ford finds Arthur blocking bulldozers and says, “look, are you busy?”
  • It’s always good to use inherently funny words: “squelching”, “cajoleries”
  • Alliteration is always good for creating comedic verbal rhythms: “Thereafter, staggering semiparalytic down the night streets, he would often ask passing policemen if they knew the way to Betelgeuse”

And there’s a lot more to learn here. But there’s also one example of a pet peeve of mine. Adams mostly gets away with it, but I’ve been really tripped up on examples of this in comedic script and novels I’ve given notes on. This is the final dialogue of the opening chapter:

  • “Myself I’d trust him to the end of the Earth,” said Ford.
  • “Oh yes,” said Arthur, “and how far’s that?”
  • “About twelve minutes away,” said Ford, “come on, I need a drink.”

The problem, of course, is that Arthur would never ask that question. He’s only asking it to set up the punchline. This is hoary sitcom stuff (I suppose that before that they would have called it hoary vaudeville stuff.) Can you get away with it? A few times, maybe, but the effort shows, whereas most of Adams’s stuff seem effortlessly witty. Avoid heavy lifting.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Extend the Trend Lines

Nothing makes one feel older that rereading a science-fiction book from one’s youth only to find that it’s come true in the meantime.

I had previously read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” at age nine (I was precocious) back in 1984. At the time, the notion of an electronic book with a leather cover (my ipad today has a leather cover) was pretty strange, as was the notion of that device containing a nearly-infinite crowd-sourced encyclopedia that covered almost every conceivable topic, which was filled with errors, but nonetheless good enough to eclipse the popularity of traditional encyclopedias.

But it all came true. I’ve always said that Wikipedia is one of the most utopian aspects of our modern world, and this seems to confirm it.

And so I think to myself, “Boy, if I could go back in time and tell my younger self that this book would come true in his lifetime, wouldn’t he be surprised?” And then I realize, “No, he wouldn’t be.” If I were to go back and tell my 1984 self, “Hey, can you believe that the world is really different in 2018?” my 9-year old self would say, “Well I should fucking hope so—that’s the distant future! Do you live on the moon?” Then I would have to say, “Well no…In fact, we’ve abandoned manned space travel…But we all have computers in our pockets!”

(This is another area where Adams seems prescient. Indeed, one of the most dated aspects of the era in which it was written is that digital watches still seemed cool at the time. He correctly looked at that development and said “Um, we shouldn’t be so impressed by these. Better stuff is coming.”)

This book is far from hard science-fiction, but in creating the character of Ford Prefect, Adams wanted to show that he was cooler than anyone on Earth, so he invented something that made him cool: the guide. And now we’re all that cool. And that’s pretty neat.

In 1979, post-apocalyptic fiction was all the rage, and this book certainly fits into that category, but thankfully it turned out to be wrong about that, so far. You could say that the world is still tottering on the edge of apocalypse, but so far only the cool tech from this book has come to pass. At least I’d have a little good news to report to my 1984 self.

(I was going to illustrate this with a still from the movie, only to discover another thing the movie messed up: The book doesn’t have “Don’t Panic” on the cover!  This was the best I was able to find, though it hardly fits the description in the book.)

The Annotation Project: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

See, I told you we’d get around to it! This is a very funny book. One reason that it got pushed pack was that I’d never finished the series, so I decided to finally read all four of the original books (everyone including Adams was imploring me to skip the belated fifth one, so I did.) I’ll have more to say about it! Download the doc here.