Sunday, November 6, 2022 at 5:54 PM
H2G2 is still relevant
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy isn’t just a humorous sci-fi novel, it’s a roadmap to the future and has been my go-to book for 30+ years. The entire series is a gold mine of predictions, analysis, and commentary about every facet of society from tech to religion, quantum physics to philosophy, genetics, mathematics, politics, space travel, and the very nature of reality and our place in it. It uses a core plot device where the more improbable something is, the more likely it is to happen, as a writer’s ultimate Deus ex machina which springboards the reader into a thousand different ideas. I’ve been reading it and listening to Adam’s personal narration of it for years and I still discover gems of insight I had missed.
Sadly, like all authors who write about the future, as what they describe becomes reality, later readers start to dismiss their work - think Jules Verne as an example. So now the idea of a portable handheld device containing all the information you can imagine connected via invisible communications system doesn’t seem as amazing as it did in the 80s and 90s.
But now that we’re entering the age of Artificial Intelligence, Adams insights are yet again showing his astounding prescience. Every time Alexa responds to me with some overlong response spoken in some pseudo-hip manner, I can’t help but think of Adam’s Sirius Cybernetics Corporation’s Genuine People Personality™.
Just in the last several months alone, as the various AI image and text services have gained popularity and people started exchanging elaborate prompts which produce the best results, I’ve been amazed at how much they resemble Arthur trying to describe to the Nutri-Matic Drinks Dispenser exactly how to make a cup of tea.
"No," Arthur said, "look, it’s very, very simple…. All I want… is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen."
And he sat. He told the Nutri-Matic about India, he told it about China, he told it about Ceylon. He told it about broad leaves drying in the sun. He told it about silver teapots. He told it about summer afternoons on the lawn. He told it about putting the milk in before the tea so it wouldn’t get scalded. He even told it (briefly) about the East India Trading Company.
So that’s it, is it?" said the Nutri-Matic when he had finished.
"Yes," said Arthur. "That is what I want."
"You want the taste of dried leaves boiled in water?"
"Er, yes. With milk."
Think of the detailed prompts given to GPT-3, DALL-E or Stable Diffusion to help guide it to create the right output. If you’re not amazed at a book written in the late 1970s predicting with such clarity our interaction with artificial intelligence decades later, then I can’t convince you. Adams was truly a prophet.
When many of us first read Adams, most technology you take for granted now just didn’t exist. Adams foretold a technological future which, amazingly, has become reality in so many ways. A future in which everyone uses - and more and more commonly interacts with - computers and information technology. But when we first read about (or listened to, or watched on BBC, or played on the C64) this absolutely mind blowingly cool future, it was total science fantasy.
And then the fantastic technology Adams was writing about started becoming reality! If some of us have cult-like devotion towards Douglas, this is why.
Adams main genius was extrapolation. From 1978 to 1983 - before the Mac was even launched and every computer looked like an adding machine - he looked at the current state of the world and the latest science and technology and played the future out in his head. From particle physics and advanced mathematics to Artificial Intelligence and more. He started with a base premise and expanded until he was literally mentally exploring of all of the universe and time itself, and taking us along for the ride. His later works included incredible thoughts on multidimensional realities! It will be years before we see all of the things he talked about, but there’s no doubt in my mind much of it will happen.
H2G2 as literature
But more than just the ideas in H2G2 - which are truly unmatched in creativity and foresight - it is Adams' command of the English language itself which sets him apart from those who simply write stories about the future. Adams wasn’t a scientist, but a writer, actor and musician with a degree in literature from Oxford. Science and technology were Douglas’s hobbies, writing was his job. This is where Adams both shines and suffers. The work of writing drove Adams mad as he was a perfectionist with too many ideas. That’s why he wrote so few novels before his untimely death in 2001.
But what Adams did write is incredible. His command of the English language is as good as any novel written in the 20th century. It is expressive, witty, and exuberant with word choices and observations that can have you crying with laughter or overloaded with ideas. His Wodehousian turns of phrase are always amazing.
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
Add to this, his invention of the most freeing plot device known to have ever been gifted to a writer, and the books are amazing examples of English literature at its best.
The plot device in question is twofold: First, the novel is about a book which happens to have the same name as the novel itself. This duality means that "The Guide", which you are nominally reading, can be an omnipotent narrator, or a way of setting up a chapter by expositing on some seemingly unrelated topic written as the Guide itself. The narrator/guide allows Adams to jump around seemingly at random, while maintaining a consistent narrative.
Secondly, he invented a ship which is powered by improbable events, allowing Deus Ex Machina to be an integral - if not required - part of the plot! This is such an ingenious plot device, by the final book, you have been trained to expect improbable things, regardless of whether or not the ship was anywhere near the main characters.
Side note: What are "conkers"?
"… So what happens? We get in his trijet which he had souped up into something totally other, crossed three parsecs in a matter of weeks, bust our way into a megafreighter I still don’t know how, marched on to the bridge waving toy pistols and demanded conkers. A wilder thing I have not known. Lost me a year’s pocket money. For what? Conkers."
"The captain was this really amazing guy, Yooden Vranx," said Zaphod. "He gave us food, booze—stuff from really weird parts of the Galaxy—lots of conkers, of course, and we had just the most incredible time. Then he teleported us back. Into the maximum security wing of the Betelgeuse state prison. He was a cool guy. Went on to become President of the Galaxy."
After all these years, it's still not clear to me exactly what conkers are supposed to be.
I’ve Googled it, and it doesn’t make much sense. I’ve read forums covering the topic and the general consensus is that Adams was just talking about the game of his youth involving smashing chestnuts together. But Hitchhikers was written and rewritten a dozen times. There were various radio edits and drafts. He could have meant something else, especially since it’s such an odd reference. It's a mystery to me.
How to bring Hitchhiker’s to the screen
The problem with the 2005 movie is that though it was faithful in most ways, it just wasn’t funny. There’s a flow to Adams work that needs to be there, and an honest sense of W.T.F. Even to someone who’s read the book 100 times, there are opportunities to surprise and delight. In the movie, for example, the Infinite Improbability Drive (again, the most amazing mechanism for Deus Ex Machina ever written) was hardly tapped. The words were there, but the WTF was replaced with movie cliches like Arthur not telling Trillian about the Earth getting blown up. Also, I thought the bad guy was just weird, but that is apparently Adams fault.
Hitchhiker’s Guide needed to have the original words of Adams combined with the general humor of Back to the Future, where the main character can't believe what is going on, but slowly accepts the absurdity of it all.
Rules for creating a H2G2 adaption:
Arthur is the audience. We should feel what he feels: Bewilderment, incredulity, exasperation and sense of being totally overwhelmed.
Arthur is not an idiot, nor is he boring or a loser. In fact, he’s incredibly sarcastic and witty. He is also incredibly stubborn, but not unreasonably so. He is both the everyman and the hero.
Trillian is not his love interest. She’s also a genius.
Zaphod is an egomaniac for which everything always goes right. We’ve all known this guy. It’s like a superpower.
Ford is the consummate conman. You should never be sure if what is coming out of his mouth is the truth or not.
The Guide is both the omnipotent narrator and the book. It provides context and background to everything. The line is blurry.
Adams uses incredible turns of phrase in his books, many which may not be directly usable as dialog. But if you’re going to use his words, use them exactly.
The overall point of H2G2 is the exploration of infinity. If the universe is truly infinite, then literally everything that happens in the books can and will occur. To truly understand what infinity means, you need to be willing to accept the truly absurd.
Adams gave himself two insanely great tools in writing his books: The first is a literal guide that can give exposition on any topic, without feeling as if that’s what it’s doing. This easily sets up jokes and provides context for every scene, no matter how crazy. The second is a mechanism for gracefully incorporating the unlikely. In fact, the more improbable something is, the more likely it is to occur. From a writer’s perspective, this truly is pure genius. Imagine the running jokes that could be included into a long running series where things keep occurring in ways which bewilder everyone else (a potted plant showing up again and again, accidentally knocking over the same person, again and again, etc.).
So, if a show can capture the above, it has a chance of being somewhat good. But most likely it will be a superficial space comedy that doesn’t do the original material justice. Adams was an incredibly prescient author who expounded on religion, society, technology, and science - literally, life, the universe and everything - and it’ll be a miracle if a show can capture that in any real way.
BTW, What I mean by "use his words"" is to not mess with the best lines. For example, "sorta like tea"" is not the same as, "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea"". And, "the ships were huge"" is not the same as, "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.""
Adams had an amazing way with words, if you’re going to use them, use them correctly is all I’m saying.
As I briefly mentioned above, the core theme to all the Hitchhiker's books is infinity. Adams instinctively understood what an infinite universe would mean, and used it liberally as a plot device that incorporated deus-ex-machina into the story itself. The original H2G2 story explored the fact that probabilities mean nothing when infinity comes into play, and his last examined an infinite multiverse in which "luck" is taken to its logical extreme, where changing the future means manipulating the various divergent paths of the past so that just the right thing happens at the right time and place in the present.
His talent was in following ideas to their absurd conclusions. The original series was supposed to be a bunch of different vignettes in which the Earth was destroyed at the end of each. But after writing the first, he thought, "What comes next?", and continued to flesh out the rest of story. This is a fundamental Adams hallmark, and the part of his writing I love most.
Douglas had incredible foresight, but not in an Arthur C. Clarke sort of way. He was a gadget freak without doubt, but he didn’t really understand technology at a deep level. What he did was to take what was already common knowledge - from quantum mechanics to evolution to computers - and extrapolated their concepts to their logical conclusions. If you were to have a computerized "book", then it would need to be such and such a size, and look and sound like so, and get regular updates over a pervasive wireless network, etc. It just made sense, and history has born him out. He did this with so many topics - again, including Artificial Intelligence - and it looks like his thoughts are still incredibly applicable almost 20 years after his death.
It’s sad that as times goes by, Adams work will eventually be shelved and as irrelevant as Jules Verne. Even today, the Guide is so like a modern smartphone, it doesn’t feel to new readers as if there’s anything novel or futuristic about it (like it was in 1978), which is too bad. Eventually, even his thoughts on Artificial Intelligence and our interactions with it will eventually become just another subject that someone in the distant past had predicted. Like moon shots or GPS satellites. It comes with the territory of futurism, I guess. It's just sad that Douglas didn't live to today - it would have been amazing to see if he could have continued building on his ideas as they became reality around him, and to see what he would have predicted today.