Anger and Protest in Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Shortly after the destruction of his house his planet to make way for an interstellar bypass (the planet happened to be Earth, by the way), Arthur Dent, Earthling, accidentally joins a mission to find a mythical planet called Magrathea, a planet whose inhabitants are in the business of manufacturing custom made-to-order planets. And there, on Magrathea, he meets God.

Magrathea’s factory floor.

Well, he meets a man who was part of the team that designed and built the Earth. Which is about the same thing. (His name, by the way, isn’t important.)

This God turns out to be an eccentric jobsworth, friendly enough, but with no more of an idea what’s going on than anyone else. That’s Clue #1 for a theory I’m about to lay before you here.

On Magrathea, Dent learns that the Earth was one of Magrathea’s custom-made planets. Not only that, but it was in fact a planet-sized computer whose sole program was to compute the Question. The Ultimate Question, to Life, The Universe, and Everything. We learn that it was the second computer in a series; the first was called Deep Thought, and it computed the Answer, and as you know the Answer turned out to be 42.

That’s Clue #2, by the way. Deep Thought computed the Answer before anyone really knew what the Question was. The Answer, being a number, for a question no one knew how to put into words, is an absurdity, a stroke of cognitive dissonance, a non sequitur, a non-answer to an unasked question. I think Adams chose “42” as a way of saying life is ultimately absurd, pointless, ridiculous, without sense, and without meaning.

A popular theory states that Adams chose “42” as the Ultimate Answer because, as an enthusiast for computers and cryptography, he likely knew that 42 is the ASCII code number for an asterisk. The implication is that the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, can be anything you like it to be.

Alas, this isn’t true. Adams himself actually answer the Question of “Why 42?” Replying to fan queries in 1993 on the old usenet group (remember back when the internet was text-only?)

“The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’. I typed it out. End of story.”

The debunking of that theory about ASCII code made me wonder about a theory of my own. It’s not about why the Answer to the Ultimate Question should be 42. It’s about why he chose a number at all, instead of a word or a proposition. Hence, my theory. Here it comes.

The most memorable events in the series are variations on the theme of absurdity. Arthur Dent has very little real agency in the story; he makes very few decisions and is given few opportunities to do so; he mostly marvels at and/or complains about what’s going on around him. What few choices he does make have to do with staying close to, and trying to care for, the various people who might be caught up in the weirdness along with him. He is a kind of everyman, thrust quite against his will into a series of absurd and impossible situations, who struggles to make sense of it all and never entirely succeeds. Now, most of the fun of reading / listening to / watching Hitch Hiker’s is the loopy weirdness of the world that Adams crafted for us. After all, this world includes AI-sentient and precognitive elevators who sometimes wonder if there is anything more to life besides going up and down in their elevator shafts, and if they ever conclude that the answer is ‘no’ then they go sulk in the basement and refuse to do anything, and enterprising galactic hitch hikers can sometimes pick up jobs as counsellors to depressed elevators.

Consider also the Total Perspective Vortex, a torture device which drives people to insanity by showing them exactly how insignificant they are compared to the infinity of the universe as a whole – a machine which led its own creator, Trin Tragula, to conclude that “if life is going to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo. Yeah, I went there.

Those were Clues #3 and #4, by the way.

Next clue: #5. Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy. The quest for the planet Earth, for the Question (to make sense of the Answer), and for the Creator of the Universe, was his quest, not Dent’s, even though the story is told from Dent’s point of view. Beeblebrox is the thief who stole the starship Heart Of Gold in order to find Magrathea. He’s the only man to survive exposure to the Total Perspective Vortex — because he unknowingly stepped into an alternate dimension version of it. That alternate dimension had been designed especially for him, and so he was the most important thing in that universe – a fact which, as a consummate narcissist, he already believed. As President his job was not to wield power, but to draw attention away from it. (Does this sound like any real-world Presidents you can think of?)

Now, Beeblebrox is undoubtedly one of the most fun and memorable characters in the series. But he’s also a sign that the absurdity of things, which in most of the story is a feature of the universe, is a feature of human society too.

In Restaurant, chapter 28, Adams very nearly says as much. Here’s the text:

It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are the problem.

And so this is the situation we find: a succession of Galactic Presidents who so much enjoy the fun and palaver of being in power that they very rarely notice they’re not.

And somewhere in the shadows behind them – who?

Beeblebrox is abducted by a man named Zarniwoop (using the fake Total Perspective Vortex as bait), and taken in the Heart of Gold to find the Ruler of the Universe, the man who presumably stands behind Zaphod’s presidency and who actually runs things. It’s another version of the quest for the Answer. And another occasion when the readers get to meet God.

This Ruler of the Universe turned out to be a completely confused and silly man who doubted he had that job at all, who had no idea why all these people kept coming to his house to ask his advice for things, and who also doubted that anyone had come to see him. After meeting Dent, he talked to his table for a week just to see what would happen.

Sensing the trend now?

Clue #6 is the clue that led me to the thesis that I haven’t stated yet, so I may as well reveal it now. In the story, Dent and Prefect narrowly escape the Mice who commissioned the construction of Earth in the first place, and who figured that since Dent survived the destruction of Earth it was possible that the Ultimate Question was likely encoded in his brain. Dent narrowly escapes having his brain removed, and he ends up marooned on Earth – two million years in the past – where he and Ford Prefect figure that maybe they can get the Question by randomly throwing Scrabble tokens. They do so, and find that the Question is: “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”

The clue is in the dialogue that comes next. Here it is from the 1980 novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

“Six by nine. Forty two.”
“That’s it. That’s all there is.”
“I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe.”

Now, the in-story reason that the Question and the Answer are absurdities is because the ark ship of the Golgafringams crash-landed on Earth (two million years ago) and corrupted the Earth-computer’s program. But I think the deeper reason is this. The Answer is 42, i.e. an absurdity, because something is fundamentally wrong with the universe.

A moment later, Dent laments the coming demolition of Earth, saying: “It’s very sad, you know. Just at the moment, it’s a very beautiful planet.” It’s like Adams is also lamenting and raging against the brokenness of the world.

Well, I think that’s a better explanation of “42” than a theory about ASCII code.

(Curiously, my paperback edition of Restaurant (Pan, 1980) does not include that line. I spotted that when I was researching this blog essay. It’s in other print editions of the novel, the original radio show, and in the TV series.)

Now let’s put all these clues together. I hypothesize that from these premises we can draw a conclusion rather like this one: Douglas Adams believed that something was wrong with the universe, and he was furiously angry about that fact.

I think that Adams genuinely wanted to know what the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is. Some of his friends, Richard Dawkins among them, attested as much about him. But I think he was also beyond livid that no straightforward answer was readily available. And I think his comedy was his way of expressing his combined joy in the search, and heart-breaking frustration with the lack of an apparent conclusion for that search.

(No, the journey is not the destination. Please don’t quote pop-culture flappery at me as if it is a serious counterargument.)

As another extra-textual attachment to this hypothesis, I give you one of Adams’ other projects: Last Chance To See, a nature documentary series which sought out rare and endangered species. Watch it (on the Flix Of Net) and you’ll see him as a man who genuinely loved the Earth, its life and diversity, and who was deeply upset that wonderful animals like the aye-aye, the manatee, the Yangtze river dolphin, might soon entirely disappear from the face of the Earth.

There is some evidence for a counter-argument. The 2005 film (which I consider canonical; Adams worked on the script, appeared in it as a character, and anyway this is the sort of story that doesn’t lend itself to the demand that there should be only one canonical version) offers a kind of solution to all the absurdity. Slartibartfast (I told you his name doesn’t matter) tells Dent “I’d much rather be happy than right, any day.”

It’s an absurd solution, since Dent asks Slartibartfast if he is happy, and Slartibartfast says “Ah, no.”

Dent reiterates the same point a few scenes later, when he tells the mice (just as they are about to steal his brain) that he has a head full of frustratingly unanswerable questions and that the only thing he is sure about is that when he first met Trillian he was finally happy.

More evidence for a counterargument: Adams said in 1980:

“The larger the issue, the better the jokes that become available to you… I don’t know what I think about anything until I find the right joke for it.”

Hear him say so in this BBC radio recording, at 51 minutes 40 seconds.

Clearly, that quote doesn’t support my hypothesis that he was angry about things. But it does, at any rate, support the view that Adams was, in some way, a serious man, and he believed his comedy had a serious dimension.. Dent’s now famous statement, upon learning that he as an Earthling was part of a giant computer program, that:

All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.

…also confirms the seriousness behind the silliness. This line is immediately trivialized by saying it’s “only paranoia, everyone in the universe gets that”. But this is another way to preserve the seriousness: it actually confirms that it is normal for people to wonder about the universe and their place in it.

At the end of the film, Dent stands at the front gate of his new home on Earth 2.0, and Slartibartfast asks if there’s anything he would like changed or removed, anything the world could do without. Dent says “Me”. Then he says to Trillian, “Let’s go somewhere”.

That’s Adams telling us that he loves the adventure, and wants to keep exploring the universe, even with all its weirdness and nonsense. Perhaps Adams cooled down his anger and his despair in his later years. Perhaps he and the other movie-people decided that the conclusion “There is something fundamentally wrong with the universe” was too bleak for a film version of the story. At any rate, by ending on a note that resembles a Nietzschean amor fati (without all the jackboot marching and trumpets), Hitch Hiker’s becomes a kind of love story, not of eros, but of agape; a global expression of love for the world, in all of its imperfection.

If Dent’s adventure was a journey, then that sense of agape was the destination. “42” is the stand-in for the proposition that something is fundamentally wrong with the universe, and yet it’s okay. It’s really, beautifully, okay.

And that, too, is a better explanation for “42” than a theory about ASCII code.

But let me conclude with a final, this time really final, clue in favour of my thesis: the story starts with a protest. We first meet Dent lying down in front of a bulldozer to protest the demolition of his house. That would be symbol enough. But the demolition was apparently random, because the public notice for the demolition was posted in an impossible-to-find location: in a basement room with a collapsed stair, behind a lavatory door marked with a sign saying “Beware of the Leopard”. It was the first absurdity of the story.

Could the entire series be an act of protest against the absurdities of the world?

Maybe I read all this anger into his work because I myself am angry about such things. (And here’s a link to one of my acts of protest, as well as an act of shameless self promotion.)

But I also suspect of him, for all the reasons given above, that his comedy was a kind of cover for some deep-seated and serious feelings about the way of things. His comedy is a safe and nonthreatening way of exploring ideas that are not safe at all, and very threatening.

Step into the Total Perspective Vortex, and you’ll see.

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