In the opening pages of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is destroyed. Now if that doesn't scream 2020 so far, what does?
In Douglas Adams's 1979 novel, which premiered as a radio series on BBC Radio4 in 1978 (42 years ago—but more about the significance of that number later), Earth is suddenly blown up in order to make room for an intergalactic superhighway. Now, in a year that has—after only 3 months, people—given us a contentious, confusing democratic primary, the death of Kobe Bryant, new and worsening facts about our climate and habitat at large, appalling leadership, and of course the rapid spread of and global shutdowns by the coronavirus (COVID-19), it seems impossible to turn to any source for comfort.
Enter The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: a novel that starts with the global annihilation that we might be heading for and then follows the characters as they cope with new realities, with isolation and loss, an endless information source that brings with it endless anxiety, and an egomaniacal, arrogant, selfish, attention-craving president of the galaxy.
A quick synopsis for those who haven't read the novel (go read it): Arthur Dent is quickly saved by his buddy, Ford Prefect, right before Earth is destroyed. Turns out, Prefect is actually an alien and a researcher for a book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book that strongly resembles the Internet: an endless source of material for everything you need to know. Under Prefect's guidance, they are able to jump onto the Vogon ship (bureaucratic alien species) that is about to demolish earth.Eventually they are thrown off the ship and catch a ride on the stolen Heart of Gold, which is being piloted by the renegade president of the galaxy named Zaphod Beeblebrox (who very much resembles Donald Trump), a depressed robot named Marvin, and a very bland, devoid of personality half-human named Trillion. They hitchhike with this crew as they embark on a journey towards Deep Thought, a computer system that has the answer to the "ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything."
So how will this book help those struggling with the current madness that is 2020 so far? Let's start with the guide itself, the thing the novel is named after. It's given to the main character–the sheepish, timid, not so confident Arthur Dent–who's stuck alone, with nowhere to go, in a confusing and upsetting time. The only thing Dent has to turn to is a super computer-like device that holds all known information–for better or for worse. Does this sound like being quarantined in your house with only the Internet to keep you company, to confuse and upset you?
The way Adams describes the Guide is like this: "The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in." So yeah, it's just the Internet.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) Trailer # 1 - Martin Freeman HD youtu.be
Next, let's look at maybe the most glaring, unsetting similarity with the novel and today: the president. In HHGTTG, the president of the galaxy is a two-headed, three-armed, egomaniac who before becoming president was famous just for being famous; he was made president just to distract the citizens of the galaxy. Adams even describes him as an "adventurer, ex-hippie, good-timer, (crook? quite possibly), manic self-publicist, terribly bad at personal relationships, often thought to be completely out to lunch." Later on in the novel, he writes: "[He's] pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn't be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn't understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. He was renowned for being amazingly clever and quite clearly was so—but not all the time, which obviously worried him, hence the act. He preferred people to be puzzled rather than contemptuous."
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Later, when Beeblebrox explains his political motivations, he says, "I freewheel a lot. I get an idea to do something, and, hey, why not, I do it. I reckon I'll become President of the Galaxy, and it just happens, it's easy." The similarities are glaring, and it helps not to think too long about how this was written as absurd science fiction and not real life. As we deal with Trump and watch the Democratic 2020 candidates fight for the nomination, it helps to heed Adams' advice: "Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." (RIP Bernie Sanders's campaign.)
Outside of issues such as isolation, confusion, depression, unqualified egomaniac presidents, and the end of the damn world as we know it, the book also shares the answer to the "ultimate question to life, the universe and everything." And that answer is 42. After the characters surmount obstacles and fight their way to hear the universe's ultimate supercomputer's answer to the universe, the answer only confuses the characters, who are forced to realize that they don't know the question.
So with this month the 42nd anniversary of the original radio series, which then turned into one of the most influential science fiction books of all time, in a time when we all need some solace and humor in these crazy times, this is the perfect time to finally read or reread The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Thankfully for us, Adams' novel doesn't just give us a bunch of relatable plot points and humor to make us laugh at the ludicrous; it's revealed early in the novel that while there is endless information in the hitchhiker's guide, there is only one rule: Don't Panic.
If you take anything away from this novel, if there is anything about Adams' book that can be applied to life in 2020, it's that: Don't Panic.
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