“DON’T PANIC”— Reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in a mad, mad world

It is 2020, a year in which a pandemic, an economic slowdown and political crises all over the world have orchestrated together to show us the utter madness of the world we live in. The President of the USA has already blamed the virus, the economy, the unemployment, the climate crisis (and many of his other failings) on Russia and China, religious parties in India have touted cow urine as the miracle cure to the virus, and conspiracy theories all over the Internet have been cropping up like zits on your average teen’s face. When faced with a world I struggle to make sense of, I turned to a book that still remains as relevant and as funny s as when it was first published in similarly maddening times 25 years back.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, is not your average science-fiction series. Propped by Adams’ masterful wordplay and light satire, it is a series that turns science fiction tropes on their head to tell the story of Arthur Dent, an ordinary Englishman, who, after Earth is demolished by Vogons, begins his journey as an interstellar hitchhiker with his alien friend from Betelgeuse, Ford Prefect and spends almost all of the journey looking for that quintessential facet of Britishness— a cup of hot tea. On the journey, he meets Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy, his girlfriend Trillian, and the nihilistic philosophizing robot Marvin. Armed with only the eponymous pan-galactic best-seller The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and a towel), Adams’ group of hitchhikers make their way around a galaxy filled with dangers like terrible poetry, suicidal machines, mice that experiment on humans, and infinite improbability drives. And their nonsensical adventures in an inherently absurd universe are the perfect thing to read at a time where a worldwide lockdown has forced us to deal with misgivings about the meaninglessness and listlessness of everyday life, because in what better way can we deal with existentialist dread than laugh at the absurdity of existence itself? Consider, for example, our nagging questions about the meaning of our lives. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy provides a very simple answer to this Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, And Everything— 42, but it asks an equally mind-boggling one in return— what is the question that can necessitate such a ridiculously precise answer? Have we been looking for the wrong things all along?

Adams’ wry observations on the nature of life would certainly seem to suggest that intelligent, sentient beings all over the galaxy share the collective impulse of devoting their lives to one ridiculous fixation, namely the quest to find the meaning of life. The most wildly successful and happy characters in the series are the ones who embrace the inherent meaninglessness of existence and enjoy it in all its insignificant glory. In fact, the entirety of the events in the book operates on the premise of improbability and impossibility, as if to spite the whole idea of meaning and scientific logic. If you’re familiar with the elaborate technological concepts and drive towards plausibility common in science fiction, you’ll be surprised by how blithely Adams throws all that rationalizations out of the door and deliberately opts for nonsensical technobabble and impossible plotlines that will test your suspension of disbelief. Sample Adams’ description of a critical piece of technology in the novel, the Infinite Improbability Drive—The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood. By swapping internal logic for puns, wordplay and a lot of clever references to actual scientific concepts that make no sense in the context, Adams invites you to see that what we consider important in existence may simply be a ridiculous bunch of nonsense that exists only because we make it up as we go along. That may sound bleak, but it is a message that can encourage us to stop obsessing over what we consider deep and life-changing and look at the humorous side of ordinary life. It can also make us look out of our own little bubbles into a universe that is beautiful and mysterious because it is so absurd and unknowable. It is somehow an oddly comforting thought for humans caught in an impossible pandemic that has made so much of our previous daily lives insignificant.

There’s also a lot of witty sociopolitical satire that points and laughs gently at religious faith, political leadership and academic circles, that is wholly relevant to the often shrill political debates of our times. The worst villains in the book are a bunch of humourless bureaucrats, the vapidest idiots are a group of aliens involved in the entertainment industry who finally become the ancestors of life on Earth, the most wretched people are a coterie of philosophers who use supercomputers to crunch out the meaning of life and the man who rules the Universe has no idea if the Universe exists at all. If you are willing to keep an ear out, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy will make you stop in your tracks, take a good, long look at the high ground you claim to hold and laugh at your own pretentiousness. There’s a reason humour is the most potent political weapon of them all, and none more so than humour that punches a hole in politics too concerned with its own importance. Adams’ dark, sucker-punch humour is an absolute must for keeping your sanity in the polarized world we live in today.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy invites you to leave your bloated self-importance behind, embrace the universe in all its inherent absurdity, and laugh at the tragicomedy of your life as you go along. In all its dark humour and irreverence, it has become my go-to book in a year that has proved that the universe doesn’t care about our existence. But as long as I am armed with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a towel, I am ready to take on the crazy world that awaits me.

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