The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Hitchhikers Cover

I’ve been rereading some of the science fiction that I enjoyed at school, just to see how the future has treated it. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made a huge impression on me in 1978. The original BBC radio shows were on late at night. I’d listen sitting on a dark gold velour sofa, in subdued 1970s light cast by a ridiculously tall, scarlet lamp decorated with amber flowers. I recorded each show, carefully pressing Record and Play together on a cassette deck. When the book came out at the end of 1979 I bought it immediately.

Feeling nervous thirty nine years later, I downloaded a copy of Hitchhiker’s to my iPad and started to read…

It was like meeting an old friend again; but it wasn’t all about nostalgia. At school, I just went for a ride. This time, as we flew along, I had a poke about in the book’s engines. It might seem presumptuous to claim knowledge of how those engines work, but I think it has something to do with exploiting quirks in the amusing contradictions of an infinite universe.

The nature of the Hitchhiker power is there at lift off, in the first chapter. Arthur Dent faces a local council official who has arrived with bulldozers to knock down Arthur’s house to make way for a by-pass. Immediately big and small things start mirroring each other. It is a big deal to Arthur Dent that the local council want to build a bypass through his house. Arthur’s predicament, however, is insignificant compared to the threat posed by unpleasant aliens called Vogons who are planning to build a hyperspace bypass through Earth. The threatened destruction of Earth seems a big deal, until, in turn, you remember how Earth is described as the book opens – an utterly insignificant blue-green planet in the backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy. Against this background, you start to question the difference between big and small.

All of the humour and wisdom of Hitchhiker’s then spins out from this paradoxical colliding of opposites set up at the beginning. After the Vogons move their bulldozers through Earth, a rescued Arthur Dent tries to come to terms with what’s happened. He can’t feel the loss of Earth, since the event is just too overwhelming. The thing that really hits him is the loss of McDonald’s hamburgers.

Later in the book, for reasons I won’t go into, Arthur visits a chamber of hyperspace, thirteen light seconds across. This truly is a place revealing the odd nature of the scale of things.

“It wasn’t infiniy, in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity – distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity.”

Ironically, with any immensity, a quality of smallness must be involved. This combination gives the sense of a long journey coming right back to where it started. I really enjoyed the comfort of that message. You could go back to sit on that velour sofa. At the same time you could take a typically 1970s kind of journey where you’re standing by a road sticking your thumb out, not entirely sure where you might end up. I once hitched in Scotland, and found myself dropped off in the middle of nowhere, north of Inverness. There was snow on the ground and doubt in my mind about whether I would get another lift before hypothermia set in. I took the advice on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide – Don’t Panic. I might have been in the middle of nowhere, but relatively speaking I wasn’t really far from home. The Guide’s advice remains as relevant now as it ever was.

Book Burning in the Age of the Kindle

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, is Ray Bradbury’s famous depiction of a totalitarian future, where firemen, put out of work by flameproofed houses, are reassigned by a repressive government to the task of burning books. Books with their tendency to make people think and question, are seen as a threat. They are destroyed while people get on with consuming a diet of what appears to be endless soap opera playing on wall-sized television screens.

After first reading it in paperback at school, I thought I’d have a look at Fahrenheit 451 again to see how it was doing in the age of the Kindle.  My reluctant conclusion is, not well, certainly in the predictive sense. Bradbury imagined a future where culture becomes monolithic, with everyone consuming the same lowest common denominator TV drivel. In reality, culture is much more fragmented than it was. Rather than a tool of uniformity as portrayed in Fahrenheit 451, information technology increasingly allows people to pick and choose. Television viewing with its fixed schedules and limited channels has fallen steadily – a 10% drop in the UK between 2012 and 2016, according to the Reuters Institute. People are increasingly finding their own cultural niche, via all kinds of on-demand services, video streaming and social media. This has caused its own problems, which are the opposite of the problems Bradbury envisaged. America, for example, where Fahrenheit 451 is set, has seen increased polarisation between people holding opposing political beliefs. During his time as President, Barack Obama noted that the choices offered by modern media allowed people to more easily shut away things that challenged a particular world view. He encouraged people to try and find a way outside their bubbles.

So the book’s look into the future has not exactly played out.

Reading the Kindle edition of Fahrenheit 451 has been an odd experience.  Reading a book about the malign effects of technology on books, using technology which makes it easier to read books, was disconcerting.  Having a think afterwards, it seems to me that maybe lots of people who are now in influential positions in America recall Fahrenheit 451 from their youth.  A lot of them operate in a country so programmed to fear totalitarian government that the population has free access to guns which they use to shoot each other regularly.  Those left alive vote incompetent people into government who don’t actually believe in government, since their version of totalitarism is personal rather than institutional. In Bradbury’s book, we only learn the President’s name, but he is a faceless prescence.  There is no sense that institutions can actually defend us from the vagaries of individuals.  Perhaps once-young fifty somethings who run things should read Fahrenheit 451 again, just to remind themselves how different the real problems we face are from the ones we thought we would have to face when the book was written.


Things Fall Apart

ThingsFallApart 3

The first English novels, appearing in the Eighteenth Century, were heavily influenced by an earlier tradition of Christian morality tract. This sense of teaching some kind of moral lesson has remained a characteristic feature of novels ever since. Of course, in the world of the secular novel, morality generally becomes a difficult thing, very different from the simple portrayal of appropriate reward and punishment for various types of behaviour.

Things Fall Apart is an interesting twist on this, written in English by African author Chinua Achebe, portraying a culture far removed from that of England. The book describes the life of a man called Okonkwo, who struggles to reach the heights of his traditional tribal society in late nineteenth century Nigeria. His rise up the greasy pole is made difficult, both by the arcane rules of his own society, and by those of English missionaries, who arrive in Nigeria. In the Nigerian culture, morality is hugely important. However, the details of what is considered right and wrong are profoundly different to that of Victorian England. In this story of a collision of values, we learn that the instinct to define correct behaviour is deeply ingrained in people the world over. Actual rights and wrongs, however, are virtually arbitrary. People could be considered bad, and win praise for it; or they can be deemed good, yet fall foul of the law through no fault of their own.

Reading about Okonkwo’s life, I couldn’t help thinking of Oscar Wilde, living in London at about the same time, facing a society which defined homosexuality as a crime beyond any other. One day that worst of all crimes would not be a crime at all. In writing about this kind of impermanence of right and wrong, Oscar Wilde could also be summing up Things Fall Apart:

“A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law, and yet be fine. He may be bad, without ever doing anything bad. He may commit a sin against society, and yet realise through that sin his true perfection.”

Settling Old Scores With The Invisible Man

Invisible Man

If I could, I would use H.G. Wells’ time machine to go back to a particular day at Warwick University during the autumn of 1983.  I was sitting in a student kitchen listening to a science post-grad telling me, a humble first year English student, that he was pursuing worthwhile work researching a cure for the common cold.  He further informed me that courses in literature were a waste of time and money.  Stepping out of my time machine, I would produce a copy of The Invisible Man and push it across the table to Mr Cold Cure.  I would tell him that this is a tale of a scientist named Griffin who makes himself invisible.  Griffin is an arrogant man who thinks that normal limits do not apply to him. His story shows that arrogance in science is the same as arrogance anywhere.  As well as turning him into a monster, this arrogance also makes him a bad scientist.  Scientific work pushes back the boundaries of human knowledge, but the careful business of seeing things often involves helpful limits to our vision.  Take the example of X-rays, which pass through skin, but are only useful in showing the details of bones because they cannot pass through bone.  The Invisible Man has found a way to take away all appearances and reveal what lies beneath.  But take away too many appearances and there’s nothing left.  Consider the eyes we use to see things.  They are only able to see anything at all because the retina absorbs light.  Notice how the retina is the last thing to resist Griffin’s invisibility experiments.  If the retina becomes transparent, letting light through, we would lose the power of sight.  A real transparent retina would not work, and symbolically the retina makes a last stand against the scientist, against his arrogant confidence that he can see everything.

Notice also, I would declare, warming to my subject, that the Invisible Man, puffed up with his achievement of invisibility, finds himself living amongst simple Sussex folk in the village of Iping. Griffin, the great scientist, might feel himself superior to innkeepers, farmers, village Bobbies and students of literature, but seeing too much is the same as not seeing anything at all.

Keep the book, I would say. And, oh, by the way, where I come from in your middle-aged future, the common cold is as common as ever.  Then I would step back into my time machine and return to the present day.

Words and Music


Articles about music might seem out of place on a blog about writing, but words and music have always gone together. In pre-literate societies, if people needed to remember words, they tended to put them together in rhyming or rhythmic patterns, making them easier to recall. It was only a short step to using different pitches of the voice, and sound made by external means to further enhance those verbal patterns.

When written language came along, the link with music continued. Western music derives its basic shape from the Greeks, particularly from fifth century BC thinker Pythagoras. Greek musicians decided on the distances between musical steps, which generally speaking are still in use today. They also confirmed the relationship between words and music by naming musical notes after letters of the alphabet.

With the collapse of the Greek civilisation, the alphabetical system of musical notation was lost for centuries. Music survived largely in Gregorian chant, a combination of words and music designed to help illiterate Medieval congregations remember passages from the Bible. The time came, however, when musicians once again required notation to represent music. After both Pope Gregory the Great, and Emperor Charlemagne demanded a standardisation of chants, it became politically vital for church choristers to reproduce chants in an accepted way. This demanded notation.  From the 7th Century, marks called neumes, began to appear, indicating where the voice should go up or down. But these marks did not indicate where a singer was starting from on the ladder of musical sounds.

The breakthrough came when a teacher of choristers at Areazzo, named Guido Monaco, came up with a notation system to help orientate his pupils as they struggled to learn hundreds of chants. Described in his books Aliae Regulae and Micologus, both published around 1030, Monaco’s system took its lead from the Greek idea of turning to the written word, naming notes after letters of the alphabet – A,B,C,D,E,F,G. He drew a red line above a line of words to be sung, a line which Monaco declared represented middle F, a note right in the centre of a singer’s normal singing range. Then a second yellow line was added to represent middle C. Other notes could then be written above or below these two lines at graduated heights. It was now possible for a singer or musician to know exactly which note they had to sing or play. It was also possible to read and write music. Until this point music had been an oral tradition with no specific composers, but with Monaco’s system it was possible for people to start writing down musical ideas. The first named composer is generally held to be a Frenchman named Perokin, who lived roughly between 1170 and 1236. He wrote his music as you might write a story, using Monaco’s system based on the letters of the alphabet.

Today the link between words and music is if anything stronger than ever, in the various forms of song writing which have dominated global culture since the 1950s.

Hans Christian Anderson said that where words fail, music speaks. You could also say that where words and music come from is actually the same place.

Grease 2