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.