Posted in Book Reviews, Thoughts

An appreciation of Hitchhiker’s

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. Perhaps the most remarkable…

-The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Things you might want to keep in mind-

  • I LOVE THIS BOOK
  • I will gush my heart out. Honestly, I am a voracious reader and I’ve never found a book that I connected to or enjoyed more

So, the Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy. The book is about a hapless and very British human, Arthur Dent, as he pinballs across the galaxy after his home and planet are destroyed by construction crews (different ones, of different scales and scopes). It mostly involves him being blown up, shot at or having something unpleasant happen to him every few paragraphs.

I will digress now.

I had been staring at my wall for the past half an hour and now I will tell you what I am thinking about. On my wall, I had written, in an attempt to personalise my room, “Cogito Ergo Sum”. It’s my favourite quote. “I think therefore I am”, by Rene Descartes. A very neat little piece of reasoning. He wanted to arrive at some fundamental intrinsic of the universe and his method to arrive at that was to question everything, and not believe in anything that he thought wasn’t true for sure. He ruled out sensory input, you may hear or see wrong and so on. He ruled out his own thoughts, as he may make errors. And so on, and he ended up with pretty much nothing. There was apparently no thought or idea, that he could think of, which was perfectly, intrinsically correct. And then he realised he was thinking. That was impossible to deny, that he was thinking. Thus, his mind, hence his brain, head and body existed, else it would be very stupid to have a thought without a mind, a mind without a body and so on. Thus, Descartes, for sure existed, since he thought. He thought, therefore he was.

“Cogito ergo sum.”

That had absolutely nothing to do with Hitchhiker’s. I just felt like writing it, so I did. I will now return to what I was doing. Trying to review that godly piece of perfection. Now the thing is, this book is very different from almost any other book, so it makes it pretty difficult to dissect and analyse. Quoting Stephen Fry on Wodehouse, “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour”. Pretty much sums it up.

There is so so little plot that it won’t satisfy a three year old’s demands from a bedtime story. On second thoughts, it would, but that’s about it. As far as just the storyline goes, it’s the bare minimum necessary. Just a set of highly improbable things happening one after the other. But that plot is supplemented by the most brilliant language, and extremely British humour.

And it is full of very weird sciency things, absurdly plausible, but absolutely impossible. An example-
How do you fly?
You fall, aiming for the ground and miss. The missing part is difficult, it involves distracting yourself so completely that you forget that you were supposed to hit the ground, and before you know it, you’re flying.

Another such example would be the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a most dangerous creature who is also mind bogglingly stupid, so much so that if you cannot see it, it assumes it cannot see you. So if you are cornered by the Ravenous Bugblatter, all you need to do is put a towel over your eyes and it will leave you alone. There is also a bit about how, given the Universe is infinite, everything, no matter how improbable, must occur naturally. So out there somewhere is a planet of mattresses (all named Zem, for some reason), which are harvested, cut up and dried out and sent off to the markets. Fresh mattresses from Squornshellous Zeta. There is also a tree which grows screwdrivers as fruit. And a planet of ballpoint pens, introduced in an entirely different context. There is also an infinite improbability drive, which allows for practically instantaneous transport. One of my favourites is the Babel fish, which feeds on brain waves, and acts a universal translator. So it absorbs all your brainwaves, feeds on the unconscious ones and excretes the conscious ones telepathically. The practical implication of this is that if you put one in your ear, all your conscious thoughts, that is whatever you’re saying, are relayed as pure brainwaves to everyone else in real time. Pretty neat.

Yes, this isn’t proper science. It is nonsense, and the author had absolutely no intention to appeal to common sense. But at first glance, it does seem plausible. And no matter how nonsensical, it’s funny. It’s sort of like one of the crazier XKCD comics, humorous and doesn’t take itself seriously, while it makes sense on some level. SMBC too, for that matter. Actually, it’s closer to SMBC than XKCD.

Incidentally, there isn’t much character development either. After 5 books of being an occasionally heroic wimp searching for tea, at the end of it all, he’s… well, he’s still that, with a daughter, obtained via surrogacy. Ford Prefect is still in search of the fountain of alcohol at the end of the Universe. And so on.

The very broad storyline of the thing is this. At least, this is the part that might sound familiar to some of you who haven’t read the books. So millions of years ago, there lived a race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings. Lets call them mice. You’ll understand why. So the mice made a computer, the greatest of all time, that would answer the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything. So this computer of theirs, Deep Thought, ran for 7.5 million years and came up with the answer 42. This didn’t really satisfy the mice. They wanted something a bit more deep and meaningful. Then, Deep Thought gently reminded them that they didn’t know the ultimate question, and that he’d build an even greater computer, a device so complex that organic matter would form its physical structure. And so the Earth was made, to find the ultimate question, and its program ran for 10 million years. And 5 minutes before the read out it was destroyed by a Vogon constructor fleet. Here onward, it’s Arthur and Ford and other people who don’t always stick with them stumbling across the Universe, getting into some kind of trouble or the other.

The actual Hitchhiker’s Guide of the Galaxy features in here as a literal Guide to the Galaxy, a sort of encyclopaedia of worlds and attractions and interesting people. It has, apparently replaced encyclopaedias as the standard repository of all knowledge since it is cheaper and has DON’T PANIC written in large letters on the cover.

There are pretty weird side characters. My favourite three, in ascending order, are:
Fenchurch, Arthur’s love interest with whom he gets to spend a month after which she goes missing. She was sort of the mouthpiece for the grand readout of the ultimate answer, it is implied. Nice character, overall.
Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged. An alien who had immortality thrust upon him as a result of an accident with a time machine and some rubber bands. Getting completely bored of his immortality after outliving everyone for a few hundred years, he decides to insult every creature in the Universe (in alphabetical order).
Agrajag, a being who keeps getting reincarnated in various forms, only to be killed by Arthur every single time. He is born as a rabbit, whom Arthur kills to make a bag, and then as a fly, whom Arthur kills with the same bag. And so on. He’s later (or earlier, depends on how you look at it. “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so”), transfigured into existence in the place of a missile as a bowl of petunias and thus, falls to the surface of the planet and dies.

So, in a sort of TL;DR, I’ll say this. The plot ain’t much to speak of. The characters are well, they are ragdolls being tossed around as and when the author decides to blow up stuff around them. The language is beautiful, purely humorously English in every sense of the word. And the humour, at least for me, is spot on all the time.

I think you’ve sort of formed an idea of the book by now. Again, you can’t really analyse this thing. You either like it or you don’t. There is no partial, no sort of. It’s no cup of tea, it’s a swig of some heady drink. And you can take it or leave it.

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Posted in Thoughts

Into morally dark areas (again)

When do you end your friendship with someone? I mean, at what point would you draw the line between friendship and morality? If your friend harasses a girl, would you stop talking to him? Would you end your friendship right there? Or would you try and explain to your friend that what he did was wrong and try to change his perspective or him as a person?

On the one hand, it is immensely difficult for a person to intrinsically change who he is. If someone truly believes that what he has done is not wrong at all, it isn’t very easy to make him see otherwise. But, on the flipside, what if your abandoning that friend is exactly what could set him off and lead him into doing worse?

There’s the added point about how if you keep a fresh apple among rotten apples, it rots a lot sooner. You tend to be the average of the company you keep. That is not to say that if your friend has indeed harassed a girl and you continue your friendship with him, you’ll end up harassing people too. But surely, the company of such a person is bound to have repercussions on how you perceive things or draw the line between right and wrong.

But then again, if you are the person who has strayed away from the so-called path of righteousness, wouldn’t you want someone to be there, to tell you that even though they’re disgusted by your actions, they still value your friendship? Parents don’t abandon their kids, come what may. When I was very young, I stole chocolates from home and lied about it later. I did get a thorough earful for that, but that in no way changed my parents’ affection towards me. But then again, friends aren’t family. Only the ones who stay, through all of life’s vicissitudes, those are the true gems.

 

Another paradox of sorts that’s been boggling my mind is this. If you look at your neighbour’s answer sheet in an examination hall, it’s cheating. It’s wrong, and you must be punished for it. But what if you’re the scribe for a blind student giving his board examinations. You correct a spelling mistake here, edit a grammatical error there. And what if your gentle nudge in the right direction is what makes this kid’s career, or some such thing? Will your conscience still bother you?

This thought came to me because one of my friends told me that he had been cheating on his weekly tests, following which we had a mild debate over the same.On the other hand, when I found out about someone helping a blind student pass his board examinations, I praised them for being thoughtful and considerate. Does the morality of cheating depend on the abilities of the person you’re helping? If you help someone disabled, it doesn’t seem so bad, but if you help out a friend who hasn’t studied, it’s looked down upon.

 

I suppose the answer to all of this and more is that the world isn’t black and white. There is no perfectly right way to go about living, and sometimes, you simply make your choices based on your perceptions of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

 

SK: Well, it’s fine to say that the blind kid can have his career made by the grammar corrections and all, but at the same time you forget that he starts with an intrinsic handicap. You have heard and seen those words, many many times. He has only heard them. He cannot visualise and lacks a very very important memory cue. On the other hand, cheating is the use of an unfair means to gain an advantage. It is not as if the person who is cheating begins with a handicap. On a level playing field, with everyone being given the same opportunity, he chooses to do something explicitly wrong. There is no unintentional bump here, but actual malpractice. That’s my two cents.