Douglas Adamsís "Hitchhiker" Novels as Mock Science Fiction
Douglas Adamsís "Hitchhiker" novels have proven to be an extremely popular but enigmatic phenomenon among SF readers. Reviewers have uniformly appreciated the novelsí wit and their satire on a broad range of subjects, but critics have been silent on their usual topics of literary precedent, genre, and general theme. That this trilogy is made up, as of this moment (at least), of four novels is one of its less puzzling aspects. One might reasonably argue that Adamsís works are SF picaresque novels. Like the picaro, the main characters wander, apparently at random, from one setting to another and, while remaining themselves untouched by their experiences, they expose their own absurdities and those of the societies they encounter.
A more satisfactory view of these works, I wish to argue, is to see them as mock SF, standing to conventional SF in the same relation that the mock epic has to the epic. Evidence for the usefulness of this interpretation may be classified into three broad categories. First, like the mock epic, Adamsís mock SF novels reverse most of the paradigmatic expectations readers have learned to bring to the genre. Second, by reversing the usual conventions of the genre, Adams also reverses its entire ideological function. Finally, like the writers in other mock genres, Adams presents his implied narrator as a bungling author whose works embody disorder and aimlessness as opposed to the genreís usual embodiment of order and direction.
To clarify the way a mock genre functions, we may usefully begin with a brief examination of one of the most famous mock epics in English, Alexander Popeís Dunciad. First published in 1728, Popeís work satirizes the modern arts in general and one author, Colley Cibber, in particular.1 Cibber was a distinctly third-rate poet and dramatist who, in Popeís opinion, personified everything that was wrong with art. The Dunciad depicts him as the opposite of the epic hero; unequal to any task, he becomes an anti-hero whose trivial exertions are, by implied juxtaposition, as laughably inadequate in art as Aeneasís are superhuman and honorable in war. Pope uses all of the usual epic conventions: his King-Designate Dunce is the son of a goddess (Dulness); he participates in epic games (e.g., a urinating contest); and he is instrumental in establishing a new kingdom (that of Dulness). In this case, of course, the conventions serve the opposite of their usual function, for instead of ennobling the subject they serve only to trivialize Cibber and his works.
By reversing the conventions of the epic, Pope reverses its ideological function as well. The purpose of the epic is to depict the fall of one culture and the rise of another, morally superior one in its place. Popeís mock epic instead depicts the demise of all culture and the return of barbarism, primal Chaos, and Night under Cibberís leadership. And finally, Pope comments on Cibber as a morally depraved artist, the very opposite of the poet as the creator of works that imitate the Godheadís ordered universe. Cibber is, in fact, the Anti-Christ of wit whose works are risible imitations of chaos and for that reason finally immoral rather than comic. In his works and at his bidding, Pope declares:
One need not entirely agree with Stanislaw Lem (p. 43) that the conventional narrative structures of SF have been so overworked as to become "fossilized paradigms" to perceive that certain plot configurations show up in the genre with embarrassing regularity.2 SF frequently celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, as personified by a hero of epic proportions, over seemingly impossible odds. However, Adamsís unlikely hero, Arthur Dent, is a bungling British Everyman whose heroic quest is confined to the search for a drinkable cup of tea. Whereas conventional SF depicts the Earthís discovery of or return to its rightful place as first among equals in the galactic community, Adamsís novels begin with the apparent destruction of the Earth and everything on it except two humans and two mice. The two humans to escape are, as one might expect, a man and a woman, and, one naturally expects, the two will eventually settle on some edenic planet where we can watch the author work out yet another version of the Genesis myth. Unfortunately, however, Trillian, the young woman, is in love with a two-headed three-armed extraterrestrial, and contrary to all established precedents, Arthur remains indifferent to her and to sex through the first three novels of the series. Contrasts like these between what one normally expects in the genre and what Adams offers could be multiplied at length, but the point is obvious enough. Adams is consciously reversing the conventions of the genre. The result is a good deal of humor as, time and again, the readerís normal expectations are disappointed. A more important effect of these reversals is that Adamsís novels become reflexive, commenting on the bankruptcy of the genreís paradigms and raising questions about the nature and function of the genre as it is understood in terms of the readerís response.
Given the present state of SF criticism, it is probably wise to begin any discussion of SF by admitting the dangers involved. Almost any generalization is liable to significant objection. Yet in regard to Adams at least, a generalization that James Gunn hazards is useful. In SF, he writes, "satisfaction is produced when the situation of a story is resolved in a way that the reader has not foreseen but recognizes as appropriate, even inevitable....Science fiction obtains its unique fictional response by dealing with characters whose situation has been created by change, and usually scientific or technological change" (p. 70). Gunnís emphasis on technological change as an essential characteristic of SF is shared among many other observers. Asimov has variously observed that "science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology," and that "societies changed by technological advance...is the hallmark of true science fiction" (pp. 82, 181). In addition to the emphasis on technological change, these and most other definitions share the premise that SF may be defined in terms of the readerís response, the satisfaction he or she derives from seeing how future societies respond to the way science and technology have evolved in the future. Although neither Gunn nor Asimov uses the term, they are talking about closure, and to understand its role in SF will greatly help clarify the way Adamsís novels turn into mock SF.
Ever since Aristotle declared that an aesthetically pleasing work must have a beginning, middle, and end, critics have recognized the importance of closure, the effect that the conclusion of a work has on the way a reader interprets what transpired in the beginning and middle. The modern concern with closure dates from 1967, when Frank Kermode published The Sense of an Ending, a work that still stands as one of the best studies of the way endings in fiction reflect the innate pattern-seeking tendency of the human mind. Kermode begins with a brief review of the apparently endless human preoccupation with apocalypse and concludes that endings in fiction reflect the universal human urge to impose patterns of order and meaning on experience by determining "how it all turns out." Since Kermodeís study, other critics such as David Richter (Fableís End, 1974) and Marianna Torgovnick (Closure in the Novel, 1981) - have shown how fiction writers contrive their endings to provide a sense of closure. These studies confirm the embarrassingly obvious conclusion that E.M. Forster reached earlier this century: fiction sustains a readerís interest by arousing and implicitly promising to satisfy his or her curiosity. The reader simply wants to know "how it all turned out" and in light of the fictive conclusion to understand how all of the events and characters are ultimately related.
Fiction writers since James, including many contemporary SF writers, however, have been suspicious of closure and prefer to write "open" fiction, works with inconclusive endings. The theoretical support for this proceeding is quite simple. As Martin Wallace has shown (pp. 83-84), modern theory holds that an author must minimize her or his obvious manipulation of the readerís response to character and plot. One way an author can manipulate the readerís response is to distribute rewards and punishments, but since any such ending represents an authorial intrusion in the work, it becomes theoretically undesirable; and villains remain unpunished while heroes go unrewarded, as in much "New Wave" SF.
In SF the problem is a bit more complex than it is in mundane fiction. As Gunn has observed (p. 70), anything that may be said about closure in other kinds of fiction obtains in SF as well. Asimovís SF detective stories end with the same kind of satisfying who-done-it revelation as in an Agatha Christie mystery, and Harlan Ellisonís stories may be as open as James Joyceís. But SF adds a further important dimension to this important feature. Most definitions of SF, as we have noted, remark that in their settings the works provide some sort of extrapolation from the present state of science or technology and that that altered environment conditions the terms of the conflict. SF, then, by definition will always provide what we might call ideational closure. That is, it will always provide a kind of ideogram of the future towards which the present is moving.
A few footnotes must be added to this generalization. It is applicable to intelligently written "soft" as well as "hard" SF. Most readers are not particularly disturbed by an authorís use of a conventional device such as faster-than-light travel even though it defies all presently established physical laws. Strictly "hard" authors like Robert Forward therefore avoid it because for them it destroys the effectiveness of ideational closure, but most readers are willing to accept a universe with faster-than-light travel as a reasonable extrapolation. Second, ideational closure may be taken as a characteristic distinguishing SF from fantasy. Any work that relies upon elements that defy the readerís individually-defined limits of reasonable extrapolation and hence calls for our "willing suspension of disbelief" is fantasy. Finally, it should be noted that ideational closure is not always a pleasant experience, as Gunn seems to claim. The future that SF extrapolates might well be unsavory, but the point is that SF, by definition, will always extrapolate some kind of reasonably believable future.
We may conclude, then, that SF, like all fiction, may provide closure in the traditional Aristotelian sense that it may end with a resolution of the tensions the plot creates among the characters. As in Niven and Pournelleís Footfall (1985), the good guys win, the bad guys lose (after taking a beating), and the loose ends are all tied up. But even if it ends without such a neat conclusion to its fictional elements, as modern fiction does, it will inevitably provide ideational closure; it will always provide the reader with a sense of "how it all turns out" where it refers to the process of social, scientific, and technological change we see occurring in the course of our everyday lives, and the work will provide a reasonably believable answer to the question of where we are headed.
Adamsís "Hitchhiker" series, as we have seen, has all of the trappings of conventional SF. In The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy (1979), we are led to expect all of the usual: the Earth is threatened; the hero escapes; he meets an escaped Earth woman; he is aboard a marvelously powerful ship. So far the plot summary sounds like that of any number of conventional SF novels. But as we have noted, in Adamsís hands none of the conventions work out in the conventional way; and as happens in the mock epic, the Hitchhiker novels consequently reverse the entire function of the genre. Writing about ideational closure, Lem has remarked: "It is the premise of science fiction that anything shown shall in principle be interpretable empirically and rationally. In science fiction there can be no inexplicable marvels, no transcendences[sp]...and the pattern of occurrences must be verisimilar" (p. 35). Adamsís novels, however, are a chronicle of aborted endings and inconclusive conclusions in the course of which the author does everything possible to outrage verisimilitude. After opening the novels with the apparent destruction of Earth, Adams establishes his characters in a setting aboard The Heart of Gold, a ship propelled by the infinite improbability drive, capable of taking the travellers to any time or place they care to visit.
Within the improbability field created by the drive, anything, no matter how outrageously unlikely, may occur. Thus, in Hitchhikerís Guide, the first novel in the series, the ship is attacked by two thermonuclear missiles. The characters escape by turning on the improbability drive, turning the missiles into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale which plunge to the surface of the planet below. In a setting like this, of course, absolutely anything can happen, and the supposedly orderly march of fictional events as well as our expectations about reasonable extrapolation and ideational closure simply evaporate. Curiously, or perhaps perversely, the novels begin with a sort of conclusion, the end of all human experience, but even this monumental closure is trivialized by the fact that Earth is casually destroyed by a construction crew preparing the way for a freeway bypass in hyperspace. Furthermore, we discover at the beginning of So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish (1984), the latest novel in the series, that the Earth still exists. Even so, some sense of closure could be achieved by the creation and resolution of dramatic tension; but Adams consistently undercuts even that possibility. For example, one of the most dramatic incidents in the first novel occurs when the ship is attacked by missiles from Megrathea[sp]. The characters count down the seconds until the impact and frantically try to evade the approaching enemy. But there is no drama in the event, for Adams tells us at the outset of the incident that the characters will escape unharmed (Hitchhiker 16:21).
Four major events in the novels might be said to arouse and then deliberately abort the readerís impulse toward narrative closure. In the first of these, a super-intelligent race builds a computer, Deep Thought, to answer the ultimate question of the "meaning of life, the universe and everything." The computer thinks about the problem for seven and a half million years and comes up with the answer of 42. This, clearly, is not very helpful, so, with the help of Deep Thought, the super-intelligent beings build another, still more powerful computer to find the question to which 42 is the answer. This computer, incorporating organic life-forms and called Earth, will supposedly solve the problem after ten million years of thought. Unfortunately, Earth is destroyed five minutes before it completes its computations, and the question to which 42 is the answer remains undiscovered. In the second incident, the characters travel through time to dine at the restaurant at the end of the universe. Here, shielded from the march of time, the diners can watch a floor show that culminates with the end of time and the universe as witnessed through a sky-light. However, the characters get variously drunk or bored with the sleazy emcee and decide to leave five minutes before the end of the show in order to avoid the rush. In both of these cases the readers are invited to witness the closure to millions and billions of years of experience, only to be disappointed by five minutes in each case.
A third, similarly anti-climactic event, occurs in So Long. Arthur goes on another quest to discover and read Godís final message to the universe. After a long trek through a desert on a distant planet, Arthur sees the huge letters in living fire that spell out the message: "We apologize for the inconvenience" (So Long, 40:201-02). The last incident in the novels is the story of a genetic engineer who creates an intelligent housefly, an incident that has nothing to do with anything else in the novels. Adamsís concluding sentence is: "There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chroniclerís mind" ("Epilogue," 204). With this incident and his comment on it, Adams abdicates his role as SF narrator; the incident denies narrative closure because it is unrelated to any other and therefore fits into no detectable thematic pattern. By the same token, it denies ideational closure because it contributes nothing to satisfying our curiosity about how the future might turn out.
We can better appreciate the violence Adams does to SF as a genre if we compare his work to another unconventional example of the genre, Kurt Vonnegutís The Sirens of Titan (1959). If Vonnegutís novel did not actually supply some of the ideas for Adamsís work, it at least offers some interesting and instructive parallels. In Sirens Earth is threatened, or appears to be threatened, by an invasion from Mars. The "Martian" ships are powered by a mysterious fuel, the Universal Will to Become (UWTB) (Sirens, p. 173). The main character, Malachi Constant, is, like Arthur Dent, an ineffectual anti-hero who is manipulated by forces beyond his control and understanding. As in Adamsís works, Earth itself and its civilizations are nothing more than an incidental and largely meaningless phenomenon in the greater scheme of things generated by a super-intelligent race of beings. In this instance Earth is little more than a message board rather than a computer. After many years of wandering, Malachi, like Arthur Dent, returns to Earth, where he finally realizes that the "purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved" (Sirens, p. 313). With that realization, Malachi dies, having fulfilled all of the strange prophesies[sp] with which the novel opens.
Perhaps the best summary of the theme of Sirens is contained in the legend about the evolution of the super-intelligent beings that secretly control Earth. Once their home planet was governed by human-like creatures.
But there are important differences between Vonnegutís and Adamsís works, and these extend well beyond the obvious one that Adamsís novels are far broader in scope, including all of time and space and all life-forms. Sirens, after all, has narrative closure; the main character fulfills all the bizarre prophecies made about him at the beginning of the novel, and those prophecies give the novel some sense of narrative direction. In addition, Malachi dies having learned a valuable lesson about the purpose of human life, and to that extent the novel does exactly what Lem argues SF should do: it "reports on mankindís destiny, on the meaning of life in the cosmos, on the rise and fall of thousand-year old civilizations: it brings forth a deluge of answers for the key questions of every reasoning being" (Lem: 59). In short, Sirens provides ideational closure in the most meaningful sense, although it is far from being "hard" SF. Adamsís novels, on the other hand, deny closure at every possible level. Instead of confirming that the phenomenal universe implies a meaning or purpose, they affirm its meaninglessness. Adamsís universe offers no detectable, rational pattern; in Lemís terms, it offers no "answers for the key questions of every reasoning being" and no "empirically and rationally explicable course of events."
Nowhere is this made more clear than at the point in Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) which expressly recalls the destruction of the bowl of petunias in Hitchhikerís Guide. Before it crashed to the planet below, Adams told us there, "the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again." "Many people," Adams adds, "have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now" (Hitchhikerís Guide 18: 134). With that the chapter ends, and we hear no more about the petunias until several hundred pages and two novels later when Arthur confronts a strange creature named Agrajag (Life 16: 113-29). Agrajag, we discover, is a transmigrating soul that has manifested itself in many life-forms over millions of years, and Arthur is directly or indirectly responsible for the death of every one of them. Agrajag was a fly he swatted, an ant he stepped on, a newt he ran over, a rabbit he killed for food, and -among other things- a bowl of petunias he sent crashing to its doom. Bent on revenge for all these pointless deaths, Agrajag threatens to kill Arthur, but he accidentally blows himself up and Arthur escapes.
The incident is interesting for several reasons. It is one of the few times that Adamsís implied promise of further information is actually satisfied in the narrative. We now know exactly why the bowl of petunias thought what it did, and presumably we should know "a lot more about the nature of the universe." And, in fact, if we think about it, we do. For Agrajag, Arthur is fate, his inescapable destiny regardless of time and space. For Agrajag, Arthur is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything; Arthur is "how it all turns out." Like any sentient being, Agrajag is trying to discover some meaning in his fate, and he can only conclude that Arthur must have some malevolent intent. As proof of this, Agrajag cites what Arthur has done to him in two of the previous life-forms he has occupied. Arthur kills Agrajag-as- rabbit for food, and when he returns to life as a fly, Arthur uses the rabbit- skin to swat him. That bit of poetic injustice particularly enrages Agrajag. All Arthur can do is insist that, so far from having any intent regarding Agrajag, he was not even aware of the creatureís existence. Agrajag refuses to believe him, on the grounds that life must make some kind of sense, and in an impotent fit of rage he blows himself up.
Agrajag, we may reasonably conclude, stands in relation to Arthur as the reader does to Adams and as humanity does to the Creator of the universe. Arthur, Adams, and God are the creators of the respective worlds which Agrajag, the reader, and all sentient beings are trying to understand. As the agent of Agrajagís coming to grief, all Arthur can do is apologize and disclaim responsibility; as the author of his readerís experience as a reader, all Adams can do is conclude his work by declaring that if it has a point he has forgotten it; as the Creator of the universe, all God can do is apologize for the inconvenience. Agrajagís experience with Arthur may be taken as a paradigm of the readerís experience with Adamsís novels and humanityís experience with Godís creation. Any attempt to make sense out of the creation at large is doomed to failure as surely as is any attempt to make conventional sense of Adamsís novels.
The full impact of what Adams is doing in the "Hitchhiker" novels may best be understood by returning momentarily to Pope and The Dunciad. For Neoclassical poets like Pope, art imitated nature in the sense that the author created a microcosm of the phenomenal universe, an ordered work with some internal pattern imposed on nature by its Creator. Bad poets like Cibber created a chaotic "world to Natureís laws unknown" where water runs uphill and whales sport in the woods. This whole theory of art depends on a firm belief that nature is in fact ordered, a faith that Pope and his contemporaries had recently seen confirmed in Newtonís Principia. That same faith is fundamental to SF, for its very existence depends on the usually unarticulated assumption that the universe is knowable according to the kind of probabilistic logic that informs all scientific theory. SF therefore confirms our faith in an orderly universe and provides closure. Adamsís "Hitchhiker" novels, however, are an instance of art imitating nature where nature has no order and where God and his counterpart, the creating artist, both must apologize for the mess things are in. Even Newtonís law of gravity, that paradigm of ordered nature, goes by the board when Arthur escapes from Agrajag by spontaneously learning to fly. In a burst of philosophical optimism, Pope opened his Essay on Man by inviting his readers to contemplate the universe as "a mighty maze! but not without a plan" (I:504). Adams, the writer of mock SF, invites us to contemplate a universe with no plan at all - a universe as open-ended as his inconclusive works are.
1. The Dunciad came out in 1728 with Lewis Theobald as the hero. Thereafter it appeared in various editions until the final, revised and expanded, edition was published in 1743 as The Dunciad in Four Books with Cibber as the hero.
2. The quotations from Lem all come from his essay "On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction" [trans. Franz Rottensteiner], except the last, which is taken from his "Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case - With Exceptions."
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy. NY: Harmony Books, 1980.
________. Life, the Universe and Everything. NY: Harmony Books, 1982.
________. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. NY: Harmony Books, 1980.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov on Science Fiction. Garden City, NY: 1981.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. NY, 1927.
Gunn, James. "The Readers of Hard Science Fiction," in Hard Science Fiction, ed.
George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rabkin (Carbondale, IL: 1986), pp. 70-81.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. NY, 1967.
Lem, Stanislaw. Microworlds, ed. Franz Rottensteiner. San Diego, 1984.
Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. NY, 1986.
Pope, Alexander. The Poems of..., ed. John Butt. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.
Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. 1959; rpt. NY: Dell Publishing, 1970.