Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Mostly harmless

Recently read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I'm probably treading on thin ice here, talking about a revered piece of pop culture. When I was in college, Douglas Adams had a cult following that knew all the jokes and could quote them to each other. Read more . . .

I find myself in a middle ground. I was first exposed to Hitchhiker's Guide when it ran as a BBC radio serial (I heard it on NPR, I think). It got a some laughs out of me, and I enjoyed it, but it didn't inspire in me the kind of devotion that it did in other geeks.

Having read the first book, I have to say the radio series is my favorite. Playing as a serial, the gags are front and center. Read as a novel, the book seems a little pointless.

That said, a lot of the jokes are still funny. Adams was a vocal atheist, and at his best he has the satiric touch of a Voltaire. He also enjoys skewering atheists in his book: Oolon Coluphid, the atheist writer that Adams posits as "the author of philosophical blockbusters," seems quite pretentious and silly, at least in his choice of book titles.

Occasionally, there is a true insight that is nicely played for a joke. My favorite revolves around the babelfish, a fish that is used a universal translator. When a babelfish is placed in one's hear, one can hear and understand the words spoken by another, regardless of the original language spoken. The end of Adams digression on the babelfish ends with the acidly ironic observation that the babelfish is responsible for more wars than any other species in the universe.

(John Durham Peters, author of this book on communication, makes the point that we often hold an implicitly utopian view of communication, believing that differences between people will automatically be resolved with better communication, whereas sometimes the truth is the opposite: the better two groups of people understand each other, the less they like each other.)

I place Adams in the same category as Kurt Vonnegut. They're both writers that have a special appeal to the young, to high school and college age readers. They both write satirical, absurdist fiction in which the skewer traditional beliefs and middle class norms. Adams tends to be more detached, more bemused, less pointed, passionate, and angry than Vonnegut. In some ways, that makes him easier to take. On the other hand, I don't think he's as compelling, for the same reason.
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