There’s This Book I’m Reading, Episode 5

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Douglas AdamsI read a lot of stuff. Much of it is for school, but when I can find the time, I like to read just for the fun of it, too, and I have always found that pleasure reading is just as intellectual and conveys just as much knowledge and school reading. For example, here is something I have learned through extensive pleasure reading: Douglas Adams was really clever. He was both a skilled writer and an all-around genius who either had extremely varied fields of knowledge or was very talented at using knowledge he didn’t even have. Either way, reading a book by Douglas Adams is both an enjoyable and an intellectual experience.

My familiarity with Douglas Adams’ writing is primarily limited to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. I actually hadn’t read those books until about the time the movie came out, which Google informs me was in 2005. That means that I was fourteen, (well, thirteen and a half; it was in the spring) and I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t already read the books by then. I knew that my father liked them and I seem to recall that he had recommended them to me on more than one occasion, but yet I somehow didn’t read them until there was a movie ready to be watched shortly thereafter. Given the fact that I have always considered myself to be a greater book-lover than movie-lover, I cannot justify the movie-centric priorities that I displayed as a thirteen-and-a-half year old. But this is unimportant, because the point is that I did in fact read the books and I loved them and have since read them many times and continued to love them every time.

Douglas AdamsThis blog post isn’t about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s about another book by Douglas Adams called Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Sadly, it is the only Douglas Adams book I have read apart from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but it has greatly reinforced and increased my high opinion of Douglas Adams and has reminded me that I must find and read more Douglas Adams books, particularly The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was written in 1987, which was three years after So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, (The fourth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book) and five years before Mostly Harmless (the fifth and last Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book). In many ways, most notably the writing style, it is very similar to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but it is certainly a book worth enjoying, admiring, and discussing in its own right.

Douglas Adams, like great British writers before him, (this is an allusion to Shakespeare, by the way) is remarkable for his skill in characterization. Not only are the characters memorable and interesting, but Douglas Adams is very good at realistically articulating the thoughts of apparently normal characters in ridiculous situations, ridiculous characters in apparently normal situations, and any kind of character in any kind of situation between the two extremes. If I was writing an unreasonably long paper arguing that Douglas Adams’ characterization is just as brilliant as Shakespeare’s, (Oh, why did I not think of that several months ago? That would have been such an awesome English senior seminar paper!) I could take several pages giving textual examples. But I am not writing a paper here and I don’t have a minimum length, but I do have a minimum amount of time to dedicate to this blog post, so I will instead stick to a couple characters in the book I am specifically discussing.

Apparently, there's a movie. I have not seen the movie, but I would like to do so at some point.

Apparently, there’s a movie. I have not seen the movie, but I would like to do so at some point.

Richard and Susan are both pretty normal people. They are talented and notably intelligent people, (Richard works with computers and Susan is a cellist) but they act and think more or less like any other Earth human who has never encountered extra-terrestrial technology or been faced with paradoxes of the space-time continuum. Richard is absent-minded and obsessed with his job; Susan is his girlfriend who wishes he would step away from the computer screen a bit more often. Richard is somewhat in trouble with his boss because he’s behind schedule on certain tasks; Susan is his boss’s sister who is annoyed that her brother leaves long rambling messages on her answering machine telling her to pressure Richard into getting his work done. But somewhere along the line, they get involved in a bizarre course of events that involves a murder and police investigation, a ghost, and inexplicable anomalies in the fabric of space and time, which Richard cannot solve with his computer simulations.

Then there’s Reg, an eccentric and absent-minded professor who reminds me very much of a certain professor I have had, except that Reg is even odder and his conversation is even more convoluted. Like the aforementioned professor, Reg is inherently likable, even though the reader can tell right away that there’s something extremely strange about him. If nothing else, it’s weird that he’s a professor and nobody knows exactly what his field is. The fact that his position is called “the Regius Professorship of Chronology” is a hint, but not a very specific one. Reg’s extreme absent-mindedness, which first appears to be a trait that Douglas Adams uses just for the sake of characterizing Reg according to a stereotype and adding an extra touch of humor, turns out to be part of the plot. That’s another thing about Douglas Adams; many of the most random and silly side-notes of the beginning of the story later turn out to be significant and incredibly brilliant plot twists.

And there’s Dirk Gently himself, a character who cannot be described in any way other than to quote directly from the book itself. When Reg casually mentions Dirk, formally known as Svlad Cjelli, Richard “wondered what had lately become of his former… was friend the word? He seemed more like a succession of extraordinary events than a person. The idea of him actually having friends as such seemed not so much unlikely, more a sort of mismatching of concepts, like the idea of the Suez crisis popping out for a bun.” Richard and Svlad had known each other as undergraduate students, during which time Svlad had spread the rumor that he was psychic by denying it far more vehemently than necessary and then failing to disprove it. This, as Douglas Adams emphasizes, is the best way to make up a convincing story. Now, Dirk Gently is a terribly unsuccessful private detective who believes in the interrelatedness of all things so strongly that he deems it necessary to go sit on a beach in Bermuda while working on a case concerning a missing cat. Dirk Gently is the kind of character who can spout off fascinating theories regarding Schrodinger’s cat that almost make sense in once chapter, admit that he was just saying that to be ridiculous in another chapter, and later yet, say profound and quotable things like, “It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto nonexistent blindingly obvious. The cry ‘I could have thought of that’ is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn’t, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too. This, if I am not mistaken, is the staircase we seek. Shall we ascend?” I left that last bit in there because I like it and intend to use it in regular conversation whenever possible.

Douglas AdamsThere are many other brilliant things about the book that I don’t have time to describe in any detail, such as the Electric Monk and Richard’s sofa that’s stuck in an impossible place on the stairs. One of the best things about Douglas Adams’ stories is those random details that seem so simple and/or humorous, but required an extreme degree of intelligence and creativity to write. And there are many other wonderfully quotable lines from the book that I don’t have time to quote. Another one of the best things about Douglas Adam’s stories is that they are rife with clever and quotable lines. But I think that the thing I like the absolute most about Douglas Adams is that his writing style is so memorable and even inspiring. Every now and then, I read over something I’ve written and notice a phrase or sentence that sounds a little like Douglas Adams, or even a group of sentences that express a very Douglas-Adams-esque idea. When Douglas Adams’ influence manifests itself in my own writing, those are the times that I am most satisfied with my writing, because he has set the standard to which I aspire. Maybe that’s a little funny, because in some cases, (obviously not the one quoted above) his wording and phrasing is so simple and vernacular and his ideas seem so natural. One reads Douglas Adams and thinks to oneself, “I could have thought of that!” But the fact is that one didn’t, and a very significant and revealing fact it is, too. This, if I am not mistaken, is the staircase we seek. Shall we ascend?

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Thoughts on Time Travel and Stuff

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Most movies or books that involve time travel deal with the premise that the time traveler can cause changes in the past that will affect subsequent events and alter the course of history. The movie Back to the Future is a perfect example of this. (Partly because it makes my point adequately, but mostly because it’s such an awesome movie that I just really want to mention it) By saving his future father from being hit by a car, Marty changes the circumstances of how his parents met. He then spends the rest of the movie plotting to ensure that his parents fall in love anyway so that he doesn’t fade out of existence. What the movie doesn’t mention is that, if Marty McFly ceases to exist, then he never could have gone back in time and messed things up in the first place, so his parents would have met, fallen in love, and gotten married just as they did before he went back in time. And then he would have been born and existed after all. But if he had existed, then he would have still gone back in time and his parents wouldn’t have fallen in love and he never would have been born and… Actually, let’s just stop this train of thought right here. It doesn’t matter whether or not the movie said anything about that because the movie is awesome just the way it is.

Anyway, that’s a pretty common theme in science fiction. Just off the top of my head, I can think of numerous books and movies and episodes of things like Star Trek and Doctor Who that have a similar theme. In my all-time favorite Star Trek episode, The City on the Edge of Forever, Captain Kirk and Spock must decide whether or not to save a certain woman (who Captain Kirk is, of course, in love with) because they know that if they make the wrong choice, the subtle alteration of history will result in World War II never happening and Hitler taking over the world. They just don’t know whether the woman’s death or the continuance of her life is necessary to stop Hitler. I think that one of the things I like most about that episode is that it acknowledges the fact that good guys from the future are just as capable of destructively altering events in the past as relatively normal people like Marty McFly, who don’t really understand what’s going on. As much as I love the show Doctor Who, I feel like it often unrealistically allows the Doctor to meddle in historical events without any affect whatsoever on the future. I can understand the concept that the history of the world as we know it has been shaped by an extraterrestrial time traveler, and that the only reason I didn’t know about all of the alien invasions in Earth’s history is that the Doctor already prevented them. I just think that if we’re supposed to think of it that way, they should explicitly say so more often. In all fairness, they do say so sometimes. The episodes Pyramids of Mars (an older episode with Tom Baker) and Blink come to mind.

This is similar to Douglas Adams’ explanation of time travel, which isn’t surprising because Douglas Adams was one of the scriptwriters for Doctor Who. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams neatly solves the problem by explaining that time is like a jigsaw puzzle. To paraphrase the general idea, the pieces fit together in the same way regardless of the order in which you attach them. If you alter the past, you aren’t changing anything about the present because the present is already there. Even if the things that you do actually do affect subsequent events, those subsequent events have also already happened, so nothing is actually changed. It makes sense if you think of time as being multi-dimensional, just like space, with an objective reality that applies regardless of where or when each individual is. If I pick up my chair and set it on top of my desk, that chair is on top of my desk regardless of whether you’re seven hundred miles away or standing right there next to me and wondering why the camaduka I want my chair to be on top of my desk. Likewise, if you go back in time to 1963 and shoot President John F. Kennedy, he’s dead whether I am also there in 1963 or here in 2012. (Please note that I’m not recommending that anyone go back in time to assassinate people. That would be evil. I’m just saying that if anyone were to go back in time and assassinate someone, the assassination has already happened)

This question of time travel’s role in cause and effect is one of the main ideas behind a book I’m reading right now, called Time and Again, by Jack Finney. I’ve actually read it quite a few times and I always really enjoy it. The book offers a theory which is essentially the same as Douglas Adams’ jigsaw puzzle analogy, although this book uses the metaphor of a twig in a river. The basic idea, though, is that time travel does not result in history being changed. However, the characters are just learning how to make time travel possible, so they aren’t actually sure about that, and that uncertainty is a central point in the book.

Douglas Adams’ theory of time is the one that makes most sense to me. For my own works of science fiction, I use a similar idea by assuming that time is three-dimensional. Maybe sometime I should write another blog post excplaining that. It works really well, because it sounds really technical and science-fictiony, but it makes the theory behind time travel so much more logical. If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts, you’ve probably noticed that I have a thing about making sense. I’m generally in favor of it.

As sad as I am to say it, I don’t really think that non-linear time travel is possible in real life. (Of course, we all travel in time linearly) Time travel serves an important role in fiction, though, partly because it’s really awesome and generally makes for a fascinating story, but also because the questions that it raises are actually relevant for regular linear time. In your life, you may never be faced with a situation in which you, like Captain Kirk, must make a choice that could result in Hitler’s successful conquest of Earthly civilization as we know it, but you will be faced with choices that could result in your failure or success in something, or that could affect details of other people’s lives in negative or positive ways. Like Captain Kirk, you might not have any easy way to know what the right or wrong choice is. Like the characters in Time and Again, you might not even know whether or not it’s really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but you have to be aware that it could be. Like Marty McFly, you might have already made a bad decision without even understanding why it was wrong. But maybe Douglas Adams is right about everything and whatever happens is just the way things are and we don’t need to worry about the subsequent effects. I say we should trust Douglas Adams on this one; Douglas Adams was a pretty awesome writer.

I’m the kind of girl who knows where my towel is

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Since this is my 42nd blog post, it seemed necessary to reference The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which tells us that 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  It doesn’t tell us exactly what the question is. Of course, as Deep Thought (the computer) says in the movie, “Only when you know the question will you know what the answer means”.  Despite having frequently read all five books in the trilogy (Book 5, Mostly Harmless, is known as the book that gave a new meaning to the word ‘trilogy’) and having seen the movie so many times that I know much of it by heart, I am not entirely sure what the significance of the number 42 is. One thing is for sure, though; it is definitely significant. But even though The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy doesn’t tell us the question for the answer to life, the universe, and everything, it does give us a helpful piece of advice: “It’s a tough galaxy. If you want to survive out here, you’ve got to know where your towel is.” My towel, incidentally, is hanging up next to the shower.

If this didn’t make any sense at all, you need to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and watch the movie by the same name, which was released in 2005. They might not make any sense, either.