I was first told to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when I was a 13-year-old Boy Scout, about two years older than anyone should be a Boy Scout. My troop was on a camping trip to the Indian Echo Caverns, a tourist trap in Central Pennsylvania. It was typical in a Boy Scout troop that several scouts would stay awake with the camp fire until it had sufficiently burned out. I and four other boys sat around the embers as they slowly disappeared into nothing, remembering the beauty of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and exchanging the most juvenile of dirty jokes. However, just as I remembered a joke I had stolen from a Friar’s Club roast of Hugh Hefner, we witnessed bright flashes across the night sky. I have no illusions this was an alien visit or secret governmental projects, but it did steer the conversation toward the infinite cosmos and the strange things one may see with even just a glance upward. It was at this point an older Scout recommended The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy..
The five book “trilogy” is a bit rough to fit into a summary, but here’s a strong effort: After the destruction of Earth, the last male human (a hapless man named Arthur Dent) traverses the universe with Ford Prefect (an alien from the vicinity of Betelgeuse), Marvin the Paranoid Android, President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Trillian, the last female human. They have adventures both wacky and sincere, simplistic and philosophical, scientific and fantastical. They discover a mythical planet that makes planets. They chase a runaway couch through a prehistoric earth in an effort to return to the near-present. They visit a planet punished by galactical courts after said planet first discovered space then immediately deciding to destroy it.
While all of that may sound obsessively nerdy (because it is), the books expanded not just my worldview but my self-image. It is easily the funniest book I’ve ever read and the most profound, skimming as it does across a lake of existentialism, theoretical physics, and the drastic importance of towels. And while I flashed through any number of books throughout my adolescence, I consistently found myself returning to The Hitchhiker’s Guide in a massive thirst for every corner of its plots and sidebars. Each year I reread it, I find new jokes, new revelations, and a refreshed understanding of Life, The Universe, and Everything. I flew through Douglas Adams’ other works, and while they instilled a spherical view of his mind, few of his writings have accomplished for me what those first five books did.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide series regularly forces the reader to question the world around themselves. Adams was a fanatic about science yet not quite in the way most people think about science. The greatest venture one can take in understanding the physical world is helping others to do so as well. And while Adams was not a scientist himself, his devotion to making the topic approachable should put him in a similar class as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Bill Nye, Radiolab, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. However, far from breaking down topics into a simplified language, Douglas Adams wove in a signature sharp wit, bred as it was when he worked with Monty Python and Doctor Who.
There is a common distinction between “hard” science fiction and “soft” science fiction. While the hard science fiction authors like Gene Rodenberry and Arthur C. Clark constructed worlds with deeply thorough (and arguably possible) explanations for each fantastical element, authors like Ray Bradbury or Neil Gaiman have strung the dreams of children into their works. Bradbury, in fact, said it best when he classified most of his work as fantasy and only Fahrenheit 451 as science fiction because, he said, “science fiction is about things that can happen.”
Douglas Adams, unlike any other author, synthesized these two classifications into an intrinsically believable universe. While Adams painting of existence as a cold and cruel environment — crassly indifferent to suffering — can appear to many as too cynical, it is paired with a specific appreciation for the beauty of reality over the ignorant methodology most people utilize to survive.
Adams is perhaps best known these days for being an ardent atheist, even going so far as to use the word “radical”. As he put it, “It’s easier to say that I am a radical atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously.” And while I was well on my way to abandoning my parents’ Catholicism in favor of a logical questioning of an all-powerful deity by the time I had encountered his work, Douglas Adams taught me not to be an atheist but to simply open my eyes. The chaos of the natural world has encouraged mankind throughout history to seek out patterns, some existing and others not so much. But Adams treasured a full appreciation of the actual world, the world that can be seen, touched, and altered.
In the second book, The Restaurant At The End of the Universe, Adams creates a deliciously evil prison entitled the Total Perspective Vortex. Upon entering, the victim is subjected to the horror of seeing themselves in relation to the whole of the Universe, annihilating both the ego and the consciousness. Adams realized what was essential for the human mind to function: that “if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” While recognizing the sincere awe of our complicated reality, he also realized that no one could fully know the universe of their place in it.
And it is even now that I, much like that young Scout who sat on a broken log and secretly desired an alien invasion more than a decade ago, cannot begin to comprehend the fear of perspective. We are lost in the wilderness of our own ego as it slashes its way through an even thicker cosmology, battling off demons and gods alike. The man who taught me that was born 61 years ago, before man could fathom the surface of the moon, the language of aliens, or the eternal glory of digital watches. The importance of perspective is imparted upon few people well enough, and for those like Douglas Adams, there exists a terrifying urge to chase it, grab it by the throat, and beg it to destroy us.