Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Hitchhiker's - and Humans' - Guide to the Galaxy

Currently Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I loved, loved, loved this book! It was SUCH a huge relief to read something so light and fun after the intense novels I had been reading (Slaughterhouse Five, Brave New World, The Sirens of Titan, The Giver, etc.). The contrast was even more distinct because pretty much everything I was reading was science fiction of some kind, choices made unintentionally. Instead of time traveling aliens who point out the futility of attempting to control fate or biologically controlled humans who don’t experience pain of any kind, this science fiction world is full of crazy, interesting, and good-humored aliens, including a depressed robot that cynically comments on every situation.

I give major kudos to Douglas Adams for his incredibly clever, humorous style of writing. I’m always amazed at authors who can write funny jokes in general, but the type of humor Adams writes I believe is especially hard to accomplish because a lot of it is sarcastic – a tone that has many advocating for a special font it’s so difficult to decipher in writing. I’m thoroughly in love with Adams ability to poke fun at typical science fiction and adventure stories, consistently undercutting the readers’ expectations. For example, when the main character, Arthur, finds himself randomly on a spaceship with an alien and then hears that his planet has been demolished, his reaction – which one would expect to be horror and sadness – is “levelly” and simply, “Has it.”

Perhaps I’m a little biased since sarcasm, mockery, and subverting expectations are all my favorite ways to create humor, but I really loved that reading this book was a little bit like reading the book form of a Mel Brooks movie or a Monty Python skit.

However, my favorite part of Adams’s novel has got to be – bizarrely – the way the Earth is completely bulldozed right at the start of the novel (so no spoilers here). I know it may sound weird and anti-planet to be glad that my world is destroyed with little or no regard for the citizens, but it seemed much more realistic than believing that some alien force would heroically stand in front of the space bulldozer to save the Earth.

Perhaps I’ve just been watching too much Doctor Who recently, but it has always bothered me a little bit the way science fiction books, movies, and TV shows seem to believe that the Earth is still the center of the universe. Sorry guys, that theory was disproved a long time ago. And yet, characters like Doctor Who seem to take a special interest in the Earth and the human race… As the character on The Big Bang Theory Amy Farrah Fowler points out, “For someone who has a machine that can travel anywhere in time and space, Doctor Who sure has a thing for modern day London.”

My Doctor (David Tennant) lighting the Olympic torch in 2012... doesn't get more modern day London than that. Also, really wish this had happened!
P.S. Let’s see how many nerd references I can fit into one blog post, shall we? I think I’m off to a pretty good start.

But I think Amy makes a great point! Ignoring the fact that the Doctor can travel in time, he can travel through all of space! An ever expanding, incomprehensibly huge place with probably infinite numbers of worlds, and Doctor Who continually comes back to save Earth? Really?

I understand that a lot of this is a matter of perspective and ease – it’s a lot easier for a man from London to write about London than to create a new world with new creatures every week – but think about it! We are just one planet in the solar system of one star in one galaxy in the universe. To put this in perspective a little bit, our sun is just one star in the Milky Way galaxy, which is estimated to contain about 200 to 400 billion stars and possibly upwards of 10 billion planets. Furthermore, the Milky Way is just one of approximately 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. And that’s just the observable universe! (By the way, I’m being a terrible scholar and getting these numbers from the Wikipedia articles on the Milky Way and Galaxy.)

Feel small yet?

As horrifying, depressing, and awe-inspiring a realization as it may be, our planet really is this small in the grand scheme of things. So I love Adams for not only putting Earth in its place, but for putting humans in their place. Do we really believe all alien life will think we are so special and interesting that they’ll adopt us and protect us like pets or something? Or that we are so intelligent that we will be the ones to constantly save the universe? I highly doubt we are the epitome of creation and evolution. Otherwise, I firmly believe we wouldn’t break so easily or get bug bites.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams laughs at this idea and instead has the Earth bulldozed to make way for an interspace highway.

Love it.

So take yourselves down a notch, humans. If there are other life forms out in the universe – and let’s face it, given the numbers, there probably are – they’re probably not going to think we’re that big a deal. In fact, our whole planet will most likely be described the way the alien hitchhiker Ford puts it in his guidebook, “Mostly harmless.”

Got to say, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this isn’t a stand-alone book. Now I just have to finish reading the giant stack of books I bought on my book buying binge so I can justify buying more…

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