Monthly Archives: November 2014

Douglas Adams

I took a very long break, but I’m hoping to be back. No promises or excuses offered.

This review is admittedly a bit out of date. I recently read the entire collection of science fiction written by Douglas Adams, who died quite young in 2001. I had read his first    four books back when they were current (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish). I recall them as being hilarious, but I wasn’t reading them with the same mind I now have.

The books are still hilarious. They are also written by a genius. However, they become disappointing.

Adams writes in the introduction to this compendium of 5 books that the story they tell   is self-contradictory, inconsistent, and basically just a mess in terms of organization. Furthermore, he points out that the radio show, the television show, and the eventual movie all disagree with one another and with the books. Interestingly, that really just expands upon the actual theme of his work.

The evidence of genius runs throughout his work. The humor is multilevel – enough of the silly and the nonsensical to make a child laugh, plenty of content to entertain the geeky teen, but also some rather deeper material that leaves the mathematician and the physicist both laughing and yet turning over the humor later in their mind and expanding upon the consequences of the ideas Adams throws out.

An excellent example is the Improbability Drive that powers one of the key spacecraft. The idea here is that due to quantum physics, the actual position of anything is only a matter of probability. I am most likely here in my house, but there is a finite, non-zero, but ridiculously small chance that I am actually in your living room. So, Adams imagines, suppose there is a fifth dimension of the Universe in which probability can be manipulated. And suppose we had the ability to travel in that dimension. If we knew the actual probability that I am in your living room, then we could travel the probability dimension until we were at that value, and suddenly I would find myself in your living room.

The idea does not hold up to close examination, but here are the implications used in the books. When we run the Improbability Drive, all sorts of insanity happens, and Adams uses that insanity to create masterful humor. Whales appear in mid atmosphere, people change into penguins, that kind of thing. But he can do more with this craziness. If we even have a limited ability to manipulate probability, as an early step in improbability research, we need only have an estimate of the probability of discovering how to create an improbability drive, and we can just move to that point on the probability dimension,  and we’ll have one!

I’ve had a similar notion about building a time machine, at least one that travels backward in time, and I’ll use it to prove that backward time travel is impossible (or, stealing Adams concept, at least extraordinarily improbable). If such a thing could happen, man will build one. If he builds one, he will use it. If it is used, it will travel backward in time. If it does so, man will see it and copy it to make a time machine.  In that way it creates itself. Since we don’t have time machines by now, they cannot be possible.

Adams also deals with the implications of time travel. Rapid and easy location travel has gradually homogenized cultures on Earth (not as much as some of us would wish, but it is true that the whole world knows McDonald’s and Coca Cola). Of course Adams immediately extends that to space travel making the Universe homogeneous (very inconsistently expressed throughout the books), but he also extends the idea humorously to time. He creates a society for the protection of history from time tourists, and laments that everywhen is beginning to be the same.

This kind of insight mixed with outrageous humor is Adams at his best. Another example is bistromathematics, fueling another form of spacetravel using the mathematics involved in settling a bill, including the tip, of a party of engineers eating in an Italian restaurant.  Add in the larger plot, if we can really call it that, of the Earth being an organic computer run by mice, who are really 5-dimensional beings, to answer the question of what is the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (the answer is known to be 42, but they don’t know the question), and mix in Gods last message to Man: “We apologize for the inconvenience”, and you see what we are dealing with from the mind of this genius.

But ultimately the very structure of the humor undermines the entire work. The theme is the built-in engine of the Universe being the source of nonsense. Adams universe has no rules, no order, no physics, no primacy of existence. As the end of the work approached, I was becoming uncomfortable with the idea that it may not come to any conclusion at all. Because Adams had died young, I was preparing myself to accept a non-ending. I have very deep ties to reading that engages me. I do not like endings that. leave loose ends, or that end miserably.

But Adams did not leave loose ends, at least not the bigger ends. Instead he took the very easy way out in the end, which is arguably the only clean ending nonsense can have. Everyone dies, and the great problem of the work dies with them.

So I do recommend the book. Mostly for teenagers, though the geeky adult will enjoy it as well. The geeky philosopher will, howeverm, get a great deal out of it, though it will wind up in the category of philosophical tragedy.

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