Contented Reader

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Life, the Universe and Everything

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Life, the Universe and Everything

Douglas Adams


I know I’m not the first person to notice it, but Douglas Adams really was something very close to a genius.

But what I didn’t realize until today is that Life, the Universe and Everything might be his best book.  I always just assumed it was either The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because it’s the most well-known book, or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I just think is brilliant.  But now, resting on my sofa (not a Chesterfield) after finishing re-reading this book for the I-can’t-even-begin-to-guess-how-manyth time, I think this might be the work in which he achieves a perfect blend of entertainment and the communication of a serious point about the absurdity of existence and the tragedy of human limitations.

It’s all about the people of Krikkit.  The people of Krikkit could be a criticism of the United States.  Or it might describe Nazi Germany.  I read it in 2012 and think of the harm caused by the kind and well-meaning people of fundamentalist Christianity as it is currently practiced.  Or fundamentalist Islam.  Or any of the many groups of nice people who have decided that the world will be so much better once everyone is like them.  It is timeless and universal, because it describes what happens when people who are used to seeing only people like themselves encounter people who are profoundly different- and what happens, usually, is fear, followed by an immediate need to eliminate the Other.  And that is something that has happened so many times that it’s a cliche.  It’s why we should not look forward to any encounters with extraterrestrial life… which may well treat us the way my ancestors treated the Seneca and the Delaware.

In the people of Krikkit, Adams boils down this bug in the human brain to a society that had no visible stars in its sky, and thus had no idea that the universe existed, until a spaceship crashed onto their planet, and they build a copy of it to investigate where it came from.

The darkness of the cloud buffeted at the ship.  Inside was the silence of history.  Their historic mission was to find out if there was anything or anywhere on the other side of the sky, from which the wrecked spaceship could have come, another world maybe, strange and incomprehensible though this thought was to the enclosed minds of those who had lived beneath the sky of Krikkit.

History was gathering itself to deliver another blow.

Still the darkness thrummed at them, the blank enclosing darkness.  It seemed closer and closer, thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier.  And suddenly it was gone.

They flew out of the cloud.

They saw the staggering jewels of the night in their infinite dust and their minds sang with fear.

For a while they flew on, motionless against the starry sweep of the Galaxy, itself motionless against the infinite sweep of the Universe.  And then they turned around.

‘It’ll have to go,’ the men of Krikkit said as they headed back for home.

On the way back they sang a number of tuneful and reflective songs on the subjects of peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life and the obliteration of all other life forms.

If there’s one central theme of the Hitchhiker books it’s that.  That more knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes, that most people inhabit tiny worlds of their own creation and cannot cope with the knowledge of what lies outside of those tiny worlds, and that, in the end, people are so powerless to do anything about the absurd and interconnected vicissitudes of the universe that the only chance of happiness is to find someplace small and focus on the little pleasures of right now, always knowing that our world is impossibly tiny and fragile.

The first time I read this book, I wouldn’t have agreed with that idea, though I loved the book from the first time I read it.  But the older I get, and the more I see of the world and of human behavior, the more I think that’s just about right.


Written by Contented Reader

January 7, 2013 at 10:00 am

Posted in Reviews


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