The Null Device

Monty Python/Hitchhiker's Guide

Two more institutions of 20th-century Britain celebrate their anniversaries this month. It was 40 years ago today that Monty Python's Flying Circus first aired on the BBC. And almost exactly ten years later, BBC Radio aired an odd little radio play titled The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which encapsulated a Pythonesque sense of absurdism, a now quaint view of post-WW2, pre-Thatcherite Britain, and visions of futuristic technologies that, seen from today, are at once uncannily prescient and jarringly cautious, in the way that yesterday's futurism tends to be:
Within this handy framework, the Hitchhiker stories make up a sort of folk-art depiction, like on a tribal carpet, of the late-1970s English middle-class cosmic order. So there he is, the hapless Arthur Dent, in the middle, his maths insufficient to grasp even the first thing about his current position, in a county in a country, on a continent on a planet, in a solar system, in a galaxy, and so on. (Even now, the only way I can get the hierarchy right is by referring to the products of Mars Inc.) Except that the universe, 1979-style, would have seemed different from the one we know, and don't know, today, with space travel, in the years between the Moon landings and the Challenger disaster, both current and glamorous-feeling in a way it certainly isn't now. Tomorrow's World went out on the BBC every Thursday; Carl Sagan's Cosmos went out in 1980; cool space-junk was everywhere, Star Wars and Close Encounters, Bowie and P-Funk and the Only Ones. Relativity and the space-time continuum, wormholes and the multiverse featured everywhere in science fact and fiction, and were easily bent and twisted into the sort of paradox at which Adams's mind excelled – the armada of spaceships diving screaming towards Earth, "where, due to a terrible miscalculation of scale, the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog"; the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where you can pay for dinner by putting 1p in a present-day savings account, meaning that "when you arrive at the End of Time . . . the fabulous cost of your meal has been paid for".
Except that the Guide wasn't just a literary device, a concept. It really was a "Book", a thing of plastic, an actual piece of tech. It looked, we are told, "rather like a largish electronic calculator" – as such a device would have had to look in the 1970s, before iPhones, Kindle, Ernie Wise's Vodafone. On it, "any one of a million 'pages' could be summoned at a moment's notice" – what, only a million?, 21st-century readers object.
But there's a definite tea theme, and a lot of Englishness, and a distinctive note of piscine melancholy: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; The Salmon of Doubt. If Adams's books were a domestic appliance, they'd be a Sinclair ZX80, wired to a Teasmade, screeching machine code through quadraphonic speakers, and there'd probably be a haddock in there somewhere, non-compatible and obsolete.
I'm slightly disappointed that Google didn't put up a special commemorative logo.

There are 2 comments on "Monty Python/Hitchhiker's Guide":

Posted by: Greg Tue Oct 6 14:07:29 2009

Not happy. The criticisms made (quaint, dated, it's 1981-ness etc) are criticisms of the 'look' of the later TV and film adaptations, and are deserved. But they shouldn't be applied retrospectively to the original radio-play/book, which (as the article sometimes admits) was astonishingly radical and forward-looking. It was also deeply ironic, so criticizing Arthur for being like a sad middle-class Prince Charles, or pointing out that "Don't Panic" is similar to "Keep Calm and Carry On", is missing a pretty obvious point. I think the author has gotten some of his cultural history wrong too: the space-utopia of 1969, for example, was long gone by 1979. At the time of its release (or shortly thereafter when it arrived in Brisbane) I read H2G2 as a great joke, a thorough pisstake of stuffy old 1960s/70s grand-narrative hippy sci-fi (eg "Stranger in a Strange Land"), and at the same time a riposte to the Star Wars style fluff that was starting to appear. It was punk, before cyberpunk.

Posted by: alex4point0 Thu Oct 8 05:05:09 2009

Google were clearly saving themselves for this important anniversary ...

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