The Null Device
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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.
This just in: Eoin Colfer is the new Douglas Adams. Or, rather, the Irish children's author, best known for the Artemis Fowl novels, has been commissioned to write a new Hitchhiker's Guide book, to be titled "And Another Thing...". And so, the valuable assets that are Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and such live to be monetised another day.
In Portland, Oregon, there is a campaign to get 42nd Avenue renamed to "Douglas Adams Boulevard":
Of course, Douglas Adams was also an outspoken atheist, a position that's still considered controversial in America (though, apparently, getting less so, with sympathetic atheists appearing on TV shows such as House). If the majority of Americans would still be unwilling to accept an atheist holding public office, would they be willing to rename a street after one?
It will reflect Portlanders’ commitment to the arts.
It will reflect Portlanders’ respect for the environment.
It will reflect Portlanders’ desire to provide technological access to all.
It will reflect Portlanders’ passion to further education to all people.
It will remind all Portlanders’ the most important lesson in times of uncertainty and fear…
The Top Ten Sci-Fi Films That Never Existed takes apart what went wrong with various sci-fi films which did exist:
There was a movie that perfectly captured the Douglas Adams experience, the combination of bitter sarcasm and sharp imagination, the droll British wit and whale-exploding slapstick that infused his novels. And that movie was Shaun of the Dead. That movie was not, unfortunately, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a movie that floated around Hollywood for about 20 years before it finally appeared in theaters as a flat, lifeless, americanized lump that was mostly hated by people who liked the book and loathed by people who hated the book.
Everyone remembers the exact moment when they realized that their Phanom Menace sandwich was filled with shit. For me, it was the scene on Tatooine where Qui-Gon is talking and Jar Jar is snatching fruit from the bowl with his tongue, eating like an insect. Annoyed, Qui-Gon reaches out and snatches his tongue out of the air and holds it in his fist while he talks. That was when I realized I was watching a cartoon.
So what happened? The Chicago Cubs, that's what. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. Why? Because Cub fans sell out Wrigley Field every game, regardless of how bad the team is. Management makes money regardless of whether or not the team is winning, so why bother? Likewise, studios think video game fans will pile into the theater on opening weekend regardless of whether or not any effort was put into the film. Will that change? Come ask me after I've seen the Peter Jackson-produced Halo.
I have a theory. There are two eras for the Hacker Movie genre. Pre-Matrix, hacker movies were always horrible and always box office poison (see Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic) that only appealed to a tiny segment of geeks. After The Matrix in 1999, every hacker movie was unfairly compared to The Matrix (incuding that film's own sequels, but we'll get to that in a moment). In neither era could you get the money to make a movie like Snow Crash. If you want your $150 million monster to get made, it'd had better be something with such universal appeal that even grandmothers will go see it. No hacker movie will have that and Snow Crash least of all:
I finally got around to watching the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie.
For the most part, I enjoyed it. The new parts of the script, in many places did seem rather Douglas Adamsesque. The visual design and effects also worked rather nicely, giving the whole film a slightly cartoonish, Monty Pythonesque look. For the most part, the obvious concessions to the Hollywood story (the vogons becoming the main bad guys, as a film needs a villain, for example) were relatively unobstrusive, and the casting was quite apt. Except for two glaring flaws.
Firstly, the character of Trillian. In the books and other material, she was somewhat intelligent and rounded as a character. In the film, she is a vacuous bimbo; a shiny American-TV-show female character who looks and behaves as if she should have canned laughter after each of her one-liners, and, in actual personality, is little more than a plot device.
Which brings me to the second flaw: the way that Arthur's history with Trillian was fleshed out into a standard Hollywood romcom plotline, complete with schmaltzy dialogue (the scene about "the real answer" was cringeworthy), undoubtedly at the behest of some studio bean-counter insistent on following proven formulas to maximise audience appeal. I think the DVD should have come with an option to view a cut with the studio hacks' commercially-driven additions edited out (much like the Criterion box set of Brazil).
All in all, if one cauterises those memories from one's brain Zaphod-fashion, the film is quite enjoyable. I enjoyed it more than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the other (and weaker) cool-stylised-pictures film of this year.
An asteroid has been officially named in Douglas Adams' honour. The space rock Douglasadams, formerly named 2001 DA42, joins another asteroid named Arthurdent. In the same round of namings, asteroids were named after Mary Wollstonecraft, Ball Aerospace, genetics pioneer Rosalind Franklin and the city of Las Vegas.
Life imitates Douglas Adams: A NY Times piece arguing that global communication has sown conflict and enmity, rather than the new era of understanding it was supposed to usher in.
But at this halfway point between mutual ignorance and true understanding, the ''global village'' actually resembles a real one -- in my experience, not the utopian community promised by the boosters of globalization but a parochial place of manifold suspicions, rumors, resentments and half-truths.
Meanwhile, while we're on the subject of prematurely dead cool people and the meaning of life, the universe and everything, there may be a sixth Hitchhikers Guide novel, to be titled The Salmon of Doubt, and assembled from files found on Douglas Adams' Macintosh. Assuming that they can put something together from all the motley files and edits. (via Slashdot)
There is now an asteroid named Arthurdent; it was so christened by a German astronomer who identified it in 1998, and confirmed by the International Astronomical Union -- one day before DNA passed away. (via Found)
According to a hoopy frood named Clyde, May 25 is Towel Day. Those left disconsolate by the recent death of Douglas Adams are encouraged to carry a towel around.
(With all these tributes, Adams has probably gotten more publicity since his death than over the past few years. Part of me wonders whether he's not just spending a year dead for publicity reasons. In any case, he certainly had his fans.)
OK, two more things about Douglas Adams: firstly, Neil Gaiman has posted a short piece about him to his online journal; and then there's this piece he wrote about the Internet. He was a very canny fellow, and we'll miss him. (links via Graham and Jim)
Richard Dawkins' tribute to Douglas Adams. (via Graham)
A short biographical piece on Douglas Adams, who passed away on Friday.
Douglas Adams talks to Slashdot readers about life, the universe, the upcoming Hitchhiker's Guide film, and MAX.
There's an online Java version of the old Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure game on Douglas Adams' website. (via Hear Ye)