Tuesday, July 15, 2008

BOOKS- The Anthology at the End of the Universe

Douglas Noel Adams died about six months before the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. It would have been interesting to see what effect that event and subsequent related events would have had on his writing. But we’ll never know. As it is, we were left with the five book Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, a couple of Dirk Gently novels and THE MEANING OF LIFF (a book explaining strange place names) as his legacy. These books are mostly rooted in the world and politics of the 1970s and 80s.

But, you say, those books are Science Fiction.

Or, you say, those books are comedic.

Or, you say, who is Douglas Adams? (In which case you should just stop reading right now, dust off your internet surfing eyeballs, put on some pants, get in your car, and go directly to your closest bookstore to buy everything ever written by the man. The COMPLETE HITCHIKER’S GUIDE is a recommended omnibus edition which includes all five novels, a short story starring Zaphod Beeblebrox, comes with a nice leather binding- no doubt made from the skin of sentient cows that feel there is no greater use their integument could be put to- and is the approximate size and heft of a concrete block.)

It’s strange that there isn’t more humorous science fiction. When at their best both disciplines hold a funhouse mirror up to reality to let you see aspects that are usually tucked away from superficial examination. But both disciplines are notoriously difficult, making the fusion of the two at least difficult squared. Attempts had been made prior to the Hitchhiker’s Guide and since. Asimov tried comedy in a SF setting a couple of times. Fredrick Poul and Cyril Kornbluth made it a staple. Neil Gaiman has tried it and Terry Prachett has made a career out of it. But it’s hard to imagine anyone who could find as much comedy, pathos, insight, prescience, commentary, or downright laugh out loud humor per page as Douglas Adams.

The BenBella SmartPop book THE ANTHOLOGY AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE reminds us of this. It also reminds us just how much of a genius Doug Adams was. In one of the introductions to a Harlan Ellison anthology, Stephen King complements Harlan by saying that his voice is so strong that after reading Ellison’s work he has to be careful not to write like Harlan. The analogy he makes is that he’s like cottage cheese placed too close to something stronger in the fridge. The cottage cheese takes on the smell and taste of the strong odor it has come in contact with. It’s not that King is so malleable, it’s that Harlan’s voice is so strong that it overpowers the reader. I understand this since I have to be careful not to draw like Neal Adams after I’ve been looking at Neal’s work. His vision is so strong that it starts to superimpose itself on my own view of the world after being around it. Likewise Douglas Adams. Easily half the essays in the BenBella book SOUND like Doug Adams. I don’t even know if it’s conscious on the part of the writers. I hope it’s not, since if the writing is intended as pastiche it’s kind of lame. I think it’s actually that after re-reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide these writers are simply taking on the smell and taste of a stronger voice they have sat too close to for too long in the fridge.

Ironically, this happens more in the first half of the book and the more enjoyable essays are in the first half of the book. Right off the bat Mike Byrne nails the prescient yet completely relevant nature of much of Adams’ humor. He sights a passage by Adams where the evolution of radio controls develops from buttons and knobs to being controlled by mere gestures- requiring the listener to sit stone still while listening to avoid changing the program. Byrne is especially aware of this phenomenon because he is a PhD in psychology specializing in ergonomics. He immediately follows up this fictional situation with two real world scenarios that came years after it was written but that verify its veracity. First he mentions car stereos that have remote controls not because the face of the unit is out of reach but because the faceplate is so complex as to defy navigation in a moving car. Then he relates an experience with an early text editor that had such an arcane command structure that typing “edit” at certain points would delete the entire document (E-edit, D-delete, I-insert, T-the letter “t” which made the one level undo command superfluous). Anyone who lived through the transition to Windows 95, which moved the MINIMIZE, MAXIMIZE, and CLOSE to the upper right hand title bar of a window knows what I’m talking about. Adams had glommed onto a basic tenant of modern life a good dozen years early- that as systems become more complex, their usefulness seems to diminish. Any user of a piece of software through numerous generations is familiar with the idea that with each iteration new features are added yet old problems are never fixed. Byrne explains this as well.

Explanations abound in this book. Explanations of the significance of the number 42 (but none of why it is only 6x9 in base 13- an affront to basic number theory and bilateral symmetry at the same time), how quantum foam and loop-surfaces and semiotic (semi-odd? Ick!) explanations for towels can jibe in Einsteinian four-space, how Adams influenced computer science for two generations, why Wikipedia was an outgrowth of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, why you can read both the holy trinity and Zen Buddhism into the books, how everything you need to know you can learn from the trilogy (quintology?), why the human race is anything but “mostly harmless”, why it’s a bad idea for a woman to wear a transparent tee-shirt that says “Don’t Panic” on the front (mind you this was published before Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is little that mammals will panic over more than exposed mammary glands), why Adams’ writing is mired in an era that rejected 17 years of Labor party rule in Great Britain for the Margaret Thatcher/Ronny Raygun paradigm, and the most re-told joke in the whole volume:

“You know,” said Arthur, “It’s times like these, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space, that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”

“Why, what did she tell you?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t listen.”

THE ANTHOLOGY AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE is one of the best of the BenBella SmartPop books in spite of the fact that it falls flat half way through. I’ve said before that the worth of these books is directly proportional to the worth of the subjects covered and here is the exception that proofs the rule. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a soaring pinnacle in humorous SF and a rarely equaled accomplishment in either genre separately. But even half a book dedicated to such a worthy tome is better than a whole book dedicated to a lesser accomplishment. This book stands at the top of the SmartPop heap with BATMAN UNAUTHORIZED so far.

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