Monday, 12 October 2009

Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?


Forty-Two.

Forever indelibly moulded into my brain-waves, this seemingly insignificant number provides the key to a wonderfully irreverant dystopian vision of the present day. Why 42? Well, quite simply, author Douglas Adams believed it to be the funniest number.

12 October 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of thepublication of the book The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (or H2G2), and sees the publication of another sequel in the trilogy, albeit not by the sadly missed Mr Adams, but by Eoin Colfer, with the blessing of the Adams estate.

And why is this interesting to steampunks? Good question - I am not the first SP to bring this up. In the UKs Guardian newspaper on 3 October, faced with the brilliance that is the Improbability Drive, or the Babel Fish, Jenny Turner notes that:

[Adams's] method is a bit like steampunk, in that it proceeds counterfactually, but with careful logic; or like steampunk, only without the steam. 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.
Whilst this seems a strain to try and fit a square SF story into a round steampunk hole, it should be pointed out that H2G2 fits into a strand of English fiction which deals with technology and apocalypse, but in a manner similar to that of John Wyndham or EM Forster, rather than HG Wells. The H2G2 series is reassuringly English, down to its use of cricket - "Particularly the bit about the little red ball hitting the wicket, that's very nasty" - as a metaphor for unspeakable acts which should never be spoken of in polite society:

"Of all the races on the Galaxy, only the English could possibly revive the memory of the most horrific wars ever to sunder the Universe and transform it into what I'm afraid is generally regarded as an incomprehensibly dull and pointless game.

"Rather fond of it myself," Startibartfast added, "but in most people's eyes you have been inadvertently guilty of the most grotesque bad taste."

H2G2 shares much in common with good steampunk writing, whilst admittedly lacking the neo-Victorian element. Adams, like Wyndham, dealt with disasters of global proportions on the personal level, through small-scale obsolescence and disappointment. Brian Aldiss has repeatedly termed Wyndham's writing as "cosy catastrophe", something seen throughout steampunk writing, and Adams' writing certainly fits this description. In H2G2 we see the personal disaster of Arthur Dent's home being demolished mirrored in the demolition of the Earth, both to make way for new bypaths for someone else's traffic. The genius is that Adams brought the inexplicable, the enormous and complex, the confusingly technical down to absurd simplicity - the complexity of the universe's languages simply translated as a by-product of sticking a small yellow fish in your ear - in a manner seen throughout steampunk. Who could forget the amazingly complicated steampowered machine of Doc Brown's blacksmith's shop, whose sole purpose is to produce two pieces of dirty ice for his drink (in Back to the Future III)?

Not perhaps the most obvious of steampunk writing, but H2G2 is underpinned with that same witicism which marks the best of steampunk, including that of Toby Frost, author of the marvellous Captain Smith series. Mr Frost chronicles the adventures of Captain Smith, hero of the British Space Empire. In the third in the series, Wrath of the Lemming Men,
his crew must defend the Empire and civilise the stuffing out of a horde of bloodthirsty lemming-men - which would be easy were it not for a sinister robotics company, a Ghast general with a fondness for genetic engineering and an ancient brotherhood of Morris Dancers...
What better praise for Mr Frost than from Dirk Magg, director of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy's Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential Phases...
Set in a universe where the suns never set on a stiff upper lip, this warm-hearted and funny interstellar romp gives the sacred cows of sci-fi a good kicking before racing home in time for tea.
Adams was never one for resting on his laurels (even trying to create an early version of the internet), always adapting to new environments for his material (until recently, radio was always the best place for an army of 1 million robots enter stage left) and was always desperate to see his vision on film. Although the film of 2005 annoyed many devotees with changed characterisation and story lines, I think he would have been pleased with the final result.
Mostly Harmless was the last in the original trilogy, and was Adams' method of closing down the seemingly unending series - Arthur knows he will die on the planet Stavro Mueller Beta - but Adams was unhappy with the manner in which he finished the series, believing it too depressing. He died (in a tragic, typically English, manner whilst exercising on a static bicycle) before he could produce a sixth book in the trilogy, and this is where Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing comes in.
The H2G2 universe has appeared in slightly different forms, with slightly different stories and conclusions, ever since first appearing as a radio programme in 1978. True to this tradition, the latest novel, And Another Thing, has been adapted for the BBC's Radio 4, and is read by comedians Stephen Mangan and Peter Serafinowitz.

If you have never heard of any of the things I have been writing about above, or if you have ever simply lain in a field, drunk, watching the night sky wheel about you, then, don't panic, but do the decent, civilised thing, and read (or listen) to The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy!