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‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ by Kurt Vonnegut. Sort Of

Don’t judge. There was a lot of coke-fueled art back in the ’70s.

I cred­it (or blame, as the case my be) my friend Todd and my friend Rob for turn­ing me on to The Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the GalaxySo let’s talk about Kurt Von­negut.

Von­negut1 was one of those impor­tant authors who make you feel vague­ly guilty, giv­en that you’ve nev­er read any of his stuff except maybe Slaugh­ter­house-Five. And while some of his stuff is dystopi­an or mild­ly sci-fi, where do I get off say­ing he, not Dou­glas Adams,2 is respon­si­ble for a sprawl­ing sci-fi epic like The Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy?

Stay with me here: In 1965, Von­negut pub­lished God Bless You, Mr. Rose­wa­ter, which includ­ed a lengthy excerpt from a fic­tion­al nov­el titled Venus on the Half-Shell, by a fic­tion­al author named Kil­go­re Trout.3

Kil­go­re Trout showed up fre­quent­ly in Von­negut’s work as a lit­er­ary alter ego for Von­negut him­self, but Trout’s name was also a poke at Von­negut’s friend, sci-fi author Theodore Stur­geon:4I think it’s fun­ny to be named after a fish,” were Von­negut’s exact words (he may have been a great writer but appar­ent­ly part of him nev­er left mid­dle school).

Anoth­er sci-fi author, Philip Jose Farmer,5 was so amused he snagged the Venus on the Half-Shell excerpt in God Bless You, Mr. Rose­wa­ter and fluffed it up into an entire book.

And so, in 1975, Venus on the Half-Shell hit the book­stores, just three years before The Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy began on BBC Radio. The byline read Kil­go­re Trout, but the author was real­ly Philip Jose Farmer, using char­ac­ters cre­at­ed by Kurt Vonnegut.

Got all that?

What does this have to do with Dou­glas Adams or Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy? Adams was a huge fan of Von­negut, for one thing. That’s not tan­ta­mount to pla­gia­rism, of course. But if you’ve ever read, lis­tened to or watched Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll notice some star­tling parallels:

1. The Everyman Galactic Wanderer

Some­one for­got to explain this to the cov­er artist.

Both sto­ries fol­low the adven­tures of an every­day schlub snatched from his every­day schlub’s life into an inter­galac­tic adven­ture. HHGTTG stars Arthur Dent, who worked in a small radio radio sta­tion before roam­ing the cos­mos in a bathrobe.

VOTHS, on the oth­er hand, stars Simon Wagstaff, a folk musi­cian who likes wear­ing fad­ed jeans and com­fy old sweat­shirts. He has curly dark hair, a big nose and looks a lot like Kurt Vonnegut.

2. The Earth Gets Destroyed by Bureaucrats

When Hitch­hik­er’s Guide begins, Arthur Dent is lying in the mud in front of his house, block­ing the bull­doz­ers that have shown up to demol­ish his house. At the begin­ning of Venus on the Half-Shell, Simon Wagstaff and his girl­friend are hav­ing sex on the head of the Sphinx in Egypt.

Oh. This would be a good place to explain that accord­ing to Von­negut, Kil­go­re Trout was a hack who wrote a lot of thin­ly-dis­guised porn and was pub­lished most­ly in adult magazines.

And Philip Jose Farmer was the per­fect ghost writer for Trout, giv­en that Farmer’s favorite themes were sex, reli­gion, aliens, sexy reli­gion, alien sex, reli­gious sex, sexy reli­gious aliens, alien reli­gious sex, sex as wor­ship, alien sex wor­ship, wor­ship­ful sex with aliens—you get the idea.

Any­way, Arthur and Simon are both mind­ing their own busi­ness when aliens show up and destroy the Earth: The Vogons blow the Earth out from under Arthur to build a hyper­space bypass, while in Venus on the Half Shell, the Hoonhors decide Earth is too pol­lut­ed and clean things up by trig­ger­ing a world­wide flood, a la Noah. Turns out they cleaned up Earth a few thou­sand years ago already but are unhap­py things are already so dirty again.

Arthur man­ages to snag a ride on a Vogon ship and lat­er winds up roam­ing the galaxy on a ship called Heart of Gold, which was stolen ear­li­er by one Zaphod Bee­ble­brox, looks like a giant run­ning shoe, and is named after a Neil Young song.

Con­verse­ly, Simon leaves Earth on a Chi­nese ship chris­tened Hwang Ho, which looks like a giant chrome penis and is named after the Yel­low Riv­er (remem­ber what I said about Philip Jose Farmer being a religious/alien sex fiend?).

3. Pursuing the Ultimate Question With Neurotic Robots in Stolen Spaceships

So! Now we have a cou­ple of hap­less doo­fus­es roam­ing the galaxy in stolen space­ships after the Earth was destroyed by alien bureaucrats.

Arthur is trav­el­ing with a small hand­ful of human and alien friends, plus a neu­rot­ic robot named Mar­vin, who resents being a low­ly main­te­nance robot when he has a brain the size of a plan­et, and Eddie, a ship­board com­put­er who tries way too hard to be cheerful.

Simon’s on the go with Anu­bis and Athena, his dog and owl, plus a neu­rot­ic robot named Chor­wk­tap, who has free will and far too much intel­li­gence to enjoy being a sex robot (this does­n’t stop her and Simon from hav­ing lots and lots of sex any­way–ref. P.J. Farmer, the sci-fi sex fiend author, again). Tzu Li, the Hwang Ho’s com­put­er, is just a com­put­er, despite Chork­tap spend­ing all her free time try­ing to prove Tzu Li is self-aware but shy.

Our heroes have the fastest space­ships ever made and a uni­verse to explore, so they set out for some answers:

“What’s the ulti­mate answer to, you know–life, the uni­verse and every­thing?” Arthur wants to know.

Simon’s ques­tion is this: “Why were we cre­at­ed only to suf­fer and die?”

4. The Genius Vermin Secretly Running the Show

As they trav­el and enjoy var­i­ous hijinks in pur­suit of the truth, Arthur and Simon dis­cov­er the Vogons and Hoonhors are just what they appeared to be at first glance: Clue­less, care­less and cal­lous bureau­crats. It turns out there are mas­ter­minds behind the scenes who have been run­ning things all along, hyper­in­tel­li­gent beings every­one mis­took for harm­less or annoy­ing ver­min. They don’t real­ly mean Arthur or Simon any harm, but they aren’t exact­ly nice to them either–the ver­min mas­ter­minds, it turns out, are using Arthur and Simon as part of exper­i­ments to answer the same ulti­mate questions.

In HHGTTG, Arthur dis­cov­ers mice are the most intel­li­gent beings on Earth. They’ve been manip­u­lat­ing sci­ence all along while pre­tend­ing to be lab­o­ra­to­ry test sub­jects; in real­i­ty they’re pur­su­ing the answer to life, the uni­verse and everything.

I have to drink beer for all eter­ni­ty with cock­roach­es?

Meh. I’m fine with that as long as we don’t have to share glasses.

Simon, on the oth­er hand, dis­cov­ers a myth­i­cal alien race called the Clerun-Gow­ph, who acci­den­tal­ly pop­u­lat­ed most of the uni­verse with messy sci­en­tif­ic out­posts that dumped waste prod­ucts into the pri­mor­dial soup of the plan­ets they were study­ing. And the Clerun-Gow­ph, Simon is shocked to learn, are cockroaches.

This is a huge blow to the ego: Arthur dis­cov­ers he’s noth­ing but a test sub­ject in an exper­i­ment run by lab­o­ra­to­ry mice, while Simon real­izes all life on Earth is just, as he puts it, the end of a process that start­ed with cock­roach crap.

5. The Planet-Sized Computer

Every seek­er of truth needs an Ora­cle, and our heroes are no excep­tion. In HGTTG, it seems Earth and all life on it were an enor­mous com­put­er built in pur­suit of the answer to life, the uni­verse and every­thing (I know, I know — it was built to specif­i­cal­ly help ask the ques­tion after anoth­er giant com­put­er gave an accu­rate but use­less answer — the point is that the whole plan­et is a computer).

When Simon, on the oth­er hand, final­ly meets the Clerun-Gow­ph, he dis­cov­ers they built a plan­et-sized com­put­er to answer all the ques­tions there are. Hav­ing noth­ing left to dis­cov­er or learn, they decide to quit exploring/fertilizing the galaxy and devote them­selves to drink­ing beer.

6. The Useless answers (spoiler alert!)

At long last, our pro­tag­o­nists are about to learn the ques­tion to their ulti­mate ques­tions. The prob­lem is that in both cas­es, the answer is useless:

  • Arthur’s ques­tion: “What is the ulti­mate answer to life, the uni­verse and everything?”
  • Answer: “42.”
  • Pos­si­ble alter­nate answer: “We apol­o­gize for the inconvenience.”
  • Simon’s ques­tion: “Why are we cre­at­ed only to suf­fer and die?”
  • Answer: “Why not?”

Don’t give me that look. I said they were use­less answers, did­n’t I?

  1. Who has, alas, shuf­fled off this mor­tal coil, but who is also, Saint Caje­tan ever bless me, unable to sue me.
  2. Who has, alas, passed for­ev­er beyond the glass dark­ly, but who is also, god­speed, unable to sue me.
  3. Who, alas, nev­er exist­ed, but who also, may God ever make His face to shine upon me, was nev­er able to sue me, be he alive or be he dead.
  4. Who, alas, is once more the ash whence he came, but who also, may his flagon of ale in Val­hal­la ever be full, unable to sue me.
  5. Who, dagnab­bit, done went and bit the big one, but Lord will­in’ an’ the creek don’t rise, ain’t gonna sue me.

3 Comments to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ by Kurt Vonnegut. Sort Of

  1. Benoît Côté says:

    Typo: “Con­verse­ley” — strike that last ‘e’, would you?

  2. Scott Zaboem says:

    Inter­est­ing analy­sis indeed, I had nev­er heard of Venus on the Half Shell until now.

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