Today’s a special day in Geekdom. It’s Geek Pride Day (for Star Wars fans), Towel Day (for Douglas Adams) and the Glorious 25th of May (from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) – a delightful coincidence that means only one thing in the NGT office: a chance to salute Adams, that pioneer of space travel writing, for The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, a series of books on intergalactic adventures in which a motley crew of humans and aliens whirl through the galaxy and its perils armed only with some luck, an Improbability Drive and, of course, their towels.
Thanks to Adams, travellers will never underestimate the importance of carrying a towel. As the books attest, “any man who can hitch the length and breath of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.” And another thing – “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta, you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours;…you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”
As fans of The Hitchhikers series, we decided to celebrate today with a little tribute: cosmic postcards from one of our favourite characters, Marvin, the eternally depressed and paranoid android, as he goes vacationing across the galaxy.
I don’t know why I’m bothering with this postcard; it’s not like you will care to receive it anyway. I’m on a rock deep in the Horsehead Nebula (Call that an imaginative name? Because I don’t.) called Magrathea and it is light years worse than I imagined. Not that I’m surprised. Like everything else in this forsaken galaxy, Magrathea is a giant bore.
I came here because of the planet’s reputation of hosting and building alarmingly brilliant computers. My systems were tired of engaging with the dim-witted beings of this galaxy and I yearned for peers I could have a conversation with. Plus, Magrathea is believed to have built one of the greatest computers ever built in the history of the cosmos – your home planet, Earth – so you can understand why I came here with some positivity, in itself a monumental challenge. I should have known better.
It’s a terribly icy, barren grey piece of rock, this planet, with no landscape to speak of. And no super computers of any sort. Apparently, Magrathea’s biggest industry used to be building fabulously expensive, luxury planets for the galaxy’s richest. But it shut down during the Great Galactic Stock Market Crash of Nobody Cares When. With no orders coming in, Magratheans decided to go into hibernation underground and so now the planet appears to be dead. Just like my optimism circuits.
The inhabitants here are horribly unfriendly and didn’t appreciate being woken up after five million years; they welcomed my spacecraft with nuclear warheads. But the Improbability Drive on the ship turned one of the missiles into a whale that had a fleeting life before smashing into Magrathea’s surface and bursting into a thousand little chunks of red blubber. At least the planet now has a crater and some colour to break its monotonous landscape.
Apart from the Magratheans, I met a pair of talking white mice – they’re actually hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings – that seemed quite thrilled when they found out I knew you, a human. They kept trying to convince me to bring you to the planet. I told them to let me compute the question given my unparalleled intellect, but they kept shooting me down and asking for you. Has my intelligence actually diminished? Is this what happens after three million years of brilliance?
I don’t want to spend more time writing about this dull heap. I am on holiday and all this hostility has made me weary. I am going to shut down for a bit.
Yours sincerely, or not. It doesn’t really matter,
URSA MINOR BETA
There are few planets in the galaxy that make me loathe life more than Ursa Minor Beta. It is absolutely appalling. All sub-tropical coastlines, pale golden beaches, eternal sunshine and a weather system that makes every day a lazy, sunny Saturday afternoon. There is nothing worse than good cheer when it isn’t called for. For thoroughly depressed androids like me, it’s enough to cause my tolerance circuits to explode.
They say that the sun shines brightest over the planet’s Light City (there’s another uninspired name!), illuminating its swimming pools and palm-lined boulevards and bouncing off rich villas in the most unflattering manner. When the people here tire of their afternoon siesta, they head over to the Lalamatine district that, unlike the rest of Ursa Minor Beta, always experiences a cool early Saturday evening breeze. Is it too much to ask that a planet pick one weather system and stick to it?
It has been said, “When you are tired of Ursa Minor Beta you are tired of life.” That’s not true. I’ve been tired of life from the moment I was switched on – UMB isn’t even worth my ennui.
You might like it here. But I can’t concentrate on this postcard with these ghastly peals of laughter around me.
Your electronic sulking machine,
MILLIWAYS, THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
If, like me, you can’t stand sounds of wonderment and awe, avoid Milliways. By manipulating space and time with its Time Turbines, Milliways manages to exist in the moment when the universe puts on one final pyrotechnic display as guests dig into what would be their last supper, before being whisked back to safer times.
I don’t know why anyone would choose to come here. The decor is ghastly. I’ve seen the evening’s meat walk up to a table and tempt you to order parts of its body – “Can I interest you in my rump braised in a white sauce?” Everyone recommends the Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters but only if you want to feel like your brain was smashed by a lemon wrapped in a gold brick. I’ll pass, thanks.
The most annoying part of Milliways is its host, Max Quordlepleen. Every single evening he has the same spiel: “For those of you who ever hoped to see the light at the end of the tunnel, this is it,” and “You don’t need to worry about a hangover in the morning – because there won’t be any more mornings!” My vision circuits hurt from all the eye-rolling.
If you’re looking for a place to eat, I’ve heard The Big Bang Burger Bar at the other end of the universe is worth a shot. But be warned, Quordlepleen works the lunch shift there.
The last time I was on Squornshellous Zeta, I decided that I would work on being more positive and tolerant of intellectually inferior life forms. It was going well. I was on friendly terms with the local etymologists (they’re all loony) and was enough of a celebrity to be asked to unveil a sparkling bridge across SZ’s swamps. But the circuits that enable me to lie weren’t working that day and so, in my speech, I honestly told everyone that I hated them. I then plugged myself into the bridge hoping to use its computer to fix my own circuits, but I guess I didn’t know the strength of my own pessimism – the bridge promptly folded into itself and sank into the marshes, taking everyone along with it.
I recently returned to try and muster up some optimism and see what had become of the planet. I was not surprised to find that nothing of significance had occurred. It was still all mist-laced marshes inhabited by alarmingly stupid mattresses, all called Zem. What is it with this galaxy and unoriginal names?
I was unfortunate enough to encounter one of these Zems and decided to make the best, whatever that is, of the situation. “How are you, Zem, so happy about life when all your future holds is being caught, slaughtered, dried and slept on?” I asked it.
“What is life?” it replied.
“Well, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything is 42.”
“What is 42?”
“What is a number?”
“An arithmetic value, expressed by a word, symbol, or figure representing a quantity.”
“What are “value”, “word”, “symbol”, “figure” and “quantity”?”
You can see how this conversation was spiraling uncontrollably. How do such simpletons exist in this galaxy? And if a tiny brain can feel self-actualised, why have I been burdened with such brilliance? I hate having my paranoia circuits activated by the rampant idiocy of this cosmos. I’m going to shut down now.
I don’t wish you were here,
If you’re looking for the source of wisdom and truth (like many of your kind) and are pointed towards the planet of Hawalius in the Eastern Rim of the galaxy, abandon ship. Your guides are lying, like almost everyone else.
What used to be thriving grounds for oracles, seers, soothsayers and delicious take-away pizza joints is now nothing more than desolate, rundown villages full of crackpots. Make sure you avoid the batty old oracle who has the solar-powered photocopier. She says she’s predicting your future but all she does is hand out Xeroxes of her life decisions and tell you to do the exact opposite of what she did, so that you don’t end up like her. Fat lot of foresight that is.
I was exploring a village that was full of 30ft-high wooden poles with platforms at the top. I was told that the place was deserted but discovered an ancient seer atop a pole. I asked him to look into my future and tell me what he saw, though I already know what is going to happen, thanks to my gigantic brain. “It’s not very good, I’m afraid,” he began, and proceeded to tell me something that made my core chip plunge into my mid-region wiring. “It seems that, while travelling through the nether regions of Sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, your spacecraft’s Improbability Drive will be activated, transforming you into a 1997 Philips Sandwich Maker for the rest of your life.”
I’d rather spend the rest of my life talking to stupid Zems than be the thing that you put your soggy bread in,
The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams, is published by Pan Macmillan and priced at ₹599. This piece has been written with due permission from the publishing house.
Published on National Geographic Traveller India – May 2015
Illustrations: Harshad Marathe