Friday, December 4, 2009

Don't Panic

On the road yesterday, I was listening to the soundtrack from the film adaptation of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and it got me to thinking.

Awhile ago, while wasting the precious minutes of my life on Twitter or Facebook or some such thing, I was asked which fictional character I most identified myself with. Not taking nearly as much time to think about it than I would like to admit, I replied that I most identified with Arthur Dent from the Hitchhiker's series. It was an honest answer, and I quickly forgot about it and moved on to the next time-wasting social networking endeavor.

My answer to that question popped back into my head while listening to the film's soundtrack. It started to raise more questions in my mind? Why did I identify with Arthur Dent on a personal level? What was it about this decidedly unremarkable character thrust into amazingly remarkable situations that made me relate to him? For that matter, why was Douglas' Addams' Hitchhiker's series so popular in the first place? What was the appeal, to them and to me? It had to be more than just the humor, didn't it?

I gave it some thought.

Obviously, I can't speak for the millions of other Douglas Adams fans. But I think that what is most enduring and captivating about Arthur Dent's plight is that he bespeaks a universal truth; that most of us feel trapped in a world devoid of any real sense or logic. As much as we might try to build our little realities around us where everything makes sense and has a reason, the randomness and irrationalities of the rest of the world always manages to come crashing into our breakfast nook when we least expect it. Whether you find yourself watching the news, navigating a tax return form, or trying to get a permit to build a fence on your own property, it can be easy to find yourself overwhelmed by exactly how oblivious and illogical the real world can really be.

The Hitchhiker series embraces this troubled world view and elevates it to the next level. Most science fiction stories tend paint a tantalizing picture of a cosmos filled with technological marvels, sprawling utopias, and an almost endless number of mind-bogglingly intelligent races more than willing to tell the human race how stupid it is as a whole. A wondrous galaxy filled with answers, solutions, and simplified existences.

But is it only wishful thinking to assume that other the species potentially living among the endless stars might have a better grasp of common sense than we do? What makes us think that a technologically advanced species light-years ahead of us both mentally and emotionally wouldn't also manage to complicate their lives as thoroughly as we seem to? Would thousands of additional centuries of evolution actually erase the existence of bureaucratic red tape?

Douglas Adams was fond of claiming that he got the idea for the show while backpacking through Europe. One night while staring up at the stars, he would say that he idly wondered what it would be like to Hitchhike not just across a continent, but across the cosmos. While this story would change from time to time, it occurs to me that his original thought while gazing at the night time stars must have actually been "What if the rest of the universe is as screwed up as we are."

Its a good question, the horrifying answer to which became Arthur Dent's reluctant and seemingly never ending quest. Sometimes, it can be easy to feel as if you are trapped in that same bizarre reality, with no true escape of hope of sanity in sight.

So I guess that's why I identify with Arthur Dent. Because feeling like you are the only sane person in the galaxy is rarely a satisfying experience.

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