Zaphod Beeblebrox invented your future

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Photo credit: wikipedia)

So, who invented the Kindle, the little electronic book that is transforming the way we read and laying waste to the traditional publishing industry? Rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the other day, I was suddenly struck by the thought that, in a way, it was Douglas Adams.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for anyone who hasn’t read it, is a satire in which the Earth is demolished by aliens to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and one human, Arthur Dent, is rescued by a friend of his who happens to be an alien researcher for a sort of Lonely Planet guide to the galaxy. I’m not talking about the dreadful Hollywood movie version here, but the books.

I had expected, going back to the first book, to find it all terribly dated. I thought the humour would be undercut by being set against descriptions of technology that sounded hopelessly steam age compared to our own advances.

Instead, I found myself surprised at how prescient Adams was. In his 70s satire, he seems almost casually to have predicted our world. What is the Guide but an e-book reader?

“It’s a sort of electronic book,” Ford Prefect tells Arthur. It’s described as “a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square”.

Okay, so the screen’s a bit small, and there are a few too many keys, but other than that it sounded like a description of the Kindle I was reading on.

And, in another sense, the Guide is a prediction of the way the internet, and sites like wikipedia, have overtaken encyclopedias as a source of knowledge.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Adams wrote in 1979, “has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom…though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate”.

Unlike the encyclopedias, the Guide doesn’t stop at a definition of alcohol. It tells you how to mix a good cocktail as well. Just like wikipedia.

As for the iPad, Adams predicted touch screens too: “as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch sensitive – you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope”.

Not bad for a satirist who set out to show up the absurdities of the 70s world he lived in, and of human existence in general. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s take on technology has weathered better than many of its more po-faced science fiction cousins, such as Star Trek.

But then perhaps we shouln’t be surprised that Adams, an early computer enthusiast and devotee of the Apple Mac, got the technology right. And perhaps satire, unlike more escapist fantasies, needs to be accurate to make its observations bite.

At any rate, I was delighted. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy captivated me as a teenager because it was the book that showed me science fiction didn’t have to be a guilty pleasure, that there was more to it than Doctor Who and daydreams of other planets, that you could make serious literature out of it that talked about the big and difficult questions of human existence, and be funny at the same time — riotously, gloriously funny.




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