In the wake of lukewarm reviews (or mixed reviews) for the recently released and long-awaited Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HHGTTG) movie, I’d like to turn our critical attention once more to this beloved text. Is it nostalgia for a teenage favorite that blinds us or is HHGTTG some sort of proto-hypertextual or literary work?

Get Fuzzy and HHGG

“Get Fuzzy” puts it nicely.

But why are so many in IF and Hyperfiction in particular so attached to these novels, that didn’t try so hard to hide the fact they were novelized radio scripts?

Let’s consider its merits:

  • Hypertext: The metatextual “Guide” provides a complementary text evocative of Pale Fire and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Infocom Game would make this reference electronically available, making this one of the first instantiations of an electronic reference used within a fictional electronic narrative.
  • Multimedia: The HHGTTG’s many manifestations made it a multimedia exploration. As Nick Montfort puts it, “Hitchhiker’s is really a franchise, or, to be less crass and commercial, perhaps a ‘transmedial phenomenon.’” Is it cross-media story-telling?
  • Literary: As a piece of satirical writing, the text was Confederacy of Dunces of the Stars. (or at least “The Holy Grail” in space.)
  • Interactive Fiction: As IF, the game was enormously difficult (sometimes even if you HAD read the book), but perhaps, as Jeremy has argued, we should see it as an additional planet in the HHGTTG universe, rather than a stand-alone IF.
  • Humor: It’s funny. Come on, remember the first time you read about a depressed robot, a babel fish? Hmm, maybe it is nostalgia.

Another idea: Could it have been the idea of “The Guide,” this portable electronic reference, at the same time that personal computers were making a guide-like text possible? Could “The Guide” have tapped into visions of the possibilities of electronic writing in the same way that Neuromancer tapped into Cyberspace (though perhaps to a lesser impact in the case of HHGTTG)? Could it have been the correspondence between the international publication and success of the books and the rise of the very personal computers that would deliver “The Guide”?

3 Responses to “Nostalgia & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

    I just wrote a long response but when I clicked ’send’ it disappeared because of one error. $##%$@!!

    So, take 2.

    Hey Mark, some interesting points. Yes, HHGTTG is a cross-media work. But just what type I can’t say because I don’t have a name for it yet. It is clear that the original work displays the qualities of what Lizbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca term ‘transmedial worlds’:

    Transmedial worlds are abstract content systems from which a repertoire of fictional stories and characters can be actualized or derived across a variety of media forms. What characterises a transmedial world is that audience and designers share a mental image of the ?worldness? (a number of distinguishing features of its universe). The idea of a specific world?s worldness mostly originates from the first version of the world presented, but can be elaborated and changed over time. Quite often the world has a cult (fan) following across media as well.

    Klastrup, L. and S. Tosca (2004) ‘Transmedial worlds - rethinking cyberworld design’ presented at Proceedings International Conference on Cyberworlds 2004, IEEEE Computer Society, Los Alamitos, California, published by Klastrup Cataclysms [Online] [pdf]

    Then your point, question, about the relationship between authorial vision and technological invention. As a sci-fi writer of sorts I believe that alot of sci-fi writers have an ‘understanding’ of present society. The relating of possible futures is to show how if the present continues without alternative action the future will be like this… But not all writers are like this, including Douglas Adams:

    When I originally described The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, over twenty years ago, I was only joking. I didn’t see myself as a predictive kind of science fiction writer…

    I also think that writers in general, and inventors, all access a ’slipstream’ of sorts where the same information is ‘accessed’ by many at the same time. How many times have you thought of something and seen it brought out a few months later? I have. What do they say: it takes 3? I think we all just take turns: you can have this one or I’ll take this one.

    It must be acknowledged too that nothing comes out of thin air. Ideas come from a simmering pot of the past and present: people, culture, devices, trees… I see this in academia too: we study the same texts and add a dash of our own unique readings, we live in the same mediated world but have our own interpretations, our own experiences and physiological reactions. Of course there are going to be many people researching the same thing at the same time around the globe.

    But anyway, I’ll stop rambling now. I explained this alot better the first time ’round!

    Incidently, here is a Guide you can contribute too:

    h2g2 is an unconventional guide to life, the universe and everything, an encyclopaedic project where entries are written by people from all over the world.

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    Wow, what an excellent response regarding the Transmedial nature of HHGTTG.

    I was also intrigued by your assertion:

    As a sci-fi writer of sorts I believe that alot of sci-fi writers have an ‘understanding’ of present society. The relating of possible futures is to show how if the present continues without alternative action the future will be like this…

    I know this is a bit of hero-worship, but it still seems like sometimes people get it right, uncannily so, such as the Guide itself. You’re right that “the Guide” doesn’t precede other ideas for electronic books, but I wonder if it expresses it with a certain stickiness, and then re-expressed it in the next-best thing (IF).

    Of course, I think Adams missed the mark sometimes, too. I seem to remember a passage of Dirk Gently that parodies the GUI interface of MacIntoshes, replacing “folders” with an animated flock of birds that swoops when you open a file. The parody was interesting, but I found it to be a less productive moment in the slipstream.

    Again, this is a little bit of Monday-morning Hitchhiking, in the whimsical speculation on why some works hold our imagination so.

  3. 3 Jeremy Douglass

    Good choice of comic as a moment for commentary :) Here are some thoughts:

    I’m interested in your idea that The Guide as electronic literature’s first “book-within-a” … although some might argue that computers-within-computers are more significant. What I find most compelling about the Guide as a kind of transmedia emblem is that it is random access media - a form friendly in a way to the short episodic structure of the radio plays, the IF, and even the books. The movie is the medium furthest from the nature of HGTTG in this reading, being the least interrupted and interruptable - whereas HGTTG is a universe of constant interruption. On the other hand, I saw it in a darkened theater - if I had simply bought the DVD and flipped through the “chapters” I might feel differently.

    I really like your proposal that the guide, like Neuromancer, tapped into a collective fantasy / vision of the future. That would be my answer to your comment exchange about the predictive nature of science fiction - in part, the world community of scientists and engineers may have glimpsed in the guide a dream that they then sought to make real.

    My original observation: the Guide is popular not because it is intricate but because it is cheap and user-friendly. To the extent that it is comprehensive, this is not because it employs trained staff, but because being a stringer is fun and involves lots of drinking. In other words, the Yahoo of the mid 90s was modeled more on the Encyclopedia Galactica - the Guide is a bit of Lonely Planet with a healthy dose of Everything2. Snow Crash was a bit closer to getting it right, I think, in more closely resembling wikipedia….

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