Don’t forget your towel

You know that feeling where you’re really sick, but you’re doped up on medicine and lack of sleep and don’t actually feel all that bad; but on the other hand, you can’t feel your toes either, so the part of your brain that’s still functioning suggests you should probably hold still and take it easy? That’s how I was feeling when I first read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My uncle lent me his leather bound copy of the entire trilogy (there were only four books in the “trilogy” at the time) to help me pass the time until I was rational again. In retrospect that may not have been the best thing for me, because I laughed so hard my ribs ached, and I was laughing pretty much non-stop for three days. Two weeks later after I had recovered from the flu and gotten some real sleep I went back and re-read the books to see if they were really that good or if it had just been the insomnia and decongestants that made it seem so funny. It was really that good. Since then I have owned at least seven copies of the series. Three of them were lent to friends and never came back, which is just about par for the course. One just wore out, and I still have the other three (two leather bound copies and a Kindle copy). You could call me a fan.

Years later, when I started to get into programming I discovered that I was not alone. It seems like any time someone needs a pseudo-random number they’ll choose “42”. If you need a name it’ll either be “Ford Prefect” or “Zaphod Beeblebrox”. And “look I’m learning a new language!” programs are just as likely to say “So long, and thanks for all the fish!” as “Hello world” these days.

So, what is it about this book that attracts geeks like moths to a flame? Is it the well-constructed randomness? The insanely quotable quotes? The finely-tuned witty banter? The thought of having a spaceship that can cross the unimaginable expanse of space in less than a second and fundamentally change the nature of the universe in the process? The seemingly uniquely British blend of science fiction and comedy?

Yes. It’s all those things.

Douglas Adams was a genius, a perfectionist, and one of us: he collected computers and techno-gadgets, tinkered with them, then moved on to newer, shinier techno-gadgets. He spent happy hours writing fancy programs that he would use exactly one time to do something that would have taken a tenth as long to do by hand, and counted it time well used. (And he was a rabid Apple fanboy, further validation for my own fruit-flavored preferences.)

many ways, he was to technology as Lewis Thomas was to people: an optimist who saw the bright, shining future and was excited by the possibilities while still fully aware of the idiosyncrasies inherent in the system. The Hitchhiker’s Guide books are full of idiosyncrasies; depressed androids that get even more depressed when they have to talk to super-cheerful doors, teleports that fling people in random directions, drink machines that minutely analyze your taste buds and then give you something you’ll hate…these are all things that ring true here and now.

And the thing that is starting to feel the most real is the Guide itself. When the first Kindle came out I said

What makes this more than just another reader is the free access to Wikipedia. Suddenly you have the best reference on the web without the web, without the computer, without a crappy little Treo screen (or a beautiful–but still little– iPhone Screen) and without a monthly bill for service or worrying about hotspots and the like. You can be Ford Prefect and find out everything you need to know about the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster from the beach while chatting with other froods that really know where their towels are. (From Coals [2] Newcastle)

(Randall Munroe was a bit more concise…but he always is)

These days the Kindle is better than ever, the iPad and all the other tablets are trying to outdo each other as fast as possible, and you feel like real galactic hitchhiker. Just grab a towel and your favorite digital version of the book and I’ll see you on Jaglan Beta.

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Nate Dickson lives in Utah and writes software for a living. When he can get a few moments away from work, school, and raising kids he writes things and plays board games with his wife. It's a good life.

4 Responses to “Don’t forget your towel”

  1. Penni says:

    Yay!! I had forgotten about these books. Time for an e-purchase.

  2. Teenygozer says:

    I bought the original British paperback in the Science Fiction Bookshop in January of 1980… and yes, every damned time I loaned it out, the person I’d loaned it to tried to keep it.

  3. kormantic says:

    They’re so much fun, it’s nice to remember that they’re around.

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