Marty is a basically decent man, trapped in a kind of stasis by social forces only more amplified today: misogyny, distrust of the educated, racism, and classism. Even the changing economic landscape looms over him, as corporate consolidation threatens his dream to own a small business.
One more generation, and it’s easy to imagine Marty’s family chanting “lock her up” at a MAGA rally, and his friends as incels trolling women on the internet.
His family exemplifies a moment of social transformation between extended families living together and a trend towards isolation and nuclear families. His mother and aunt spent a lifetime working until they couldn’t work any more. In their old age, they are left with nowhere to live and nothing to do. His cousin is transitioning towards the American Dream of a house and child, but the accompanying burdens and anxieties outweigh any happiness. Outside the family tumult, his circle of friends is adrift in an increasingly isolated social world of movies, bars, and dance clubs — all in the pursuit of women that they seem to desire and loathe in equal measure.
I cannot tell you how utterly relieved I was when Marty made that last-minute phone call. I don’t think I could have borne it if he hadn’t.
Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.
As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.
The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.
The most idiosyncratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and electronica genres flirted with the mainstream. Jeff Buckley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s version, and numerous amateur performances on American Idol finally broke the song into the mainstream consciousness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliché, but retains its ability to push emotional buttons even when performed robotically by Justin Timberlake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
The worst abuse of all, however, was when director Zack Snyder misappropriated Cohen’s original recording for a preposterous sex scene in the superhero psychodrama Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). Granted, it must be said that Cohen deliberately crafted his lyrics to be flexible, and has himself performed different variations over the years. Buckley’s version found a markedly sexual interpretation, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watchmen. Cohen himself told the Guardian in 2009:
“I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”
With such a wide variety of renditions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the particular vocalist’s delivery. Too many, however, bury any real human emotion under mountains of overproduced strings and histrionics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s elegantly minimalist interpretation is the one for the ages, perhaps even moreso than Cohen’s original.
You could throw darts at the tracklist from Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change and each song you hit would be sadder than the last. Hence this deviation in format from our ongoing playlist of Songs That Broke My Heart… call it an Album That Broke My Heart.
Beck had always been equal parts folk (Mutations) and weird (Odelay), and perhaps at his best when he combined the two. Although his sense of humor and absurdism usually dominates, a pronounced darkness is often present. All of these tendencies were on display on his breakthrough single “Loser”, which, together with the roughly contemporaneous “Creep” by Radiohead, was part of a groundswell of indie rock self-loathing in the mid 1990s.
Perhaps wary of being typecast as the dude with the emotionally detached and quirkily abstract lyrics (walking, one might say, in the Talking Heads’ shoes), and of being too closely associated with the production techniques of The Dust Brothers and the videos of Spike Jonze, Beck took an unexpected genre swerve in 2002. Sea Change was an album-length outpouring of anxiety, grief, and loneliness. Its low-key emotional honesty was probably alienating to most of his fans, and its morose mood no doubt not very attractive to new listeners.
After listening to only a few songs from the album, you wouldn’t need to consult Wikipedia to find out if these songs were the result of somebody breaking up with him. But if you did, you’d learn that this batch of songs dates from when he discovered his longtime fiancée was cheating on him.
Standout tracks for me are “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause”:
Is the Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” already one of the series’ most misunderstood? Almost two years ago, the Doctor urged his companions Amy & Rory not to live up to the title of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, for the vaguely-explained sci-fi reasons that changing history doesn’t always work out for the best. The Doctor defeated the devil before, in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series 2. Here he has no compunctions in also killing god.
I’ve now listened to three fan podcasts debating the merits of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and was frankly surprised to discover the episode has been met by Doctor Who fandom with ambivalence at best, and outright derision from the rest. I would certainly not try to defend it as an instant classic, but it certainly does not deserve to be counted among the abysmal failures like “Fear Her” and “Last of the Time Lords”. In fact, I would argue it’s worthy of praise for daring to say something potentially very controversial. Perhaps it doesn’t say it very well (as evidenced by the fact that none of the participants in those three podcasts so much as broach the topic), but at least it’s a story that strives to be more than the usual Doctor-defeats-an-alien-invasion routine (not that there’s anything wrong with that routine — as a lifelong fan I love that routine!).
Out of all the various opinions voiced by the hosts of Radio Free Skaro, Verity, and Two Minute Time Lord, I align most with Chip of the latter, who was pleased the show still has the potential to be surprising. But everyone, even Chip, failed to even address what I took to be the major takeaway from the episode: the Doctor essentially rescued a civilization from a parasite they worshipped as a god. He freed a society from their self-defeating religion, and they thanked him for it.
Writer Neil Cross is famous for the grim BBC series Luther, and his script for Doctor Who was generally much lighter. But “The Rings of Akhaten” was about something very important, in a way that the series does not often attempt. I would classify it broadly in the same league as “Vincent and the Doctor”, where science fiction tropes were employed for a thinly-veiled metaphor of a particular aspect of human existence. Just as “Vincent and the Doctor” used time travel and invisible monsters to explore the topic of depression and suicide, “The Rings of Akhaten” used asteroids, interstellar mopeds, and angry space mummies to make a point about the detrimental effects of religion.
After watching the episode, I fully expected the fan conversation to be about how the show overstepped by taking on the negative affects of faith and religion. I expected many to take offense for daring to go there. But instead, it got called “dumb” and “stupid”, and Radio Free Skaro even dubbed it “The Borings of Akhenaten”. I suppose it raises the questions of what people want or expect from Doctor Who, which would seem to be plot, story, and character development. Anything beyond that (such as allegorical explorations of deeper themes like faith and religion) might as well be invisible. A good piece of science fiction ought to excel in both areas, so it seems “The Borings of Akhenaten” falls down on both fronts: none of the podcast hosts thought to mention the topic of religion (imagine talking about “Vincent and the Doctor” without mentioning depression!), and on the practical side, the plot particulars might not hold up to much scrutiny. But since when has Doctor Who ever been about hard sci-fi and airtight plotting? Any fan that demands that stuff probably ought to be watching Star Trek.
I don’t think I’m reaching at all in my interpretation here. This has to be one of the most thinly-veiled metaphors in Doctor Who history. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) begin their adventure explicitly discussing the society’s religion. He briefly explains how their belief system works: a giant orb in the sky, known as Grandfather, is worshipped as a vengeful god. A priesthood has long placated it via song, until today.
Clara wondrously asks, “Is it true?” For of course, she just rode across space and time to her first alien world, so it would’t be much more of a stretch to ask if, yes, the giant ball of gas in the sky (which the hosts of Verity memorably compared to Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin) might actually be a god that demands offerings of precious memories. The Doctor pauses, smiles, and then replies “It’s a nice story”. Again, it’s not subtle: the Doctor is saying that what these people believe is a god is actually just a thing. Many, many times before he’s unmasked the supernatural: the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” were robots, the ghosts in “The Unquiet Dead” and the devil in “The Satan Pit” were aliens, etc. There is no real supernatural in the Doctor Who universe.
I’ve put all of this very broadly to try and keep this post short, but my point is that the episode was far from “dumb”, “stupid” or “boring”. For better or for worse, it took on some complicated questions about religion. It also made me wonder about what it is the Doctor does to the civilizations he rescues. He has a long history of freeing groups from oppression, often leaving at the end of the story having totally and utterly upended the status quo. Here, the Doctor frees a people from their self-destructive religion. It’s not a perfect metaphor for atheism, for in a sense this god is real — not actually a god, but real. Atheists would point to the tyranny of organized religion, which is the work of fellow humans.
John Lennon asked in “Imagine” that we consider a world without countries or possessions, and heaven or religion. The alien civilization in “The Rings of Akhaten” has an economy that derives directly from their religion: just as their ersatz god feeds upon emotional memories, they pay for goods and services with objects imbued with sentimental value. The Doctor destroys both of these things: not only their god but also the very meaning behind their currency.
This alien culture, as far as we see it in this episode, is defined by only two things: its religion and its commerce. All we see of them is a marketplace and a religious order. So, in rescuing them, the Doctor takes away everything that we know about them. And they’re happy for it. Surely that’s the interesting thing about this episode, right?
Any playlist of sad songs I might compile must include No-Man, but it was no easy task to select only one piece from a songbook positively chock full of them. To make my job a bit easier, I went back to the band’s beginnings.
Similar in style to their first breakout single “Colours” (a dramatic reimagining of Donovan’s mid-60s folk-pop hit), “Days in the Trees” is very much an artifact of early 90s minimalist art-pop. Despite its superficially dated production, the song is quintessential No-Man: Tim Bowness’ melancholy vocals hovering over Steven Wilson’s looped breakbeat, accompanied by Ben Coleman’s dramatic violin and very little else.
I found myself drawn to a relatively obscure alternate version subtitled “Reich”, first released in 1992 on the virtually impossible to find original EP and the subsequent mini-album Lovesighs – An Entertainment, and now available on the retrospective anthology All the Blue Changes. In a personal reassessment, Bowness expresses reservations about the mix and performances in the released version, but concedes that “Reich is a piece I still love”.
Utterly unlike a prototypically unimaginative remix in which rigid disco beats are bolted onto scraps of a song, this version has only the most tenuous of connections to its source material. It omits Bowness’ vocals entirely, in favor of a gently repeating keyboard arpeggio. The title alludes to composer Steve Reich’s brand of systems music, which reached its hypnotic apotheosis in Music for 18 Musicians. A generation of electronic musicians expanded upon Reich’s interlocking patterns, and Reich himself later completed the circle by experimenting with electronica and remixing on his 1999 album Reich Remixed.
The stark ambient soundscape of “Days in the Trees (Reich)” provides an atmosphere for an astonishing soliloquy extracted from David Lynch’s seminal TV series Twin Peaks. Donna (Laura Flynn Boyle) is a teenager disillusioned by unsavory revelations regarding her best friend Laura’s drug abuse and sexual misadventures. Over the course of the series, she is exposed to even greater depths of corruption and depravity in her seemingly idyllic small American town.
While pursuing information on her own, Donna finds it necessary to ingratiate herself to a lonely male stranger. The mode of seduction she chooses is to recount the story of her first kiss. Her ploy quickly becomes a real confession, even an uncomfortably intimate flirtation. It’s an ostensibly happy memory, but her state of bliss over an event in the distant past is shot through with melancholy over a sublime moment long gone. Forced to confront the profound darkness festering in her community, this young woman prematurely mourns simpler times forever out of reach. Her tale portrays herself as a girl just beginning to sense that sexuality was a dangerous force her friend had already embraced but she couldn’t yet harness.
Boyle may not be one of the world’s most celebrated actors, but her performance in this scene is nothing less than stunning. Bowness and Wilson edited and condensed her monologue, but opted to leave in the sound effects of a cigarette lighter and her exhalation, effectively providing an audio vérité percussion track. Here is a full transcript of the truncated version that appears in “Days in the Trees (Reich)”:
“This is from a long time ago, is that ok? I was about thirteen years old, fourteen maybe. We were going to the Roadhouse to meet boys. They’re about twenty years old. And they’re nice to us. And they make us feel like we’re older. Rick asks if we wanna go party and Laura says ‘yes’, and all of a sudden I feel this knot building up in my stomach. But when Laura gets in the truck with Rick, I go anyway. A stream in the woods, and when I think, it’s pale and light out. Laura starts to dance around the boys. She begins to move her hips back and forth. And we take off our clothes. I know the boys are watching. Laura starts to kiss Josh and Rick. I don’t know what to do, so I swim away. I feel like I want to run, but I don’t. He kisses my hand and then me. I can still feel that kiss. His lips are warm and sweet. My heart jumps. He’s talking but I can’t hear him. It was the first time I ever fell in love.”
You’re reading an entry in The Dork Report’s ongoing mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right in. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.
Rock ‘n’ roll is not an everyday conversation topic around our family table, but the improbable longevity of The Rolling Stones was remarkable enough to come up once during dinner. I had recently listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time in a while, and remarked upon how surprisingly dark and intense it was, so much so that it gave me chills. My grandmother asked why, then, would I deliberately listen to something that unsettled me?
She had a point. Upon reflection, I’ve found that most of the music I hold dear is chilling (like the aforementioned ode to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), chilly (like some of the more academic, brainy music by Brian Eno or Philip Reich), or just plain cold (pretty much everything else). Some have subject matter that makes you want to jump out a window, some just sound like they do, and some may not be sad per se, but are rather so painfully beautiful I almost can’t bear listening to them.
How on earth did incurable sad sacks like The Cure, Nick Drake, or Kurt Cobain become pop stars? Why do we listen to the likes of “Hallelujah”, “Mad World”, or “Hurt” for fun? The answer is simple, but opens a can of worms: prehistoric humans almost didn’t invent music for entertainment or personal expression, but rather as a component to ritual, spirituality, and community.
To think of music as merely entertaining or escapist is to belittle an entire art form with limitless capabilities. Even at its best, it can be dissonant and ugly (such as György Ligeti’s Requiem, which still sounds alien today in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) just as easily as it can be pretty and moving (Johan Pachelbel’s Canon in D, so lovely it has passed into cliché and back again). It’s possible to make the same point about other oft belittled media, such as comics — where the uninitiated may be unable or unwilling to accept that the same format that stars Ziggy and Superman can also be as trenchant as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury or as literary as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Hence this new series of short essays exclusively for The Dork Report: The Songs That Broke My Heart, in effect a playlist of melancholy, misery, and loneliness. It is not meant to be an objective list of the saddest songs of all time, but rather a personal compilation of songs that create an emotional response in me now, at this time in my life. But first, I’m going to start with something slightly more esoteric. Watch this space for my thoughts on No-Man’s “Days in the Trees (Reich)”.
Books are books, and movies are movies. I usually don’t want or expect any adaptation to copy its source — in fact, it’s usually in everyone’s best interests for a derivative work to strive to be its own thing, and not… well, derivative. But Tom Tykwer and Lana & Larry Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas turned out to be an astonishingly faithful adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. For a book so sprawling and commonly deemed unadaptable, I fully expected more characters and incident to have been necessarily jettisoned. But almost everything is there, with most of the screenwriters’ additions coming in the form of structural changes rather than material.
Being so faithful to this particular book comes with a potential downside. One of the greatest pleasures to be had in the novel is its wide range of genres and tones. Sequences include a pulpy 70s thriller, a light-hearted old folks farce, a sci-fi dystopia, and a postapocalyptic wasteland. Each is familiar to a degree, but only insofar as Mitchell employs known genre tropes to his own ends. Each is written in a different voice, ranging from archaic historical vernacular to imaginary fractured and devolved languages of the far future.
These devices may work better on the page than on the screen, for a reader is able to savor the lushly stylized language of each period. But subtract the novel’s devices of epistolary exchanges, internal monologues, fireside storytelling, and formal interviews, you’re only left with dialogue and visual depictions of action. What’s illustrated on screen comes across as a gumbo of The China Syndrome, The Matrix, The Road, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For instance, when David Mitchell took on the tone of a conspiracy thriller, I found it impressive. But when it’s realized on screen, it feels like a Friedkin or Frankenheimer knockoff with extra corny dialog.
The aforementioned faithfulness extends to plot, tone, character, theme, incident… almost everything except structure. The elegantly spiraling structure of David Mitchell’s novel is one of its most justly celebrated features, and it could have theoretically been adopted to cinema. Instead, the film scrambles the various story lines into one long montage that comes at you in a nearly three-hour-long avalanche. The obvious benefit is the highlighting of how recurring themes are interlinked and interwoven, how patterns of behavior repeat throughout history, and for the more metaphysically inclined, how souls are reincarnated, and how good and bad deeds echo forwards and backwards through time.
The three directors told the A.V. Club that they all worked simultaneously in close collaboration, but were required to be credited for specific sequences. For better or for worse, it seems pretty clear to me that the action sequences set in futuristic Korea have the Wachowski brand all over them. In this dystopia, corporations have replaced both government and religion, not that dissimilar to the world of the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta). While intense and lengthy, these glorified chase sequences are not as extreme as their eyeball-spraining 2008 film Speed Racer. But Tykwer is a highly kinetic and visually oriented director as well, as he proved right away with Run Lola Run, so maybe I’m off base here.
One of the primary selling points of the movie is its stunt casting of a relatively small troupe of actors into a multitude of roles. The sad truth is that many of the makeup effects for actors playing across gender or race boundaries just don’t work. Hugo Weaving suffers in particular, with no amount of latex able to disguise his permanent menace and leer (how much do you want to bet he’s a sweet family man in real life?). But there are a few triumphs. For instance, I didn’t recognize Hugh Grant in at least two of his roles. Tom Hanks runs up and down the hamminess scale, but I thought he was genuinely excellent in the role of Zachry, a humble but atypically thoughtful goat herder whose deepest religious beliefs are challenged.
Like many, I fell in love with the beautifully written, structured, and ingenious novel. But most interestingly of all, it’s the first thing I can remember reading in a long time that had anything approaching a message, or, for lack of a better term, a “moral of the story”. In short, resisting oppression of all sorts is always worth it, even if one person can’t fix the world. Mitchell shows us a world seemingly inevitably doomed to drastic decline via slavery, global warming, societal collapse, and world war, but its heroes nevertheless act against political, corporate, or religious oppression. Many (but not all) of them suffer for it, but their acts resonate in ways both large and small.
It is in this context that I must pinpoint one serious crime the movie commits against the book. I noticed only one significant deviation from the novel that, for me, almost negates everything I found most powerful in the book. I don’t object that something was added (in fact, I usually argue that most adaptations of books need to be more liberal in their interpretations), but rather that what was added betrayed a desire for sentiment — in essence, a happy ending. Anyone that has experienced the novel and the film will know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie ends on a positive note for humanity at its chronologically latest point, while the book ends with a moving internal monologue set near the beginning, as a character decides to dedicate his life to the abolitionist movement.
Despite serious reservations like this, I was totally swept up in the movie and have to rate it highly overall. As a movie, it’s a towering, almost unbelievable achievement. It was essentially an independent production, with a large portion of the financing coming directly from the filmmakers themselves. Cloud Atlas was not made as a corporate exercise; it exists because three filmmakers felt they had to do it. The message of resisting oppression of all sorts, including corporate, must not have been a good selling point when it came time for them to shop their movie around to potential distributors, giant corporations all. So go see Cloud Atlas, if for no reason other than its verve and audacity.
Once upon a time, web designers & developers had it easy when it came to the venerable favicon. Our tiny .ico files served a much greater purpose than their meager 16×16 square pixels would suggest. These humble graphics allowed us to populate the status bars, tabs, and bookmarks of our visitors’ browsers with our emblems. They were a test of our ability to communicate our brands in a strictly limited number of pixels.
With the advent of high-resolution displays and touch devices, mostly but not entirely from Apple, the favicon exploded into a variety of dimensions, formats, and purposes. Some still fulfill their duties in the good old desktop browser, some appear as web app icons on mobile devices, and some are automatically slurped up for other purposes by apps like Reeder and Transmit.
Hans Christian’s HTML5 Boilerplate Favicon PSD Template is indispensable for anyone wishing to easily create the full array of icons at once. But for those web, UI, UX, or just-plain-design designers that prefer to do this type of work in Adobe Fireworks (as do I) rather than Photoshop alone, I’ve created an alternative template. I’ve mostly followed Christian’s lead, with the exception of including a 32×32 pixel favicon for certain browsers on high-resolution displays (such as Safari and Chrome on the MacBook Pro), as detailed by Enrappture.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball brought this issue back to prominence with his post How to Create Retina-Caliber Favicons. In short, he recommends creating a single .ico file with 16×16 and 32×32 resources, which affords the designer the greatest control over how the favicon will appear in different contexts. Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks countered that this strategy adds complexity and results in a larger file. His rule of thumb is that with a simple, clean design, a favicon containing a single 32×32 resource ought to scale well. The important takeaway is, of course: test and see.
The free Photoshop plugin ICO (Windows Icon) Format is the cheapest and most straightforward choice for web designers who decide to go the single-resouce route. If you want to get fancy with your favicons, you can use software such as Kodlian’s Icon Slate or IconFactory’s IconBuilder to create a single favicon file that includes both 16×16 and 32×32 resources.
I hope at least some fellow designers find this template file useful. Please feel free to comment below or contact me via Twitter if you have any suggestions or feedback.
Version 1.1, January 10, 2013: This post and accompanying Adobe Fireworks template file revised for clarity, particularly on the topic of supporting high resolution devices as recently debated on Daring Fireball and CSS-Tricks.
Despite being the ostensible protagonist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is remarkably out of control of his destiny. Throughout, he survives various calamities equipped only with only a Babel fish, towel, and implausible happenstance. But most of its cast of characters are equally adrift in a senseless universe: Zaphod Beeblebrox is the ultimate irresponsible slacker, just hanging out as the universe unfairly happens to produce everything he needs. Ford Prefect just barely clings on to a dead-end travel writing gig in the backwaters of the galaxy. Mr. Prosser and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz are mere salarymen dispassionately dispatching their duties, too jaded even to evilly enjoy their cataclysmic impact upon others (the symbolic mirroring between these characters was laid bare in the original radio series, where they were both portrayed by the same actor — curiously not the case in the TV show, when it ought to have been trivial to do likewise, considering how much alien makeup was involved).
If you’re just joining The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.
If the many misfortunes that befall Arthur seem meaningless, and his escapes equally arbitrary, maybe it’s because Adams was one of the world’s most famous atheists. He was friend and matchmaker to outspoken debunker of supernaturalism Richard Dawkins — indeed, he introduced to him to his future wife Lalla Ward (who played Romana during Adams’ tenure on Doctor Who, and is still revered today as “the lord high queen of the nerds” by Topless Robot). It would be extremely convenient to draw connections between Dawkins and the Hitchhiker’s character Oolon Colluphid, were the chronology not so inconvenient: the series was written long before Adams discovered Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and before they became friends after Dawkins wrote Adams an admitted “fan letter.” Colluphid, of course, wrote the highly influential and controversial trilogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God — an oeuvre only slightly less pointed than Dawkins’ own.
Absorbing Hitchhikers’ in prose, on stage, TV, or radio has long been the first baby step for many current and future atheists. The first few moments of all versions of the story feature numerous gags about God, the most well-known of which involves the infamous Babel Fish. When I first read the novel as a kid, I was of course pleasantly grossed out by the notion of sticking a fish in your ear. Whether or not a child reader grasps the overt allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel, most would be versed enough in science fiction to recognize that Adams was mocking the accepted convention that English is spoken throughout the universe. Star Trek and Doctor Who both made offhand comments to explain the language barrier issue in pseudo-scientific manners, which is perhaps the healthiest narrative approach — why get bogged down in technicalities, which only get in the way of telling a good story? But Adams decided to confront the conceit head-on, and not only subvert it but also take it to a startling philosophical conclusion. In literary theory, this would be a casebook example of deconstruction. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the original radio show:
The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain; the practical upshot of which is that if you stick on in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language – the speech you hear decodes the brainwave matrix. Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this:
“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy” says Man, and for an encore he proves that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.
Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Coluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.
Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, be effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
— The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, Douglas Adams, p29-30
The above excerpt is from The Guide itself, the book within the book (another gift to literary theorists). The Guide is full of useless information, when not outright incorrect, but one wonders if Adams was wistfully imagining a more advanced alien society possessed of greater secular wisdom than our own — one in which even lowly travel guides take it as a given that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Sky Daddy, or Ceiling Cat watching over us. What is especially remarkable is how economical the above excerpt is. It’s elegant, concise, and above all, funny. In only a few lines, Adams co-opts two common theistic arguments into a logical equation that ≠ God: so-called “irreducible complexity” and the ultimate get-out-of-any-argument gambit, faith. To him, faith and belief aren’t enough when it comes to the really important questions:
“Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for […] I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist, quoted in Douglas Adams and God – Portrait of a Radical Atheist by Nicolas Botti
To the above, I say “can I get an amen?” The word “belief” is appropriate for matters of superstition, but not for matters of science. The self-professed “radical atheist” we hear from above is considerably more gentle and breezy when he playfully tweaks religion in Hitchhiker’s. But it’s easy to imagine how these books might incite the ire of the easily offended Religious Right currently dominating the US political scene. That is, if they were literary-minded enough to sit down and actually attempt to read a book — any book — which clearly they aren’t. Consider how the Monty Python film The Life of Brian was famously protested against for precisely the wrong reasons. Its detractors assumed the film mocked Jesus (when it is in fact quite respectful), but failed to recognize that the Pythons’ true target was organized religion itself. This also fascinated Adams:
“I am fascinated by religion. (That’s a completely different thing from believing in it!) It has had such an incalculably huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist
The same Christian fundamentalists that decry the ostensible witchcraft at the core of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (whether they acknowledge Rowling’s own Christian faith or not) would surely object to the capricious, overtly godless universe in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is set.
Speaking of literary-mindedness, for a man who wrote for the all-ages adventure program Doctor Who, Adams incorporated very little actual physical violence into Hitchhiker’s. It’s interesting that when Arthur and Ford are tortured on the Vogon ship, the means is not waterboarding, electrocution, or solitary confinement, but rather the reading aloud of poetry. For all the power of language to harm, Arthur and Ford are unable to talk their way out of their predicament. This suggests that in the Hitchhiker’s universe, literature is either obscure and irrelevant (as seen in some of more unhelpful Guide entries, or when Arthur fails to enlighten some cavemen with a game of Scrabble), or outright hostile (such as the aforementioned Vogon poetry, and the official documents that doom Arthur’s house and planet to demolition).
Adams had diverse interests beyond tweaking the noses of theists, and incorporated many gags into Hitchhiker’s that would appeal mostly to physicists and statisticians. Two things in particular that preoccupied him were metaphysics and computers, and he was able to put them together in the Deep Thought subplot. Curious humanoids outsource their philosophical questions to a sentient supercomputer tasked with calculating the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The answer “42” is just as meaningless as the question “what do you get if you multiply six by nine?” According to my reading, mathematicians might make sense of this equation if calculated in base 10 — AKA the decimal system — and gamblers would recognize 42 as the sum of all sides of a pair of dice. Unfortunately, these clever mathematicians and gamblers would be no closer to an understanding of the universe as anybody else. The pursuit of the answer and then the question wasted billions of years and immeasurable lives. Thus in one single plot twist, Adams pins a donkey tail on entire religions and whole schools of thought — they’re not just absurd, but also extraordinarily harmful.
The supposed irreverent nature of British humor is a tired topic among American geeks that came of age quoting Monty Python and Doctor Who in outrageously fake accents — even the most crass gags (I’m thinking here of Mrs. Slocomb’s tales regarding her “pussy” on Are You Being Served) sound more witty, sophisticated, and erudite to us when spoken in foreign accents. Here’s Adams on this very topic (regional humor that is, not cats):
“I think too much is made of the difference between US and UK humour. I don’t think there’s a difference in the way those audiences are treated. […] There are things the British think are as English as roast beef that the Americans think are as American as apple pie. The trick is to write about people. If you write about situations that people recognize then people will respond to it.”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94
The alleged great divide between American and British humor came back into relief again recently as Ricky Gervais closed the first of his Golden Globes hosting gigs in 2011. Most of his allegedly uncensored celebrity barbs turned out to be merely tired stabs at low-hanging fruit (certain Scientologists are gay, Charlie Sheen is a junkie, Hugh Hefner is an old creep that gets laid more than you ever will, etc.) that only resulted in more rolled eyes than bruised egos. But what upset outwardly pious Americans most was his closing quip “…and thank god for making me an atheist.” Anyone given to appreciating Adams’ cocktail of absurdism, logic, and philosophy would recognize Gervais’ brand of humor here. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the current American landscape are holy rollers with persecution complexes.
Perhaps Adams’ atheism was the motivation behind his personal appearance as an archetypal modern man experiencing an existential crisis in the beginning of episode two of the Hitchhiker’s television series. If you believe Neil Gaiman, Adams stepped in simply because the original actor was stuck in traffic that day, but I prefer to imagine a greater significance. Just as Radiohead would later employ Marvin the Paranoid Android as a metaphor for the themes of paranoia and depression in their acclaimed album OK Computer, Adams plays a nameless everyman beset by the modern condition. Taking the long view of someone educated in evolution (which an alarming number of Americans believe to be more science fiction than actual sci-fi), he decides that it was all a mistake for life to leave the oceans in the first place.
But there’s a note of optimism to be had at the end of the series, which thanks to the wonderful narrative possibilities of time travel in science fiction, is not really the end but rather the beginning. Arthur, Ford, and the undesirable dregs of an ancient humanoid civilization land on prehistoric Earth and intermingle with brutish cavemen (interestingly, very much the same thing happens at the controversial conclusion to the 2003-09 TV series Battlestar Galactica, except much less funny). The series signs off with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” — which works as both a sarcastic comment on humanity’s humble, decidedly not divine origins (we’re descended from interbred hunters & gatherers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers) but also as a sincere comment on Arthur and Ford’s begrudging friendship.
Thanks for reading Part Three of The Dork Report’s look back at Hitchhiker’s. Catch up with Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.