My experience of Hitch-hikers Guide goes all the way back to the mid-eighties when I found this adventure game in a computer magazine that I typed out (though it is not the 1984 Infocom version). Basically it was one of those games where you wander around a world solving problems and collecting treasures. At the time this was all I knew about the story, and many of the locations, and jokes, simply went over my head. However, one week I discovered that the ABC was broadcasting a six part series and with this game sitting in the back of my head I sat down at watched it. Needless to say I enjoyed it, but really didn't get it – at all. However, over the years, as I re-watched the series, read the books, and watched the movie (as well as completing an arts degree) the story of Arthur Dent's rather random journey around the universe began to make a lot more sense – in that the story isn't supposed to have any meaning because it is, to put it simply, absurd.
I'm sure Adams had been influenced by the likes of [author:Samuel Beckett] and [author:Tom Stoppard], but he doesn't mention it in his introduction. He just tells us how he was lying in a paddock in Austria, after having one too many German Beers, starring up at the sky, with a crumpled copy of [book:The Hitch-hikers Guide to Europe], wondering if there was such a book for travelling around the universe. He then tells us about how the story began as a radio play, turned into a book (and blew out to five books, though it originally was a trilogy), and also, much later, a movie. While the story is fairly similar, there are a lot of minor changes across its various forms (such as never being told that Zaphod Beeblebrox is actually the president of the galaxy in the series), and while the movie wasn't as well received, I still quite liked their version of Marvin and Deep Thought.
The thing with Hitch-hikers Guide is that it looks at the absurdity of life, and turns it into a joke. For instance there is a constant reference to the fascination with digital watches, in that we are so controlled by time that we need to be constantly reminded of what time it is unless we miss something important, which in the end probably wasn't all that important at all. However this was back in the 80s – it is much more so these days with our mobile phones. As soon as phones became portable, we couldn't leave home without them, and if we did, we would rush back and grab them, just in case we miss that important call (which probably wasn't all that important in the long run). Smartphones have gone even further because not only are we constantly reminded of the time, and are contactable, we can also learn what is happening around the world when it is happening, and can get that important email while we are across the road buying our lunch.
Adams is effectively picking to pieces modern society, in that not only is there no meaning, but the search for meaning ends up being, in itself, meaningless. Democracy is a joke because it doesn't matter who you vote for a politician gets elected, and it doesn't matter who the politician is they are still ruled by the bureaucracy – this is the essence of Zaphod's presidential bid. It is not as if they president does anything, or sets the agenda – that is all done behind closed doors by unelected officials – the president is simply the human face of the bloated bureaucracy.
Then there is the idea of purpose – people want to know if there is any meaning behind the absurdity that is life – especially since all we seem to do is go to work, do work, and go home again, simply because of the little pieces of paper (which are now represented by electronic signals in some huge mainframe located who knows where), which allows us to exchange it for things such as food, clothing, and trips to the beach. We also try to keep some aside for a time when we can say goodbye to our job, and then exchange it more a lot more trips to the beach.
Many of us have pretty much stopped wondering about why we do this, and just do it in the hope that we can spend a lot more time down at the beach instead of behind a desk doing stuff that simply allows the complicated nature of society to continue, and so that people can look forward to going to the beach. As such, in Adams' mind, a whole economy of absurdity has arisen, such as the market analyst, that simply exists to anaylise what people exchange these electronic signatures for, and how to get them to exchange it for other things simply so that they, and their employers, can have a lot more of these electronic signals because it seems that the more of these electronic signals one has the more important one feels.
Yet the search for meaning is just as absurd, particularly since people build a really, really big computer to try to work out what the answer was, however after millions of years it arrived at an answer that was as equally absurd, so they build an even bigger computer to try and determine the question. That is the thing about our society, we are always building bigger and better things, trying to search for an answer that we don't actually know what the question is. In fact, we seem to spend all of our time trying to answer the question of how, without even thinking of the question why. Take for instance our desire to build ever bigger and more powerful telescopes to try and find out about the origins of the universe – that is all well and good, but I wonder whether the how and the why are getting mixed up. Then again, the why probably has more to do with our desire to evolve and become ever more powerful, and to do that we need to answer the how question, because once we have answered the how question, we are on our way to answering the why question.
Then again, maybe the why question has already been answered, and the answer to the why question is basically 'why not'. If that is the case, I probably should go back to collecting some more electronic signals because, well, why not.