Monday, October 1, 2012

The Sperm Whale: A Douglas Adams Commentary On Society


One of my all-time favorite books is The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  I mean the original book, not the mediocre Hollywood attempt at making a classic book into a movie.  If you have seen the movie, please don’t let it dissuade you from reading the book.  The movie pales in comparison to the book.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is actually a remarkable book that at first glance may sound like a silly science fiction book.  But, Douglas Adams had a way of making the most unusual things into commentaries on society.  I think that is what makes THGTTG such a classic book.  If you allow yourself to think through what you read, you find a deeper meaning to some of the most peculiar parts of the book.

One such part that has always fascinated me was the sperm whale scene.  Now, I won’t go into too much detail about the events that lead open to the sperm whale scene, mainly because it would just confuse those who haven’t read the book.  Suffice it to say that our heroes in the book do something that causes a sperm whale to suddenly materialize in orbit around an alien planet.  I’ll let Douglas Adams take it from here.

Another thing that no one made too mush fuss about was the fact that against all probability, a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence some miles above the surface of an alien planet.  And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it had to come to terms with suddenly not being a whale anymore.  This is what it thought as it fell.
  “Ah!  What’s happening?  Er, excuse me, who am I?  Hello?  Why am I here?  What’s my purpose in life?  What do I mean by who am I?  Calm down, get a grip now.  Oh, this is an interesting sensation in my ... my ... well I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let’s call it my stomach.  So ... a yawning tingling sensation in my stomach.  Good.  Ooooh, it’s getting quite strong.  And hey, what about this whistling roaring sound going past what I’m suddenly going to call my head?  Head, that sounds good, yeah, head, good solid ring to it ... and the whistling roaring sound, that can be wind ... is that a good name?  It’ll do ... perhaps I can find a better name for it later when I’ve found out what it’s for, because there certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of it.  Hey, what’s this thing, this ... let’s call it a tail ... yeah, tail, hey I can really thrash it about pretty good can’t I?  Wow.  Wow.  Hey.  Doesn’t seem to achieve much but I’ll probably find out what it’s for later on.  Now - have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?  No.  Oh.  Hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation ... or is it the wind?  Hey, there really is a lot of that now isn’t there?  And wow, what’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast?  Very very fast ... so big and flat and wide it needs a big wide sounding name ... like round ... round ... ground!  That’s it, ground!  I wonder if it will be friends with me?”
And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.

I must admit that this is one of many favorite parts of the book.  It seems like an odd piece, but I think that it was meant to be something far deeper.  First, let’s think about its placement in the book.  This scene comes right between two important scenes in the book.  Yet, Douglas Adams halted all action to focus on an innocent bystander, the sperm whale, that was impacted by the action of the main characters of the book.  In most books, movies, and television shows, very little attention is focused on the bystanders of an event.  Let’s take the Bourne Identity as an example.  There are several scenes in that movie where a police car crashes during a automobile chase.  Yet, there is never any concern or regard for the individuals that were in the wrecked car.  Since they are simple bystanders, they are not important enough to have their well-being revealed during the movie.

Police procedural shows on television are similar.  An innocent bystander is shot or injured during some big scene, but there is never any concern for their well-being.  They may just be crossing the street, and they would get shot, regardless of what their own plans for the rest of the day might have been.

But, perhaps there is something even deeper about our society that Doulas Adams was trying to say.  Let’s look at real life for a minute.  A few months ago, there was a big shooting at a movie theater during the midnight screening of the latest Batman movie.  However, who did the media spend all of their time talking about?  The man who perpetrated that heinous deed.  The innocent bystanders may have gotten a brief mention, but the media’s focus was always on the perpetrator.  It happens every time that something like this happens.  In the school shooting at Columbine, the same thing happened.  The media’s focus was on the two boys , and not their victims.  Our society has a morbid tendency to hear every detail about someone who has committed a crime while ignoring those who suffered because of it.

By breaking away from the action of the main characters in his book to insert this brief look into the brief life of an innocent bystander, I think that Adams was trying to say that the innocent bystanders are just as important as those who make the headlines.  Those innocent people who did nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time are just as important, perhaps even more important.  I wonder what the world would be like if, instead of focusing on the idiots who commit the horrible crimes, we, instead, focus on the innocent people.  Let’s stop making the guilty famous for their crimes, and instead make those who innocently suffered at their hands the celebrities.

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