Read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Online
Authors: Douglas Adams
“Look,” said Arthur, “I’m a bit upset about that.”
Ford frowned to himself and seemed to roll the thought around his mind.
“Yes, I can understand that,” he said at last.
“Understand that!” shouted Arthur. “Understand that!”
Ford sprang up.
“Keep looking at the book!” he hissed urgently.
“I’m not panicking!”
“Yes, you are.”
“All right, so I’m panicking, what else is there to do?”
“You just come along with me and have a good time. The Galaxy’s a fun place. You’ll need to have this fish in your ear.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Arthur, rather politely he thought.
Ford was holding up a small glass jar which quite clearly had a small yellow fish wriggling around in it. Arthur blinked at him. He wished there was something simple and recognizable he could grasp hold of. He would have felt safe if alongside the Dentrassis’ underwear, the piles of Sqornshellous mattresses and the man from Betelgeuse holding up a small yellow fish and offering to put it in his ear he had been able to see just a small packet of cornflakes. But he couldn’t, and he didn’t feel safe.
Suddenly a violent noise leaped at them from no source that he could identify. He gasped in terror at what sounded like a man trying to gargle while fighting off a pack of wolves.
“Shush!” said Ford. “Listen, it might be important.”
“Im . . . important?”
“It’s the Vogon captain making an announcement on the tannoy.”
“You mean that’s how the Vogons talk?”
“But I can’t speak Vogon!”
“You don’t need to. Just put this fish in your ear.”
Ford, with a lightning movement, clapped his hand to Arthur’s ear, and he had the sudden sickening sensation of the fish slithering deep into his aural tract. Gasping with horror he scrabbled at his ear for a second or so, but then slowly turned goggle-eyed with wonder. He was experiencing the aural equivalent of looking at a picture of two black silhouetted faces and suddenly seeing it as a picture of a white candlestick. Or of looking at a lot of colored dots on a piece of paper which suddenly resolve themselves into the figure six and mean that your optician is going to charge you a lot of money for a new pair of glasses.
He was still listening to the howling gargles, he knew that, only now it had somehow taken on the semblance of perfectly straightforward English.
This is what he heard . . .
Howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl howl gargle howl gar
gle howl howl gargle gargle howl gargle gargle gargle howl slurrp uuuurgh should have a good time. Message repeats. This is your captain speaking, so stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention. First of all I see from our instruments that we have a couple of hitchhikers aboard. Hello, wherever you are. I just want to make it totally clear that you are not at all welcome. I worked hard to get where I am today, and I didn’t become captain of a Vogon constructor ship simply so I could turn it into a taxi service for a load of degenerate freeloaders. I have sent out a search party, and as soon as they find you I will put you off the ship. If you’re very lucky I might read you some of my poetry first.
“Secondly, we are about to jump into hyperspace for the journey to Barnard’s Star. On arrival we will stay in dock for a seventy-two-hour refit, and no one’s to leave the ship during that time. I repeat, all planet leave is canceled. I’ve just had an unhappy love affair, so I don’t see why anybody else should have a good time. Message ends.”
The noise stopped.
Arthur discovered to his embarrassment that he was lying curled up in a small ball on the floor with his arms wrapped round his head. He smiled weakly.
“Charming man,” he said. “I wish I had a daughter so I could forbid her to marry one . . .”
“You wouldn’t need to,” said Ford. “They’ve got as much sex appeal as a road accident. No, don’t move,” he added as Arthur began to uncurl himself, “you’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
“You ask a glass of water.”
Arthur thought about this.
“Ford,” he said.
“What’s this fish doing in my ear?”
“It’s translating for you. It’s a Babel fish. Look it up in the book if you like.”
He tossed over
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
and then curled himself up into a fetal ball to prepare himself for the jump.
At that moment the bottom fell out of Arthur’s mind.
His eyes turned inside out. His feet began to leak out of the top of his head.
The room folded flat around him, spun around, shifted out of existence and left him sliding into his own navel.
They were passing through hyperspace.
“The Babel fish,”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing
in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own
carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes
into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining
the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the
speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshotof all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can
instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The
speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has
been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything
so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that
some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the
“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 goes on to prove
that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing.
“Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of
dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Colluphid 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, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused
more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
Arthur let out a low groan. He was horrified to discover that the kick through hyperspace hadn’t killed him. He was now six light-years from the place that the Earth would have been if it still existed.
Visions of it swam sickeningly through his nauseated mind. There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket two days before and felt a sudden stab—the supermarket was gone, everyone in it was gone. Nelson’s Column had gone! Nelson’s Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson’s Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind—his mind, stuck here in this dank smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.
England no longer existed. He’d got that—somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger.
He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother.
He jerked himself violently to his feet.
Ford looked up from where he was sitting in a corner humming to himself. He always found the actual traveling-through-space part of space travel rather trying.
“Yeah?” he said.
“If you’re a researcher on this book thing and you were on Earth, you must have been gathering material on it.”
“Well, I was able to extend the original entry a bit, yes.”
“Let me see what it says in this edition then, I’ve got to see it.”
“Yeah, okay.” He passed it over again.
Arthur grabbed hold of it and tried to stop his hands shaking. He pressed the entry for the relevant page. The screen flashed and swirled and resolved into a page of print. Arthur stared at it.
“It doesn’t have an entry!” he burst out.
Ford looked over his shoulder.
“Yes, it does,” he said, “down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just above Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.”
Arthur followed Ford’s finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it still didn’t register, then his mind nearly blew up.
Is that all it’s got to say?
“Well, there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy, and only a limited amount of space in the book’s microprocessors,” he said, “and no one knew much about the Earth, of course.”
“Well, for God’s sake, I hope you managed to rectify that a bit.”
“Oh yes, well, I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but it’s still an improvement.”
“And what does it say now?” asked Arthur.
admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.
“What was that noise?” hissed Ford.
“It was me shouting,” shouted Arthur.
“No! Shut up!” said Ford. “I think we’re in trouble.”
think we’re in trouble!”
Outside the door were the clear sounds of marching foot-steps.
“The Dentrassis?” whispered Arthur.
“No, those are steel-tipped boots,” said Ford.
There was a sharp ringing rap on the door.
“Then who is it?” said Arthur.
“Well,” said Ford, “if we’re lucky it’s just the Vogons come to throw us in to space.”
“And if we’re unlucky?”
“If we’re unlucky,” said Ford grimly, “the captain might be serious in his threat that he’s going to read us some of his poetry first. . . .”
Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled
My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles
when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.
The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz smiled very slowly. This was done not so much for effect as because he was trying to remember the sequence of muscle movements. He had had a terribly therapeutic yell at his prisoners and was now feeling quite relaxed and ready for a little callousness.
The prisoners sat in Poetry Appreciation chairs—strapped in. Vogons suffered no illusions as to the regard their works were generally held in. Their early attempts at composition had been part of a bludgeoning insistence that they be accepted as a properly evolved and cultured race, but now the only thing that kept them going was sheer bloody-mindedness.
The sweat stood out cold on Ford Prefect’s brow, and slid round the electrodes strapped to his temples. These were attached to a battery of electronic equipment—imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers—all designed to heighten the experience of the poem and make sure that not a single nuance of the poet’s thought was lost.
Arthur Dent sat and quivered. He had no idea what he was in for, but he knew that he hadn’t liked anything that had happened so far and didn’t think things were likely to change.
The Vogon began to read—a fetid little passage of his own devising.
“Oh freddled gruntbuggly . . .”
he began. Spasms wracked Ford’s body—this was worse than even he’d been prepared for.
“? . . . thy micturations are to me/As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a
“Aaaaaaarggggghhhhhh!” went Ford Prefect, wrenching his head back as lumps of pain thumped through it. He could dimly see beside him Arthur lolling and rolling in his seat. He clenched his teeth.
“Groop I implore thee,”
continued the merciless Vogon,
His voice was rising to a horrible pitch of impassioned stridency.
“And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,/Or
I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon, see if I
“Nnnnnnnnnnyyyyyyyuuuuuuurrrrrrrggggggghhhhh!” cried Ford Prefect and threw one final spasm as the electronic enhancement of the last line caught him full blast across the temples. He went limp.
“Now, Earthlings . . .” whirred the Vogon (he didn’t know that Ford Prefect was in fact from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and wouldn’t have cared if he had), “I present you with a simple choice! Either die in the vacuum of space, or . . .” he paused for melodramatic effect, “tell me how good you thought my poem was!”
He threw himself backward into a huge leathery bat-shaped seat and watched them. He did the smile again.
Ford was rasping for breath. He rolled his dusty tongue round his parched mouth and moaned.
Arthur said brightly, “Actually I quite liked it.”
Ford turned and gaped. Here was an approach that had quite simply not occurred to him.
The Vogon raised a surprised eyebrow that effectively obscured his nose and was therefore no bad thing.
“Oh good . . .” he whirred, in considerable astonishment.
“Oh yes,” said Arthur, “I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective.”
Ford continued to stare at him, slowly organizing his thoughts around this totally new concept. Were they really going to be able to bareface their way out of this?
“Yes, do continue . . .” invited the Vogon.
“Oh . . . and, er . . . interesting rhythmic devices too,” continued Arthur, “which seemed to counterpoint the . . . er . . . er . . .” he floundered.
Ford leaped to his rescue, hazarding “. . . counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the . . . er . . .”
he floundered too, but Arthur was ready again.
“. . . humanity of the . . .”
Ford hissed at him.
“Ah yes, Vogonity—sorry—of the poet’s compassionate soul”—Arthur felt he was on the homestretch now—“which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other”—he was reaching a triumphant crescendo—“and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into . . . into . . . er . . .” (which suddenly gave out on him). Ford leaped in with the coup de grace:
“Into whatever it was the poem was about!” he yelled. Out of the corner of his mouth: “Well done, Arthur, that was very good.”
The Vogon perused them. For a moment his embittered racial soul had been touched, but he thought no—too little too late. His voice took on the quality of a cat snagging brushed nylon.
“So what you’re saying is that I write poetry because underneath my mean callous heartless exterior I really just want to be loved,” he said. He paused, “Is that right?”
Ford laughed a nervous laugh. “Well, I mean, yes,” he said, “don’t we all, deep down, you know . . . er . . .”
The Vogon stood up.
“No, well, you’re completely wrong,” he said, “I just write poetry to throw my mean callous heartless exterior into sharp relief. I’m going to throw you off the ship anyway. Guard! Take the prisoners to number three airlock and throw them out!”
“What?” shouted Ford.
A huge young Vogon guard stepped forward and yanked them out of their straps with his huge blubbery arms.
“You can’t throw us into space,” yelled Ford, “we’re trying to write a book.”
“Resistance is useless!” shouted the Vogon guard back at him. It was the first phrase he’d learned when he joined the Vogon Guard Corps.
The captain watched with detached amusement and then turned away.
Arthur stared round him wildly.
“I don’t want to die now!” he yelled. “I’ve still got a headache! I don’t want to go to heaven with a headache, I’d be all cross and wouldn’t enjoy it!”
The guard grasped them both firmly round the neck, and bowing deferentially toward his captain’s back, hoicked them both protesting out of the bridge. A steel door closed and the captain was on his own again. He hummed quietly and mused to himself, lightly fingering his notebook of verses.
“Hmmm,” he said,
“counterpoint the surrealism of the underlyingmetaphor . . .”
He considered this for a moment, and then closed the book with a grim smile.
“Death’s too good for them,” he said.
The long steel-lined corridor echoed to the feeble struggles of the two humanoids clamped firmly under rubbery Vogon arm-pits.
“This is great,” spluttered Arthur, “this is really terrific. Let go of me, you brute!”
The Vogon guard dragged them on.
“Don’t you worry,” said Ford, “I’ll think of something.” He didn’t sound hopeful.
“Resistance is useless!” bellowed the guard.
“Just don’t say things like that,” stammered Ford. “How can anyone maintain a positive mental attitude if you’re saying things like that?”
“My God,” complained Arthur, “you’re talking about a positive mental attitude and you haven’t even had your planet demolished today. I woke up this morning and thought I’d have a nice relaxed day, do a bit of reading, brush the dog. . . . It’s now just after four in the afternoon and I’m already being thrown out of an alien spaceship six light-years from the smoking remains of the Earth!” He spluttered and gurgled as the Vogon tightened his grip.
“All right,” said Ford, “just stop panicking!”
“Who said anything about panicking?” snapped Arthur. “This is still just the culture shock. You wait till I’ve settled down into the situation and found my bearings.
I’ll start panicking!”
“Arthur, you’re getting hysterical. Shut up!” Ford tried desperately to think, but was interrupted by the guard shouting again.
“Resistance is useless!”
“And you can shut up as well!” snapped Ford.
“Resistance is useless!”
“Oh, give it a rest,” said Ford. He twisted his head till he was looking straight up into his captor’s face. A thought struck him.
“Do you really enjoy this sort of thing?” he asked suddenly.
The Vogon stopped dead and a look of immense stupidity seeped slowly over his face.
“Enjoy?” he boomed. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean,” said Ford, “is does it give you a full, satisfying life? Stomping around, shouting, pushing people out of spaceships . . .”
The Vogon stared up at the low steel ceiling and his eyebrows almost rolled over each other. His mouth slacked. Finally he said, “Well, the hours are good. . . .”
“They’d have to be,” agreed Ford.
Arthur twisted his head round to look at Ford.
“Ford, what are you doing?” he asked in an amazed whisper.
“Oh, just trying to take an interest in the world around me, okay?” he said. “So the hours are pretty good then?” he resumed.
The Vogon stared down at him as sluggish thoughts moiled around in the murky depths.
“Yeah,” he said, “but now you come to mention it, most of the actual minutes are pretty lousy. Except . . .” he thought again, which required looking at the ceiling, “except some of the shouting I quite like.” He filled his lungs and bellowed, “Resistance is . . .”
“Sure, yes,” interrupted Ford hurriedly, “you’re good at that, I can tell. But if it’s mostly lousy,” he said, slowly giving the words time to reach their mark, “then why do you do it? What is it? The girls? The leather? The machismo? Or do you just find that coming to terms with the mindless tedium of it all presents an interesting challenge?”
Arthur looked backward and forward between them in bafflement.
“Er . . .” said the guard, “er . . . er . . . I dunno. I think I just sort of . . . do it really. My aunt said that spaceship guard was a good career for a young Vogon—you know, the uniform, the low-slung stun ray holster, the mindless tedium . . .”
“There you are, Arthur,” said Ford with the air of someone reaching the conclusion of his argument, “you think you’ve got problems.”
Arthur rather thought he had. Apart from the unpleasant business with his home planet the Vogon guard had half-throttled him already and he didn’t like the sound of being thrown into space very much.
“Try and understand
problem,” insisted Ford. “Here he is, poor lad, his entire life’s work is stamping around, throwing people off spaceships . . .”
“And shouting,” added the guard.
“And shouting, sure,” said Ford, patting the blubbery arm clamped round his neck in friendly condescension, “and he doesn’t even know why he’s doing it!”
Arthur agreed this was very sad. He did this with a small feeble gesture, because he was too asphyxiated to speak.
Deep rumblings of bemusement came from the guard.
“Well. Now you put it like that I suppose . . .”
“Good lad!” encouraged Ford.
“But all right,” went on the rumblings, “so what’s the alternative?”
“Well,” said Ford, brightly but slowly, “stop doing it, of course! Tell them,” he went on, “you’re not going to do it any more.” He felt he ought to add something to that, but for the moment the guard seemed to have his mind occupied pondering that much.
“Eerrrrrmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm . . .” said the guard, “erm, well, that doesn’t sound that great to me.”
Ford suddenly felt the moment slipping away.
“Now wait a minute,” he said, “that’s just the start, you see, there’s more to it than that, you see . . . .”
But at that moment the guard renewed his grip and continued his original purpose of lugging his prisoners to the airlock. He was obviously quite touched.
“No, I think if it’s all the same to you,” he said, “I’d better get you both shoved into this airlock and then go and get on with some other bits of shouting I’ve got to do.”
It wasn’t all the same to Ford Prefect at all.
“Come on now . . . but look!” he said, less slowly, less brightly.
“Huhhhhggggggnnnnnnn . . .” said Arthur without any clear inflection.
“But hang on,” pursued Ford, “there’s music and art and things to tell you about yet! Arrggghhh!”
“Resistance is useless,” bellowed the guard, and then added, “You see, if I keep it up I can eventually get promoted to Senior Shouting Officer, and there aren’t usually many vacancies for nonshouting and nonpushing-people-about officers, so I think I’d better stick to what I know.”
They had now reached the airlock—a large circular steel hatchway of massive strength and weight let into the inner skin of the craft. The guard operated a control and the hatchway swung smoothly open.
“But thanks for taking an interest,” said the Vogon guard. “Bye now.” He flung Ford and Arthur through the hatchway into the small chamber within. Arthur lay panting for breath. Ford scrambled round and flung his shoulder uselessly against the reclosing hatchway.
“But listen,” he shouted to the guard, “there’s a whole world you don’t know anything about . . . here, how about this?” Desperately he grabbed for the only bit of culture he knew offhand— he hummed the first bar of Beethoven’s “Fifth.”
Da da da dum!
Doesn’t that stir anything in you?”
“No,” said the guard, “not really. But I’ll mention it to my aunt.”
If he said anything further after that it was lost. The hatchway sealed itself tight, and all sound was lost except the faint distant hum of the ship’s engines.