How It Stands Up

Days of Future Passed

First published in 1979, "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" is uncanny in its predictions about the future we now live in

So many old books and films do not stand the test of time. In fact, sitting through a '60s, '70s or '80s movie—even if it's a classic—is usually an excruciatingly slow experience, wherein your finger is itching to head to the fast-forward button and stay on it till the end. Older books often seem quaint, stilted or ridiculously outdated.

Except for science fiction. When you reread sci-fi years later, what you're really looking for is how accurate it is. What did they know then about now? Were they right? And, of course, why don't we have flying jetpacks yet?

As a kid, I was more into the paranormal (ESP, telekenisis) than straight sci-fi, which was often too techno-geeky for me. But as a teen, I somehow stumbled onto Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and raced through all five books entranced less by the aliens, space travel and wacko inventions than by its absurd commentary on human nature. ("This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.")

But now, all these years later, rereading it and listening to the BBC radio series (the radio series began in 1978, and the first book was published in 1979), I was struck by how prescient it all was, predicting things I could not have imagined.

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" ("not the Earth book, never published on Earth") is probably "the most remarkable book ever to come out off the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor … the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom."

When I first read the series, I'm not even sure how I imagined this talking book with unlimited memory and indexes, which helps the two main characters travel the galaxy. But today I stop on this graph: "It's a sort of electronic book … a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square."

It's my Kindle! With Audible. And Wi-Fi, to be constantly updated. But it's also like an iPad or a Tablet. With Wikipedia thrown in—yes, because the Guide is constantly updated by crowd-sourcing.

What other marvels did Adams predict? Touch screens and beyond. As it says of the Heart of Gold spaceship—the one that would improbably pick up our two protagonists after Earth is destroyed to make room for an intergalactic bypass: "As the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch sensitive—you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope." This is predicting motion sensors like Xbox and the Wii and other technologies gamers use.

Adams also mentions a major search engine. "The Googleplex Star Thinker is a super-computer from the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity and has the ability to calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle during a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard." Google, anyone?

The series also has robots; it didn't invent them, of course, but Marvin is perhaps the first paranoid android, a depressed robot with a GPP—a "genuine people personality," which every electronic gadget on the ship is fitted with: from electronic doors with a "cheerful and sunny disposition" to Eddie, the "brash and cheery as if selling detergent" shipboard computer—wait, could that be Siri?

Of course, there are plenty of things that Adams wrote about that haven't yet come to pass: intergalactic and time travel for one. And Happy Vertical People Transporter—elevators that can predict what floor you want to go to (although some elevators today do use algorithms to mimic this). And let's not forget the Nutrimatic drink dispenser: "It makes an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject's metabolism, and then sends tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject's brain to see what is likely to be well received." So much better than my Keurig!

I'm impressed with the author's clairvoyant perception. Perhaps it came from a lack of fear of the future: In 1999, he wrote an essay, "How to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet," denying the Net was a silly fad. "The change is real. I don't think anybody would argue now that the Internet isn't becoming a major factor in our lives."

But what most impresses me about Adams, and the series, is the cynicism and humor he applies to all new technology. "The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair."

No matter what the advances, there would always be human nature: absurd, ignorant, hapless and yearning for meaning.

"In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn't cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in about 2:55, when you know you've taken all the baths that you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o'clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul."

Tags: books