The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Study Guide

Douglas Adams

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Chapter 17 | Summary

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Summary

Arthur Dent has found a machine on the ship that dispenses a liquid that tastes almost, but not entirely, unlike tea. Revived by the drink, it occurs to him to ask if Magrathea is safe. Zaphod Beeblebrox assures him that it has been dead for five million years—at which point, a fanfare sounds and a five-million-year-old broadcast from the planet thanks them for visiting and announces that Magrathea is closed for business.

Undeterred, Zaphod continues the Heart of Gold's orbit. A second, less friendly announcement thanks them for their kind interest and asks them quite bluntly to leave. A third announcement points out that, for their most enthusiastic clients who refuse to go away, guided missiles are provided and are now heading for the ship.

Zaphod takes this as a good sign, even though they may all die. It means they must be on to something. Eddie, the computer, cheerfully explains that no evasive action is possible; missile impact is 45 seconds away. On impulse, Zaphod takes full manual control of the ship, which succeeds in throwing everything into chaos. The ship twists, rockets upward, and then drops "out of the sky like a stone." It is at this point that someone sustains a bruise to the upper arm.

Zaphod orders the computer to turn the engines back on. Eddie complies and then breaks into mournful song, pausing every few seconds to announce the moments until missile impact.

Arthur Dent is struck by the idea of turning on the Improbability Drive. Though anything could happen, what that could be doesn't much matter at this point. Discussion of the idea ends with "a mind-mangling explosion of noise and light."

Analysis

Douglas Adams was fascinated by scientific and technological progress. This does not stop him from lampooning the ever-growing use of automated systems and recorded messages. The messages from Magrathea are polite and professional while inviting the visitors to go away, and then insisting that they do so. This "encouragement" is taken to the extreme with a missile attack on the persistent callers. The 1970s had seen a growing use of automated messages as businesses employed advancing technologies to communicate with customers. Adams takes the potential for complete automation to an absurd level with Magrathea's fully functional and unfriendly five-million-year-old automatic system.

As the missiles speed toward the Heart of Gold, Eddie, the computer, croons verses from the song "You'll Never Walk Alone"—a show tune from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. It is also a song that has taken on an afterlife to become an anthem of hope and resilience. Over the years, it has been repeated in countless renditions and arrangements; transformed into assorted genres by pop, opera, and jazz performers.

As the chapter draws to an end, Arthur Dent once again is the unexpected source of a solution to the problem at hand. He may be new to the Universe, but he does have his inspired moments (such as his dazzling but futile attempt to sweet-talk Prostetnic Vogon Jelz). His suggestion to turn on the Improbability Drive is nothing less than brilliant, even if it is a desperate last act.

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