The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Study Guide

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

The message coming over the public address system of the Vogon ship is not encouraging. The Vogon captain knows there are hitchhikers aboard, and he intends to hunt them down and throw them off the ship. Also, the ship is about to jump into hyperspace for the journey to Barnard's Star. For this event, Ford Prefect warns Arthur Dent to remain lying on the floor, as it is unpleasantly like being drunk—not drunk meaning intoxicated, but drunk like a glass of water.

While the jump is taking place, the fish in Arthur's ear is explained in an aside. Called a Babel fish, it has the remarkable ability to let the user understand anything said in any form of language, once it is stuck it in the user's ear. It effectively removes any barriers in communication the user may encounter anywhere in the Universe. Unfortunately, it seems that this "has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

The jump through hyperspace lands the ship six light-years from Earth—when it existed. As Arthur struggles to recover, he is hit by the full reality that his home planet is no longer there. Knowing Ford had been conducting research for the electronic guidebook, he demands to see the entry for Earth. To his astonishment, it is covered in one word: "Harmless." Ford assures the indignant Arthur that he has sent off a new, improved entry to the book's editor. It will read "Mostly harmless."

At that moment, marching footsteps and a sharp rap on the door alert the two hitchhikers that they have been found. If they are lucky, the Vogons will merely throw them out into space. If they are unlucky, the Vogon captain will read them some of his poetry first.

Analysis

The leap through hyperspace brings the Vogon ship to Barnard's Star, the third nearest star to the sun. It is named for Edward Emerson Barnard, the American astronomer who discovered it in 1916. At this point in his day, Arthur Dent experiences a very believable inability to grasp what has happened to Earth.

The enormity of the loss is too much to take in. It is the memory of the iconic Nelson's Column that finally cracks open the door to understanding. Nelson's Column was built between 1840 and 1843 to commemorate Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. He inspired the British navy to absolute victory against the French and died in battle aboard his flagship HMS Victory. Revered and much loved, the admiral died at the moment of his greatest triumph. His memorial column, Arthur realizes, is gone forever, as is the England that he fought for. There is no one left but him to remember. From here, Arthur's mind moves on to other things that are gone. Oddly, it's the everyday and insignificant McDonald's hamburger that hits him hardest. He passes out. The passage raises the question What would you miss most? When Arthur comes around, he is sobbing for his mother.

In this chapter, the small yellow fish in Arthur's ear is explained. The Babel fish, as it is called, is a device Adams uses to neatly solve the problem of language in space travel. As Adams saw it, a basic problem with all sci-fi series was that all the aliens seemed able to speak perfect English. The name Babel is an allusion to the Tower of Babel in the Bible book of Genesis. Babel means "confusion." Long ago, people lived in harmony and all spoke the same language. Then, with growing pride and arrogance, they began building a great tower with the intent of reaching heaven. It would make them equal to God and be a symbol of their divine strength. God decided to destroy their arrogance by ending their ability to understand one another. He split them into tribes and caused them to speak different languages. The Babel fish reverses the process and makes all languages intelligible. Although it is never mentioned again, it is assumed that Arthur keeps the Babel fish where it is, in his ear, for the rest of the story.

Adams also uses the Babel fish to introduce into the story a few thoughts on philosophy and religion. The usefulness of the Babel fish is mind boggling, and its evolution is presumed by some philosophers to prove the nonexistence of God. They reason that such a bizarrely improbable coincidence could not have happened by chance but required divine design. Yet, belief in God demands faith. If the Babel fish proves God's existence, then faith is eliminated, and God "vanishes in a puff of logic." As the discussion continues,however, the argument turns back to support of the existence of God. These same thinkers, it states, arrogantly proceed to next prove that black is white, and then get themselves killed at the next zebra crossing (a crosswalk painted with broad white stripes). This is another example of Adams's gift for pairing ideas in a way that inspires deeper thought. It calls into question the existence and nonexistence of God, and suggests that some philosophical debates can be taken too far, into the realm of absurd extremes.

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