Hitchhiking the road to the galaxy – attitudes toward possibility and apocalypse in Cormac McCarthy and Douglas Adams

Jonnie Critchley

Do we know where Mars is?
Sort of.
If we had a spaceship could we go there?
Well. If you had a really good spaceship and you had people to help you I suppose you could go.
Would there be food and stuff when you got there?
No. There’s nothing there.

Briefly breaking through the monotony of life in what we assume without complete certainty is the United States of America in a state of post-apocalyptic disintegration, the child at the heart of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road offers, through his naïve vision, a possibility of escape, of exploration and colonisation of a distant world by the human race as an alternative to an unbearable life on Earth. This notion proliferates in late 20th and early 21st-century popular culture, notably in the realm of science fiction; eleven incarnations of Doctor Who’s eponymous character have not only fended off numerous threats to earthly civilisation but also marvelled at the human race’s ability to colonise and continue elsewhere in the universe: ‘End of the universe and here you are. Indomitable, that’s the word!’[2]. Since the rise of the nuclear age, the Cold War, and latterly the apparent inevitability of climate change bringing the world as we know it to an end, we have been fascinated by the idea apocalypse in the 20th and 21st centuries like we have never been before.

The Road presents a vision of a ‘barren, silent, godless’ (page 2) world characterised by sparse language and imagery which offers no hope, as indicated by the father’s response to his son’s questions, above. The man can conceive of no salvation, even in escape to Mars, illustrating the completely nihilistic tendency of this book. But in what other ways does popular culture encourage us to think about the end of the world?

I want to contrast the pessimistic approach of The Road with the comedy of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To my knowledge, there has been no sustained critical engagement with this text, whereas McCarthy has achieved critical and academic acclaim for his work; Andrew O’Hagan calls The Road ‘an American classic which, at a stroke, makes McCarthy a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature’[3]. The book is to be found on university reading lists, and as the subject of academic papers – it is a distinctly ‘literary’ text with an impressive popular appeal as well. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, is conventionally regarded as a work of popular culture, on the other side of that traditional, if archaic, high/low cultural binary. This perhaps owes to the book’s origins as a radio play, and the accumulated cult status of the franchise which I would argue groups it with Doctor Who and the Back to the Future films. But let us for a moment consider the similarities between Hitchhiker’s and The Road, looking through the optimistic, Mars-facing eyes of the boy, and explore the opposing visions of apocalypse presented by Adams and McCarthy.

The two texts build from a common starting point: the destruction of Earth. McCarthy’s apocalyptic event is unspecified but we are lead to assume some kind of environmental collapse, possibly the result of unsustainable human activity. This is certainly suggested by McCarthy’s ashen descriptions of the landscape, with ash serving as a reminder of some cataclysmic event: ‘the ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void’ (page 10). The book’s much-discussed final paragraph, with its rich natural imagery of ‘brook trout in the streams in the mountains’ (page 306), sets a lost natural harmony in obvious opposition with the previous 300-plus pages of barren prose. As Kenneth Brandt has argued, this makes clear the dependence of mankind upon the natural world[4]. This has the effect of reducing the status and significance of mankind, revealing his utter vulnerability to forces beyond his control. Just like, in fact, the way Douglas Adams comically reveals that man is not the superior being he thinks he is when the Earth is destroyed by an alien race to make way for a ‘hyperspatial express route’[5]. ‘There’s no point in acting all surprised about it,’ the Vogons tell mankind, ‘All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years’ (page 31). Mankind is, quite literally, being bypassed.

Destruction is total in both texts; McCarthy presents a world so degenerate that language itself fails: ‘The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion’ (page 93). To borrow the title of Brandt’s article, this is a world thoroughly unmade. In Hitchhiker’s, the world is vaporized, leaving behind a ‘terrible ghastly silence’ which resonates with The Road as ‘The Vogon Constructor Fleet coasted away into the inky starry void’ (page 31). However, two particular differences relating to the authors’ treatment of what happens beyond the apocalypse distinguish these texts from one another. Firstly, while both self-consciously draw attention to their uses of language (as when Adams parodies the poetic process through an excruciating Vogon poetry reading), Adams’s style and tone are characteristically and positively playful and comic whereas McCarthy’s is, as we have said, sparse, bleak and tragic.

Secondly, on a narrative level the end of the world functions as a catalyst for the rest of Adams’s novel, thrusting Arthur Dent into the exploration of the galaxy which the boy in The Road can only imagine. By contrast, The Road seems to allow no escape except death, which the man gratefully embraces at the end of the novel. Even as the boy is adopted by another group of travellers, it is hard to imagine that his continued existence will be a significant improvement upon that which has gone before.

I believe that both novels discussed here, when considered in terms of postmodern characteristics – particularly their self-conscious use of language and debunking of the metanarrative of mankind’s status – are extremely similar and united by a common anxiety regarding the apocalypse. However, there are fundamental differences in attitude and tone which lead us to conclude that the treatment of possibility ultimately divides the narratives into the tragic and comic modes. When the man tells his son ‘No. There’s nothing there,’ he defines the limits of possibility in The Road and renders escape to Mars impossible; the tragedy of this novel is that nothing is possible beyond the mere existence described. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, revolves around the central plot device of a spacecraft powered by an ‘Infinite Improbability Drive’, meaning that literally anything – and indeed everything – is possible. While McCarthy’s characters are confined to the monotony of life on the road, Adams stresses the possibilities available to the hitchhiker, the man of the road who is able to transcend Earthly highways.

This is the defining characteristic of Adams’s treatment of the end of the world, creating the book’s comic tone and in fact generating a narrative that circles back upon itself and returns Arthur Dent to a reconstructed planet Earth. Only in a narrative of infinite (rather than finite) possibility could Earth be revealed to be a giant computer programmed to find the ‘Question to the Ultimate Answer’ (page 137). Only in such a narrative could there be a company manufacturing designer planets which is able to rebuild the previously obliterated planet Earth, effectively giving mankind a second chance. In contrast to McCarthy’s sparse and emotive pessimism, perhaps we should consider Adams’s attitude to apocalypse in the Biblical Revelatory sense, as connoting new beginnings, Christ’s second coming and a new earth. McCarthy presents the fight to transcend a post-apocalyptic Earth, whereas Adams is concerned to move through the apocalypse to a new Earth. Through humour and infinite possibility, Hitchhiker’s presents a world thoroughly remade.

[1] Cormac McCarthy, The Road, (London: Picador, 2009), page 167. Subsequent references given parenthetically.

[2] David Tennant as The Doctor in Utopia (Doctor Who, Series 3, Episode 11). Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Graeme Harper for BBC Wales. First broadcast 16th June 2007.

[3] Andrew O’Hagan, review of The Road, quoted on back cover of Picador edition (2009).

[4] Kenneth Brandt, ‘A world thoroughly unmade: McCarthy’s conclusion to The Road’ in The Explicator, Volume 70 (1) (Jan-March 2012), pp63-6.

[5] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, (London: Pan Books, 1979), page 30.

One comment

  1. Layla Hendow · August 13, 2012

    Great article. I really like the notion of ‘possibility’ with the different approaches to the apocalypse: McCarthy’s bleakness and Adams’ apparent mocking of the end of the world. Perhaps another angle to consider is the adaptations of these texts? Maybe it is not a coincidence that both of the books have been adapted into films. This alternative media adds a visual dimension, notably in the use of colour. Throughout The Road scenes are greyscale and dull except for the flashbacks of the world before the apocalypse. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, however, is comically and exaggeratedly colourful. This shows another difference in how the apocalypse is taken more or less seriously.

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