In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the galaxy is a place where seemingly anything can happen. In fact, Adams goes out of his way to upend readers’ expectations about storytelling. To do this, he bases one of the novel’s most important plot points on a spaceship that operates according to improbability, impossibility, and coincidence. Although he goes through the motions of explaining how the spaceship’s “Improbability Drive” functions, his explanation relies heavily on unfamiliar concepts that force readers to move through the novel without a complete scientific—or even logistical—understanding of the very components that drive the story. As such, he plays with the conventional narrative form, challenging the idea that fiction has to be plausible, realistic, or predictable. In doing so, he also allows readers to experience the same kind of surprise and disbelief that protagonist Arthur Dent undergoes when he first leaves Earth and learns about aliens. By employing utter absurdity, Adams puts readers in a position of incredulity and skepticism, effectively simulating Arthur’s shock and advocating for open-mindedness in the face of even the most incomprehensible circumstances.
Adams creates a highly unlikely plot, one that tests the limits of readers’ willingness to suspend their disbelief. For instance, when earth is destroyed by the Vogon alien race, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent become secret stowaways on the Vogon spaceship. However, it isn’t long until the Vogons find them and jettison them into space. Although the chances (according to Adams) are 2^276,709 to 1 in favor of them dying while free-floating in space, Arthur and Ford are intercepted by Zaphod’s spaceship, Heart of Gold. This is because the spaceship uses something called the Infinite Improbability Drive, “a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second.” It’s worth noting here that Adams uses an invented measure of time, a “nothingth of a second.” Given that this made-up value is used to describe such a critical logistical detail—a detail that accounts for how the protagonists escape death—it’s clear that Adams is not interested in enabling readers to understand the novel’s internal logic.
What’s more, Adams only adds to the confusion when he explains the concept of “infinite improbability.” He writes: “The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood.” However, he continues, physicists maintained that “infinite improbability” was “virtually impossible.” But then one day a young student proved them wrong; “If, he thought to himself, [an infinite improbability] machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability.” This meant that “all” this student had to do to make an infinite improbability machine was “work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea…and turn it on!” At this point, the majority of readers most likely have stopped tracking Adams’s pseudo-scientific explanations, since it’s clear they’re not meant to be taken seriously (after all, his comic tone immediately appears in words like “Bambleweeny” and when he suggests that such a machine should float in “a nice hot cup of tea”). And even if readers have followed Adams’s logic, the explanation doesn’t actually provide any insight into how an improbability machine works—the devices he mentions are fictional, and the explanation hinges on the student’s sardonic interpretation of the term “virtually impossible,” which makes the explanation more of a joke about language than an actual scientific answer. As such, “infinite improbability” remains an abstract concept.
As if it’s not already clear that Adams doesn’t intend for readers to understand the logic behind how Arthur and Ford are saved, Zaphod and Trillian decide to calculate just how improbable it was for their ship to intercept these two free-floating humanoids. When Trillian “punch[es] up the figures,” she arrives at “two-to-the-power-of-Infinity-minus-one,” which Adams admits is “an irrational number that only has a conventional meaning in Improbability Physics.” Given that “Improbability Physics” isn’t a real field, it becomes even more apparent that Adams wants to firmly situate the logic underlying The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in a highly fictional realm, one that can only be understood on its own terms. Considering that the novel’s primary protagonist, Arthur, is an earthling hurdling through space, it’s unsurprising that Adams wants to keep readers from fully understanding how the elements they encounter function—he wants readers to experience the same kind of dumbfounded awe Arthur no doubt feels as he witnesses an entirely foreign reality. Indeed, the author encourages an extreme suspension of disbelief by making it impossible to fully follow the book’s internal logic, which is itself concerned with working out the internal logic of the very idea of impossibility. In this circular way, Adams forces readers to approach the novel with an open-minded sense of wonder rather than with a rigid and literal-minded outlook.
Improbability, Impossibility, and Absurdity ThemeTracker
Improbability, Impossibility, and Absurdity Quotes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“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 non-existence of God.
“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 give-away, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. [...]’
“ ‘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.”
The nothingth of a second for which the hole existed reverberated backward and forward through time in a most improbable fashion. Somewhere in the deeply remote past it seriously traumatized a small random group of atoms drifting through the empty sterility of space and made them cling together in the most extraordinarily unlikely patterns. These patterns quickly learned to copy themselves (this was part of what was so extraordinary about the patterns) and went on to cause massive trouble on every planet they drifted on to. That was how life began in the Universe.
The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood […]. [One] thing [scientists] couldn’t stand was the perpetual failure they encountered in trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralyzing distances between the farthest stars, and in the end they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.
Then, one day, a student […] found himself reasoning this way:
If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea…and turn it on!
“Can we work out,” said Zaphod, “from their point of view what the Improbability of their rescue was?”
“Yes, that’s a constant,” said Trillian, “two to the power of two hundred and seventy-six thousand, seven hundred and nine to one against.”
“That’s high. They’re two lucky lucky guys.”
“But relative to what we were doing when the ship picked them up…”
Trillian punched up the figures. They showed two-to-the-power-of-Infinity-minus-one to one against (an irrational number that only has a conventional meaning in Improbability Physics).
The Heart of Gold fled on silently through the night of space, now on conventional photon drive. Its crew of four were ill at ease knowing that they had been brought together not of their own volition or by simple coincidence, but by some curious perversion of physics—as if relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules.
As the ship’s artificial night closed in they were each grateful to retire to separate cabins and try to rationalize their thoughts.
“I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
“But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything,” howled Loonquawl.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought with the air of one who suffers fools gladly, “but what actually is it?”
A slow stupefied silence crept over the men as they stared at the computer and then at each other.
“Well, you know, it’s just Everything…everything…” offered Pouchg weakly.
“Exactly!” said Deep Thought. “So once you do know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.”