The characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy frequently confront issues of power. For Arthur Dent, this means learning to accept that he is powerless against humanity’s apathetic bureaucracies and even more powerless in the face of the alien races he encounters after earth is destroyed. Adams frames authority and power as abstract and inaccessible. In the same way that Arthur can do little to stop the state from destroying his house and building a bypass, he can do nothing to prevent the Vogon alien race from obliterating earth itself. Worse, he later learns that the entirety of human life has been an experiment manipulated by—of all creatures—mice. Although humans always believed they were the ones running tests on mice, it has apparently been the other way around: mice have been controlling all of humanity for 10,000,000 years. As such, Arthur suggests that true power over others comes when people don’t even know the nature of their own oppression. Keeping power and authority hidden, he suggests, is the most effective way of subjugating a population.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy opens with a small-scale example of how people can gain authority over one another by making the engines of their own power appear vague or inaccessible. When Arthur Dent discovers that his house is about to be demolished to make way for a new bypass, it is already too late. This is because news of the construction project was made virtually inaccessible to him. “But Mr. Dent,” Mr. Prosser, the foreman, says, “the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.” In response, Arthur says: “Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.” Mr. Prosser claims that the “plans were on display,” but Arthur points out that the plans were “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’” It becomes clear that whoever made the plan to demolish Arthur’s house actively wanted to use the gears of bureaucracy to keep the project out of the public eye. As a result, Prosser is able to say that the plans have been “available” for “nine months,” thereby intimating that Arthur is the one who is at fault for not being diligent enough to inform himself of the matter. In this way, Prosser gains the upper hand in their argument, despite the fact that Arthur has clearly been cheated. Completely unaware that his house is set to be torn down, he has had no time to prepare an argument, so the only thing he can in the moment is lie down in front of the bulldozer—a technique that, although effective in the short-term, is rather weak.
Unbeknownst to both Arthur and Prosser, there are other forces of power afoot that are greater than their own. They discover this when the Vogon alien race arrive in their large spaceships and hover above the earth, announcing that they’re going to destroy the planet in order to build a “hyperspatial express route.” In an argument similar to the one Arthur and Prosser have just had, the Vogons say: “There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. 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, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.” In the same way that plans for the demolition of Arthur’s house were hidden away so that he wouldn’t be able to do anything to interfere, the Vogons have posted their “planning charts” on a planet that is inaccessible to humankind. As such, humanity hasn’t even known to stand up for itself against the powerful Vogons. In turn, Adams illustrates that one party’s ignorance can be another party’s opportunity to assume power and control.
As if it isn’t bad enough that Arthur has to come to terms with his home planet’s annihilation, he soon learns that humankind has been under the control of another species for the entirety of its existence. When he goes to the planet Magrathea, an old luxury-planet designer named Slartibartfast explains to him that mice—who are actually a “hyperintelligent” race of “pandimensional beings”—have been experimenting on humans. Unsurprisingly, Arthur finds this ridiculous, trying to explain to Slartibartfast that humans are the ones who have been experimenting on mice. “Such subtlety,” Slartibartfast muses, continuing by saying: “How better to disguise their real natures, and how better to guide your thinking. Suddenly running down a maze the wrong way, eating the wrong bit of cheese, unexpectedly dropping dead of myxomatosis. If it’s finely calculated the cumulative effect is enormous.” By saying this, Slartibartfast reveals that mice have been purposefully deceiving humans as a way of gaining power over them. Similar to how Arthur Dent didn’t know his house was in danger and thus was unable to fight the plans, humans have gone through life completely unaware of the fact that they are under the control of mice. In fact, they’ve considered themselves to be the ones in power, thereby deepening their ignorance of their own helplessness. Once again, then, Adams shows how effective it is to hide the engines of power. In an ironic twist, though, the mice are so preoccupied with their experiment that they fail to take note of the Vogons’ “planning charts,” which indicated that earth will be destroyed. As such, their 10,000,000-year experiment on earth is laid to waste when the planet is demolished, and they become victims of the very same kind of power tactic that they themselves used to control humankind: obfuscation.
Power and Control ThemeTracker
Power and Control Quotes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The word bulldozer wandered through his mind for a moment in search of something to connect with.
The bulldozer outside the kitchen window was quite a big one.
He stared at it.
“Yellow,” he thought, and stomped off back to his bedroom to get dressed.
Passing the bathroom he stopped to drink a large glass of water, and another. He began to suspect that he was hung over. Why was he hung over? Had he been drinking the night before? He supposed that he must have been. He caught a glint in the shaving mirror. “Yellow,” he thought, and stomped on to the bedroom.
“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
“So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?”
“Could be, could be…”
“Well, if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?”
“You don’t,” said Ford patiently, “actually need him here.”
Mr. Prosser thought about this.
“Well, no, not as such…” he said, “not exactly need…”
Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them wasn’t making a lot of sense.
Ford said, “So if you would just like to take it as read that he’s actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?”
“This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council,” the voice continued. “As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperstpatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.”
The PA died away.
Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. […]
“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. 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, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”
The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. […] Very very few people realize that the President and the Government have virtually no power at all, and of these few people only six know whence ultimate power is wielded.
“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.”
One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. He was renowned for being amazingly clever and quite clearly was so—but not all the time, which obviously worried him, hence the act. He preferred people to be puzzled rather than contemptuous. This above all appeared to Trillian to be genuinely stupid, but she could no longer be bothered to argue about it.
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.
Many men of course became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor—at least no one worth speaking of. And for all the richest and most successful merchants life inevitably became rather dull and niggly, and they began to imagine that this was therefore the fault of the worlds they’d settled on. None of them was entirely satisfactory: either the climate wasn’t quite right in the later part of the afternoon, or the day was half an hour too long, or the sea was exactly the wrong shade of pink.
And thus were created the conditions for a staggering new form of specialist industry: custom-made luxury planet building. The home of this industry was the planet Magrathea, where hyperspatial engineers sucked matter through white holes in space to form it into dream planets—gold planets, platinum planets, soft rubber planets with lots of earthquakes—all lovingly made to meet the exacting standards that the Galaxy’s richest men naturally came to expect.
“You want to check your legal position, you do, mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job, aren’t we? I mean, what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives you his bleeding phone number the next morning?”
“That’s right,” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”