The Galaxy’s a fun place. You’ll need to have this fish in your ear.
Posted by: John Martz
Book: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (purchase on Amazon)
Ford, with a lightning movement, clapped his hand to Arthur’s ear, and he had the sudden sickening sensation of the fish slithering deep into his aural tract. Gasping with horror he scrabbled at his ear for a second or so, but then slowly turned goggle-eyed with wonder. He was experiencing the aural equivalent of looking at a picture of two black silhouetted faces and suddenly seeing it as a picture of a white candlestick. Or of looking at a lot of coloured dots on a piece of paper which suddenly resolve themselves into the figure six and mean that your optician is going to charge you a lot of money for a new pair of glasses.
The Babel fish is a living hearing aid that decodes the brainwaves embedded in all speech patterns. Like Star Trek’s universal translator, the Babel fish is a simple plot device used to avoid the obvious obstacle of an interstellar language barrier.
But like all good science fiction, the story and the characters here exist as vehicles for larger ideas. And with the Babel fish Douglas Adams, a self-described radical atheist, dismisses both Intelligent Design and the circular logic of religious extremism in one fell swoop:
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the 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 giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’
‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
I nearly didn’t illustrate this scene. After my first illustration, I was very aware that I hadn’t actually drawn any of the main characters yet. So I thought my next move should be to introduce Arthur Dent, the story’s protagonist, in some straight-forward, literal interpretation. But as I started to reread parts of my dogeared 1979 paperback, this image of the Babel Fish with a brain for a speech bubble materialized.
And it’s these little moments in the book that make Douglas Adams so much fun to read. The characters really do take a back seat to the ideas and philosophies sprinkled throughout. The main character isn’t Arthur Dent. As Douglas Adams would say, he’s just this guy, you know. It’s the book within the book, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that allows Douglas Adams to bounce from one idea to the next, and inject his world view into a series of events that can give it shape.
For kicks, here are iPhone-sized wallpaper versions of this, and my previous scene featuring Arthur’s home about to be demolished. Click for full size:
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