Monday, June 13, 2011

Jeff's Books to Open Your Mind: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

At first, I considered intentionally posting this late to honor Douglas Adams’ love of deadlines (“I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”) But Project Management experience has gotten the better of me and I must follow my established timeline. (I think a little bit of my soul just died when I typed that.) On to the next mind opening suggestion:

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is chock full of brain expanding ideas and notions. The plot itself is a mix of music, faith, computers, literature, alternate realities, and time travel…basically all of Douglas Adams’ crazy ideas from Doctor Who, without a BBC filter to dilute them. The story is just the beginning though, it’s the concepts and presentation that really earn this book a spot on the list.

The comparison between computer programming and teaching is very interesting. The idea is that a good instructor must come away from the teaching experience with a deeper understanding of the topic than before in order to effectively transmit the information to the student. Computers (at least when the novel was written) are the dumbest student possible, requiring things to be broken down to the most basic level in order to be programmed (or taught). Because of this, the programmer gets the most thorough understanding of the task to be done. Aside from the computer idea, it has some interesting implications on the responsibilities and rewards of both being a student and a teacher.

The most important reason for this book’s inclusion is that it’s the first place I saw the phrase “The fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” This is a theme that runs through a great deal of my favorite reading/viewing/absorbing through osmosis tales. To clarify: this does not mean sitting in a circle of unshaven, unwashed individuals singing “Kumbaya” trying to attain enlightenment while getting high off of each other’s fragrance. It also is not based in any ecological ideas, such as the fact that Spotted Owl flatulence is rapidly destroying vast tracts of the Earth’s cattle country. (Maybe I have that backwards; I tend to ignore those people. I suppose it makes more sense that a well aimed cow fart could kill a spotted owl outright. I think I have an idea for the next youtube sensation!) The interconnectedness in this story is up above all of that at the time space continuum level; the “Whole Sort of General Mish Mash” (to reference Hitchhiker’s and once again leap ahead of myself.) Most ideas dangerous to society and individuals are about separating people, beliefs, or objects apart from each other. Whether the other group is thought of as something to be destroyed, converted, or even protected, it still must be fundamentally seen as an “other”. It’s nice to think that there is a large enough “big picture” to allow a view that shows the entire system of all reality. This idea comes up at some level or another in most of these “Open your Mind” books, from early on in the Sideways Stories and Wrinkle in Time series, up to the later guaranteed neuron fryers of The Illuminatus Trilogy and Gödel Escher Bach. But this tale is the one that named it for me, and names have power. (It must be true; I saw it in a monster movie.)

In a similar vein, I’m very keen on Dirk’s views on the impossible. He states the word is not in his dictionary “In fact, everything between ‘herring’ and ‘marmalade’ appears to be missing.” (Due to him tearing the center of the tome out to make it fit in a drawer.) This idea gets delved into later on when he turns the famous Sherlock Holmes idea on its head.

“Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible…

The impossible often has a kind of integrity which the merely improbable lacks…The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human, which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality”

I really like this idea. It goes hand in hand with the Fundamental Interconnectedness of all Things. Most philosophies like to separate the universe into what can, and what cannot happen, be experienced or be understood. The notion that they’re both really part of the same group, which we haven’t identified all of yet, I find highly liberating. Not that I rabidly follow any conspiracy or pseudo scientific theory around, quite the reverse. By rewriting the definition of impossible, the need to believe in many of those things goes away. The theory of Ancient Astronauts came from people claiming primitive humans building the giant structures in their societies was impossible, therefore “Little Green Men Construction Limited” must have helped. I’m much more a fan of believing in the wonder of the mundane, rather than making up a new stuff outside of the system to justify happenings that we haven’t figured out how to explain yet. If you have some spare time, and are in the mood for a long venom filled rant, get me started on John Edwards and his “Crossing Over the Lines of Decency and Gullibility.” An over developed reliance on accepting things are impossible is what makes his scam appear to be his “gift”, when it’s just a series of very old confidence tricks that prey on other’s notions of what cannot be done.  This also applies, at a slightly less offensive level, for those illusionists who pretend to be wielders of real powers. (I'm looking at you David Blaine.)

While it does not have all the mind popping power of the first book, the sequel is also highly recommended. The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul may, in fact, be funnier than its predecessor. It also has Norse mythology references in it, which is something the world needs a greater abundance of (or did before a certain summer blockbuster, anyway.) It has more interesting views on faith, and an idea I’ve taken for personal use: Dirk’s Zen navigation method.

“…Find a car, or the nearest equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it is going and follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.”

I don’t mean that literally, by the way. A similar method in college where I would (unsuccessfully) attempt to talk to an attractive woman on the way to class, following where she looked as if she knew she was going instead of my planned route would often lead me to end up in the wrong room; if not the wrong building entirely, adding embarrassment to…well, more embarrassment, actually. How I use this idea is in my filing system for books and movies. I tend to group both of them generally by topic, but not in any specifically ordered fashion. In the same way that Dirk rarely ends up at his original destination, but always somewhere important, I very rarely find the specific story I was looking for, but I always find something I need to experience at that point.

Those who know Douglas Adams’ work may notice a glaring omission.
As far as recommendations go, I can give none higher than to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, it isn’t officially on the “Books to Open your Mind” list. Considering this one had the biggest effect on my life of all the books I pulled off the elementary school library shelf that I babble on about, you might be surprised. (Or you might be used to me not making any sense by now, in which case, well done.)

I see Hitchhiker’s as more than a book (or a series of books, or a trilogy of five books, or whatever the proper reference protocol is.) About the same time as I read the book, I also heard some of the radio series, and saw the TV show. Shortly thereafter, I was part of a chain of nerds up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard working on solving the Infocom text adventure game based on the story. (Which was a very slow process in those pre e-mail days, involving weekend visits, late night phone calls, and conversations causing me to ignore many a geometry class, but it was worth it to solve the first video game I ever saw the end of.)

The point is (finally! I hear you cry) that since Douglas Adams was the main creative force behind all the different media versions, I view Hitchhiker’s not as a book, but as a pocket universe with a group of various windows into it. Whatever it is, it changed and shaped the way I look at reality probably more than any other work in ways far too varied to detail individually. Literally, every single day a thought or reaction will be triggered that I can trace back in some way to the Guide. My personal favorite form is the radio shows: just the right mix of creator and audience imagination (plus it fixes a rather downer ending of the last book, written when Adams was in a particularly foul mood).
The TV series and movie are more limited windows (due to technology/budget restrictions and Hollywood’s fear of extreme weirdness respectively), but each adds some unique elements to the whole.

If radio plays aren’t your cup of Brownian motion filled tea, read the books. You’ll never look at a towel, a fish, a political office, or most of the universe the same way again.
This is post number 42, on the birthday of the guy who introduced me to Hitchhiker's. (Happy Birthday!)
These are a total coincidence, this post was a last minute replacement, that then got delayed...
Guess the old Improbability Drive still works.

No comments: