Culture Decoder

The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Image for The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I travelled a lot as a child. My time was spent absorbing sights and sounds I didn’t understand, or reading fantasy and sci fi about even wilder worlds. 

With The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), Douglas Adams introduced me to the vast, improbable weirdness of the universe, and the fun that can be found in exploring and decoding it. 

Here we meet average Englishman Arthur Dent as he discovers that Earth is about to be demolished. He flees the planet with his friend Ford Prefect — who is not, in fact, an out-of-work actor, as Arthur believed, but an undercover alien researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

An alien researcher for a travel guide to an entire galaxy! It sounded like the best job in the universe. Semiotics, which involves immersing oneself in culture and creating a guide that observes, interprets, and inspires, is I suppose the closest I’ve managed to get.

The guide teaches Arthur a lot about both the universe and Earth itself, helping him to see things from a different perspective. For example:

On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.

This sort of thing is (an admittedly more funny) version of what we do as semioticians. We break down the things people take for granted and provide a new perspective. We decode changes in culture so that clients are prepared to venture forth with at least some understanding.

Reading sci fi and fantasy while living in foreign places as a child taught me to embrace change and cultural difference. Everything is an adventure. Just learning about different places, perspectives, people, practices, can be an adventure. Even the most mundane of household objects, like a towel, can have significance when viewed differently:

A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have… You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors… you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

The Guide has two words on the front: “Don’t Panic.” This is, in essence, our job. To help decipher the world, to dispel the worry and panic that cultural unfamiliarity brings. As semioticians, we’re so lucky! We can truly say that our job is: life, the universe, and everything.

DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Martha Arango (Sweden) on ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE | Becks Collins (England) on THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on THE SENSE OF AN ENDING | Eugene Gorny (Thailand) on SHUTTER ISLAND & FRACTURED.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

Tags: Books, Decoder, Science Fiction