Friday, 3 October 2008

Earth: report of an inspection

Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is about that remarkable book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The latter describes all the places worth visiting in the known Galaxy and the best way to get there as a hitchhiker.

As Adams explains, the Galaxy’s pretty big so the Guide has to be careful about how much information it gives on each interesting place it covers. The entry on Earth, in particular, went through successive stages of editing until it was pared down to the laconic ‘Mostly Harmless’.

Clearly, it must have been longer when first penned by the hitchhiker who visited us. I find it interesting to speculate about that visit and just what might have happened between us if his path had crossed mine.

Actually, it probably isn’t that interesting but it’s as good a way as any other of passing the time on a long railway journey.

Let’s suppose that, picking a historical period at random, the visit had happened in early October 2008. He got here by accepting a lift with a group of sociologists in a battered second-hand ship with a lot too many light years on the clock. They were carrying out a study into primitive races in isolated backwaters of the Galaxy and were going to be spending six months here gathering information. They dropped him at Stafford which, unbeknown to its inhabitants, is a major refuelling station for ships with proton-powered engines. This explains why they try so hard to keep the temperature in the place below 15°, with constant water cooling from low-lying clouds.

He spent the early evening with me, after which he took a lift in a freighter heading for Arcturus. It wasn’t really the direction he wanted to go but with so little passing traffic, a hitchhiker can’t afford to be picky.

Here’s the original report he wrote on his lightning visit to our planet.

Notes on a visit to Earth

Be careful if you get a lift to Earth: getting out again can be real hell as the traffic is ridiculously light. It’s not really on the way to anywhere else.

I was in a place called ‘Staff’d’ although my contact on-planet said it was written ‘Stafford’. When I asked what had happened to the ‘O’ and the ‘R’ he told me that this was the way the local tribe, the ‘English’, spelled it. ‘Illiterate, are they?’ I asked. ‘It’s complicated,’ he replied.

He took me out to dinner. We went for what he called a ‘curry’. It was surprisingly tasty considering how drab the surroundings were.

‘The local cooking is good, anyway,’ I told him.

‘Erm… it’s not actually local. It’s from India, which is rather a long way away. Another part of the planet which the English used to own and run.’

‘Why did you run another part of the planet? Couldn’t they run themselves?’

‘Oh no, it wasn’t like that at all. They ran themselves for quite a long time. And they’ve been running themselves again for some time now. We were just there for a while. I think we wanted to be there because it contributed quite a lot to our wealth.’

‘I see. They had more food than they needed so they fed you. And now they’re still feeding you.’

‘Well, no. They actually had less food than we did. And they’re not really feeding us. Most of the Indians over here are English now anyway. And the cooking they do is different from back in India.’

‘So it is local cooking.’

‘It’s complicated.’

Over dinner a lot of the conversation was about a crisis that was taking place at the time. I didn’t completely understand the details.

‘So it’s a really serious crisis is it?’ I asked.

‘Yes, the worst since 1929. Nearly eighty years ago. Not many people alive now were alive then.’

‘Well, that’s not bad. A whole lifetime with only one bad moment. I know places where bad things happen practically every day.’

‘Er, actually, that happens here too. And there have been some other pretty awful moments since 1929: a world war, lots of other wars, various attempts to wipe out entire races of people, hunger, disaster, and so on.’

‘But today it’s worse?’

‘Well, it’s different. It’s an economic crisis. It’s about money. About wealth.’

‘What’s happened to the wealth?’ I looked around. Everyone I could see had a fairly well-fed air. They all seemed to be living quite well.

‘It’s still there. But to keep goods moving so that every one gets the things they need, we have to have a really efficient system of exchange. We had banks taking care of that for us and now they’re in trouble themselves. When the banks get into trouble, we all get into trouble.’

‘So you’re having trouble moving goods round the system?’

‘Yes, that’s about it.’

‘Look, you need to speak to some guys I know in the Crab Nebula. They have these proton drive ships that you wouldn’t believe. Can carry any amount of payload and you can hardly hear them running. And the on-board music system is to die for. You need to get a few of those. You’ll soon have goods moving again.’

‘It’s a bit more complicated than that.’

The whole thing was apparently being intensified by the fact that another tribe, the Americans, were about to change chief.

‘So why’s that important to you?’

‘Basically the Americans are the most powerful nation on Earth and the wealthiest. What they do impacts pretty heavily on what we do.’

‘So it’s like you and India. They’re from somewhere else but they run you.’

‘No, it’s not like that. We’re friends. We talk everything over with them, to work out what we should do about different things.’

‘And end up agreeing what to do?’

‘No, we end up doing what they decide. That’s why it’s important to work out who’s going to be President.’

‘And who are you going to vote for?’

‘I don’t have a vote.’

‘So they run your life but you can’t vote? Strange kind of democracy.’

‘It’s complicated. And this time,’ he hurried on, ‘it’s particularly interesting because it looks like a black man may get elected.’

‘A black man? What’s a black man?’

‘Someone who has black blood. Well, not black blood. His blood is red like anyone else’s. What he has is a black face. Well, no, actually, not black, more of a dark brown. Although in Barack Obama’s case he’s not that dark. But Black all the same, you know. From Africa, you know.’

I didn’t know and couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

‘Let’s get this right. You’re in England which is being run by America which may be run by Africa.’

‘Not really. He’s actually American, he just looks African.’

‘If he is American he must look American. After all, how else does an American look?’

‘Well, there are white Americans and black Americans. He’s of mixed race. His father was black so he’s black.’

‘Because he has a black parent he’s black? What was the other parent?’


‘So doesn’t having a white parent make you white?’

‘It’s complicated.’

The Arcturan freighter driver came in just then to say he’d finished refuelling and wiping down his ship. He wanted to get going before the cooling system got everything wet again.

Earth seems a bit of a strange place. The locals are convinced that lots of bad things are happening, but to me it seemed mostly harmless.

If pretty complicated.

No comments: