TT: Surreal, Absurd, Still Seriously Spiritual

ALAN: When I take my dog for a walk I tend to listen to audiobooks. Recently I’ve been listening to Robert Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles (1968). It’s a surreal and absurdist comedy which tells of the adventures of Tom Carmody, a man from Earth who wins a prize in a galactic sweepstakes.  By a nice piece of serendipity, I found that there’s one section in the novel which fits quite neatly into our discussion.

Teatime of the Sole

Carmody’s prize takes him on a journey hither and yon throughout the galaxy. Among the many people that Carmody meets in his odyssey is a being described by the prize as “…the autochthonous Melichrone who is sui generis (in spades).” The prize goes on to remark that as a race Melichrone is ubiquitous, and as an autochthone he is inimitable.

When I got back from my walk I spent some time with a dictionary and came to the conclusion that Melichrone is both omniscient and omnipresent – for all practical purposes he is a god.

JANE: I’m glad you reached for the dictionary first.  Lapsed English Professor I may be, but I would have needed a dictionary for that phrase, too!  So, what happens when Carmody meets Melichrone?

ALAN: Carmody and Melichrone have a long, complex and very funny debate on the nature of godhood during which Melichrone admits to having transformed himself into entire races that he then encouraged to make war upon each other. He introduced both sex and art to them and divided himself into male and female components so that he could procreate, indulge in perversions and burn himself at the stake. It was a lot of fun.

But Melichrone made the mistake of listening to his priests debate his nature and became filled with doubt…

JANE: Ah, even divinity can’t deal with theology.  That’s true enough.

ALAN: Sheckley seems largely forgotten these days, but without Robert Sheckley I doubt if we’d ever have had Douglas Adams. Their writing style and their obsessions are very similar, though interestingly Adams claimed not to have read any Sheckley.

JANE: And, as a writer, I can believe Douglas Adams.  As I said a while back when we were discussing the Alien Invasion trope, at the time I wrote my Smoke and Mirrors, I had not read either Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters or Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Writers do evolve ideas all on their own, no matter how much this may disappoint Literature professors, most of whom would like to trace all creativity back to a single source.

Maybe they think they’ll find God there…  Hmm…  I’m being influenced by all the theology we’ve been discussing.  Pray, go ahead and talk about Douglas Adams and religion.

ALAN: Adams described himself as a “radical atheist”.  So much so, in fact, that Richard Dawkins actually dedicated The God Delusion to Adams. But despite his own beliefs, religion continually fascinated Adams because of the way it influenced so much human behaviour. He found that supremely irrational and continually tried very hard to understand the contradiction. He pecked away at the idea in most of his books, but it is a central theme in the second of his Dirk Gently novels (The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul).

JANE: Oh!  At your recommendation, I read this.  Actually, I listened to it.  My library didn’t have a print copy, but it did have an audio version of a six episode radio drama, which I think was the original version of the story.

ALAN: No – the book dates from 1988. The radio drama didn’t happen until 2008.  There was also a rather disappointing TV series in 2010 and 2012.

JANE: Ah, my error.  My understanding, based on a Neil Gaiman introduction to one of Douglas Adams’ other books, is that Adams himself preferred writing for radio and other dramatic forms.  I believe (I don’t have the intro in front of me) that Gaiman refers to Adams as an “unhappy novelist.”

ALAN: I suspect that’s true. His first major success, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was originally a radio series. Eventually, over the course of several years, it was adapted for every other medium (it became a stage play, a novel, a TV series and a movie – not bad going, eh?). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Adams felt most comfortable when working in radio.

JANE: I just looked at Wikipedia and found a comment that seems to support the idea that Adams, while wildly creative, was not happy writing.  It’s so great, I must quote it here:

“Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish was completed.”

But there I go, Tangenting off again.  Would you like to talk about the book?

ALAN: The book has a mad plot, not easily summarised. But it begins when the check-in desk at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two shoots up through the roof engulfed in a ball of orange flame. Clearly the old Norse gods are to blame. Who else would be waiting there killing time until the 15:37 flight to Oslo started to board?

JANE: Interesting.  The radio drama has a slightly different opening, beginning with Dirk Gently and his secretary.  She quits, because she’s not being paid and ends up working at the very airline desk where the fireball goes up.  Her fate becomes a key element in the story.

ALAN: The radio drama took a lot of liberties with the structure of the book. It straightened out the rather convoluted sequence of events and it introduced gadgets like mobile phones which barely existed when the book was written…

JANE: I actually wondered about the mobile phones…

ALAN: Anyway, whether it be in the book or in the radio drama, Adams comes to the conclusion that gods are created by people’s desire for them. Once a god has been worshipped by someone, that god will remain “alive” forever. It’s not a very original thought – I’ve come across it many times in many books and I’m sure that Adams had as well. But he brings his trademark wit to the idea and makes it both convincing and memorable.

JANE: I agree that Adams’ idea was not unique.  What was, however, was his idea of a holistic detective, which in itself can be looked upon as a religious or spiritual concept.  Dirk Gently runs his detective agency on the idea that, if one can find the holistic connection between various events, then one can solve any problem.  At first, it seems as if he’s merely running a scam but, by the novel’s end, it seems he may be on to something.

ALAN: And yet again, presumably by sheer coincidence, you can draw parallels between the practice of holistic detection and the Theory of Searches in Mindswap, another Robert Sheckley novel that Adams didn’t read.

JANE: Oh, boy.  Dirk Gently would definitely find this a holistic link.

Since we’re talking about influence, I wonder if Adams was influenced in his idea of a holistic detective by a very famous SF novel that includes a similar – although very differently employed – concept.  Because of my earlier tangent taking up so much space, we can’t discuss it now, but let me whisper the title in your ear.

What do you think?

ALAN: Sounds good to me! Let’s do it.

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