Hitchhiker’s, Part 4: Keeping it Real

Looks like there’s a plot kicking in, though still in a jaunty, episodic sort of way. Arthur and Ford have met up with Zaphod, and they’re exploring a strange, enigmatic planet which I assume will harbor the climax of the story.

They’ve hinted at Zaphod having some sort of screwed up backstory, and I’m hoping they’ll explore that more. The characters have been perfectly likeable so far, but I’m not getting a sense of a traditional arc for any of them. Stuff is happening, our characters are reacting… but they seem unchanged mostly.

So Arthur and Zaphod met before, and that coincidence is critical to our understanding of the Heart of Gold‘s power system. That’s kind of a fascinating twist, and if this were another book… I’d be looking out for some sort of stunningly elegant and beautiful and perfect revelation about how these amazing coincidences are going to all add up and say something really cool about why these people are here, why the Universe needed this absurd chain of events to happen and how these people all needed to meet each other, so each one of them could be more complete… but I rather suspect this is not that book.

Still, the bits about the whale and the pot of flowers were priceless. :) I love the opportunities you get, with this whole Infinite Improbability Drive thing, for random, completely absurd humor.

* * *

I still can’t tell you what the Heart of Gold looks like, except to say that I generally think of the bright white & glassy look of the Enterprise in the latest Star Trek movie, which I think was the last spaceship-based movie I saw. I suspect that if I’d recently seen a movie set on a spaceship with dull metallic sets, I’d think the Heart of Gold was dull and metallic.

But I’m coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter; what makes this ship interesting, and what makes it feel real, is not its looks, but how it behaves. And like the comedy I was talking about earlier, it’s all more conceptual than visual. The bizarre engine that powers it; the way the door chimes make its crew feel; the absurdly pleasant computer voice.

I read this Star Trek book once called Spock’s World as a kid, and what I remember most about it was how it made the Enterprise feel real. Like, I had a sense of how it would feel to be on it; to live and work on it; and none of this feeling was necessarily about being able to visualize the sets from the various TV shows and movies.

I already had a clear idea what every Enterprise set looked like, but none of that gave me the sensation of being there like reading pages of text about it. And it honestly hadn’t occurred to me until just now that maybe that wasn’t because the book was the best written thing ever or because it was paced slowly enough to let this stuff sink in or because it was based on a property I was familiar with… maybe it succeeded in feeling real to me because it was a book.

So when an avid reader gushes about how this or that imagined world felt real to them, maybe I’ve been interpreting those sorts of statements all wrong. Maybe it’s just more about the feeling than the visualization, and it would seem that books excel at creating those sorts of feelings.

Okay, that’s probably old hat to most of you. But… I’m excited about this revelation. What we’re talking about here is the written word’s ability to bypass actual stimuli.

The way I saw it, reading fiction worked like this:

  1. Book describes visual, aural, or tactile properties of stimulus (ship interior, character appearance, etc.)
  2. Reader constructs vivid image of stimulus in head, using written description.
  3. Reader reacts to constructed image.

But it’s not really like that, is it? Is it more like this:

  1. Book describes various characters’ reactions to stimulus.
  2. Reader, seeing the world through the characters, reacts to stimulus in a similar way as the characters.

Hence, the stimulus, in and of itself, need not be described or understood in extraordinary detail. I know the door chimes on the Heart of Gold are annoyingly happy sounding because Marvin the perpetually depressed robot finds them annoyingly happy. I still can’t tell you what those chimes actually sound like. It’s not that important.

If you asked me to draw a picture of the bridge of the Heart of Gold, I’d treat it like any other design project, trying to choose visual elements that created in the viewer the sort of reactions I had when reading the book… and while I’d find that an interesting challenge, it’s not my job as a reader to do this. The book is already getting the reactions it wants out of me… I just need to let it keep doing that.

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