There’s this story that Douglas Adams told – or maybe it was just told about him – about the origins of his now seminal, iconic science fiction odyssey. The story goes like this: sometime in the early seventies, Adams is drunk in a field in Austria. He’s travelling, and has a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe with him, and as he looks up at the vastness of the night sky, peppered with stars, he thinks to himself that somebody really ought to write The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Then he proceeds to do exactly that.
I was given a cassette tape with the radio play of the Hitchhiker’s Guide on it when I was eleven or twelve, and I listened to it religiously on my Walkman. It was funny, and strange, and felt like an entire world existed within my headphones. Nobody else I knew talked about it or knew what it was. It felt like a tiny secret, something all of my own. The books changed my life and worldview, and are partly responsible for the kind of work I write today: they were as formative. The narrative is largely facilitated by an object, a semi-infinite database of all of the species and planets and objects in the known galaxy, called the Hitchhiker’s Guide – which provides us as readers with insights into the endless, surreal intergalactic that Adams developed. It also can send out a signal that requests a lift from a nearby spaceship: it is a tool of communication and information.
Something I’ve also thought, since the first time I held a clunky, glitchy smartphone in my hand way back in the mists of 2010, is that we are now in possession of an object that was once a fantasy within a space opera. The iPhone is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If we ask it a question, it provides us with an answer – correctly, more or less. We can tap the screen and request transportation. I can at any given moment call my mother and hear her voice, see her face. I can send my sister a picture of a top she might like, or a job, or a meme depicting a pair of Crocs full of beans. It is easy to romanticise the object as a piece of magic come to life, sure – but in many ways the purpose of this whole column is to examine it as a poisoned chalice. Foremost, to examine it. To not just allow it to become the framing mechanism for the story of my life. To not make it the central character, or the sole method by which I make myself feel real in the world, or connected to it.
I’m going away for a month. On the back of a promise to myself – and my family, and a doctor – that I would stop working myself to death-by-freelance – I am taking some time. I will still be writing, obviously, because that happens organically whether I’m trying to or not. It happens recreationally, which then becomes productive by proxy. So look, my husband’s job is bringing him first to Tokyo, then San Francisco, over the course of a month. I am going with him because I’m not sure I’ll ever get a chance to do anything like this again, and to be totally honest, I also don’t want to be without him for so long. At the time of this column’s publication, I’m going to Tokyo in 24 hours. I’m lucky enough to be relatively well-travelled, but this is the furthest I’ve ever gone. I am at once blinded by terror and thrill: I’m so curious about what I’m going to get to see. However, I want to make sure I’m going as a good visitor – I know nothing about the cultural nuances of non-western countries. Here is where the Hitchhiker’s Guide comes in: myself and CB have been watching endless Youtube videos and searching long, detailed lists of how to best navigate Japan as westerners. I asked Twitter had any of my network there been to Japan and what did they like best. We have varied and thorough insights to how to manage a long trip to somewhere we have never been and know functionally nothing about – and I don’t want for a second to take this for granted. After a period of weaning myself off my phone, I’m now going to be using it as a crutch to help me through a busy, complicated city where nothing is written in western script – where I have barely a word of the language or geography. CB is working, so I’m going to be wandering about Tokyo on my own, like the protagonist of a 2003 Sofia Coppola movie. But I’ll have my infinite, interactive Hitchhiker’s Guide to help me.
I’m also going to try something new – I’m going to use Instagram Stories to keep a visual diary, a kind of a vlog, of every day that I’m there. This goes straight against the usual dense veil I keep over myself online – using social media while kind of refusing to truly speak to it. I want to open a portal and show what I am experiencing, at once as for the people who follow me but also for me in the future – a set of home-videos of the time the pair of us went all the way across the world. Here’s what we ate, here’s where we went, here’s my coffee, here’s how I felt. Given that I spend so much of my time travelling for work alone and using videos of other people speaking as a parasocial comfort, I’m going to try and flip the vantage point on it a little this time. Using the Hitchhiker’s Guide was a distant fantasy that became reality, but becoming the Hitchhiker’s Guide never occurred to me until just this minute.
Coming back home after a month will feel strange I’m sure, but until then I’m going to hold tight to my blessings, hold up my screen, and see what it feels like to open the portal between two distant parts of the world. I’m going to try not to forget that that very action is as good as magic.