Monday, November 4, 2013

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Among the other books that I picked up at the recent book fair are both Dirk Gently novels. At the beginning of the year, I reread Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker novels and found that they were not as good as I remembered them. Compared to that, his Gently novels have two advantages: I had not previously read them, and somebody told me that they would be better. I have now read the first one, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and am indeed pleasantly surprised.

Spoilers ahead.

Admittedly, the novel shows to a lesser degree a problem that I also had with the Hitchhiker novels, the tendency of Adams to throw a lot of individually good but unrelated and random ideas into one story to make it (well, supposedly) more funny. But in this case, it works better because in contrast to the first few Hitchhiker novels DGHDA actually has a story. And not only a story, but a wonderfully multilayered one in which the threads following several seemingly unrelated characters ultimately turn out to be cleverly related.

And that is the premise of Dirk Gently's approach as a detective: everything is related. Similar to Sherlock Holmes, he can notice the minor supposedly irrelevant detail that escaped the attention of the client or the police, and thus solve an intricate puzzle.

That is not the only parallel between the two, although if you haven't read the original Sherlock Holmes stories his sometimes abrasive character, arrogance, mood swings, and substance abuse may not be part of the picture you have formed of him. Maybe that is part of why I liked the present book so much; I also enjoy reading Holmes' adventures. Then again, there are also some major differences. For example, in contrast to Holmes, Gently is constantly unable to pay his bills.

Another funny premise of the Gently books is that he is living in a world pretty much like ours but that does contain some widely disbelieved supernatural elements, such as ghosts. This is one of those things where a rationalist might start to wonder: They don't eat. Where do they get their energy from? How can they still remember and think, without a brain? What happens to them ultimately? What happens to people who don't become ghosts?

But as I pointed out with reference to Frankenstein, I am not fussed about these questions in a novel. If you cannot accept certain fantasy or science fiction premises (magic and implausible technology, respectively), then you cannot enjoy such books, but then you could not enjoy anything but a historical scenario, crime novel, or family drama playing in our precise world. How boring; how limiting. What is important for willing suspension of disbelief is not that a story does not contain anything impossible, but that it (a) does not contain unrealistic characters and (b) does not contain anything that is impossible given the internal logic of the setting of the story.

And in both regards DGHDA shines. The characters are realistically flawed but understandable and likable (in contrast to the Hitchhiker's characters which, at least to me, come across as merely idiots and psychopaths, making it much harder to identify with them).

Even better, Adams cautiously explores some of the logical consequences of the setting he gives his story. So say you have a setting in which there are ghosts, that is the invisible essence of people who died violently with unfinished business that keeps them from "moving on" until resolved. Your average writer would probably have the ghost of a person that died a hundred and fifty years ago, and the heroes can help them find peace or have to banish them or something. Okay, being a ghost for such a long time is harsh, but that is still within the range of what we humans can intuitively grasp.

Now wonder: What if the ghost does not find peace before the last human dies? What if it will still be around in four billion years, perhaps even after the sun explodes, still regretting what happened? Few people who believe that they believe in immortal souls, spirits, an afterlife after physical death, ever consider the chilling implications of deep time. This book, for all its comedy, manages to at least start to explore those implications.

Another major theme of the book, and that might be surprising considering its supernatural elements, is thinking rationally, especially not fooling yourself. This is the book with which Adams gave the world the wonderful concept of the Electric Monk, "a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or video recorder" built by an advanced alien civilization. "Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electronic Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe." As funny as that sounds, the act of somebody relied on the assurance of an Electric Monk, a device literally built for motivated reasoning, that everything was safe when they really had better checked themselves lead to the catastrophe that set the entire story in motion.

To mention another cute little idea, software engineers in the story had for a long time tried to write a program that would help people organize facts so that they could arrive at the best solution to a problem. In a stroke of genius, the CEO of the software company realized that this is not actually what the customers wanted because they were often opposed to what they rationally would have to do. So instead they wrote a program that allows you to enter your preferred course of action and it would provide you with a justification for doing so... and of course that piece of software found an enthusiastic customer with very deep pockets. So this is another advantage over the Hitchhiker novels: Here, Adams' weird ideas are not just random jokes but they serve the themes of the story.

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