Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Textmode art roundup: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Towel Day 2016)

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And here we are, the occasion of Towel Day 2016, the occasion on which we celebrate the life and mourn the early death of comedic science-fiction author Douglas Adams in 2001. I don't make an annual go of it, but this is not the first Towel Day I've celebrated: back circa 2004 I devoted an entire open house to the occasion at The Butchershop Floor art gallery, presenting all of his published print works (not just the HHG and Dirk Gently books, but also more niche items such as the Meaning of Liff, in which my city of Vancouver appears, sensibly enough, as the name for a motorized street-sweeper) for impromptu readings and recitations, arranging for a screening of the BBC television adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, playing the complete radio drama, and arranging for local play of his forgotten video games -- the big Infocom HHG game of course (about which I have written here -- including its worthwhile graphical fan remake!), but also its then-unknown follow-up Bureaucracy and Starship Titanic. (He also made critical contributions -- "adumbrate the elephant" -- to Lucasarts' Labyrinth adventure game, which was thrust back into the spotlight on the occasion of the recent death of David Bowie.) Despite its rave reviews from Underdogs, I was unable to get running a copy of his "Last Chance to See" 1992 CD-ROM, arguably his most important major multimedia production.

Douglas Adams' influence on my malleable young mind can likely not be overstated: carrying around my battered copy of the HHGTTG everywhere like some kind of Gideon's Bible, I wore out the glue in its binding from the acid in my hand's perspiration. I can still play through to the end section of the Infocom Guide adaptation without making any consultation to hints or walkthroughs (and the odds are good I could actually do so blindfolded.) Thanks to Dirk Gently, I ended up trying to explain the Schrodinger's Cat paradox to my elementary school classmates... in French. My final handle in the Public Domain BBS sphere was "Zaphod Beeblebrox", before tiring of namespace conflicts with other DNA fans and switching over to a reference I was confident was so obscure no one else would ever claim it for their own, Cthulhu. (Hey, Lovecraft was a much nicher industry in 1992. Also, I achieved my exclusive namespace by accidentally misspelling it as "Cthulu", reading the misspelling from a horror miniatures ad on the back of an issue of a tabletop gaming magazine. But I digress.) Before I fell down the Everything2 rabbit hole, I made an account on h2g2 as soon as I heard about it, because the future had arrived! Wikipedia on a mobile device may well be the crowning achievement of our society.

The mark made by him on the nerd culture of the time was immeasurable, but despite combing through the artscene archives for his numerous memorable and unique slogans and code words ("DON'T PANIC", "Life, the Universe, and Everything", "towel", "hoopy frood", "42", etc.) not many homages burbled to the surface, neglected in favour of sexier fandoms such as Stars Trek and Wars.

The computer art scenes did include a few small tributes to his works, mostly harnessing the much-reviled "Cosmic Cutie" (the outrageously disrespectful green sphere) added to the book covers for US audiences. The first of these, a little ASCII doodle you can enjoy at the top of this post, was drawn by PD ASCII goddess Joan Stark. I had to mine it from the Dejanews archives of UseNet Newsgroups for your enjoyment. And if it's a little too small, a little too subtle... here's a slightly larger version by William "WILLS" Towle:

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Could we get one a little bigger?
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OK, OK, TOO BIG! And for the love of Zarquon, please close those eyes! (Gets out a dozen dollar signs.) All right, let's take an eliteness step forward and go from ASCII to ANSI art:
ZARKING FARDWARKS! It just goes to show: when you're sampling from the public domain, for every artefact of the sacred you uncover, you're cursed by two of the profane. Can we try that again?
Well, that's a little better, I suppose. Maybe we're just suffering from Public Domain drag factor; if we could find one from the artscene, maybe we'd do a little better:
Belgium! Let's leave that Cosmic Cutie aside for the time being and see if we can find any more nuanced tributes:
Here we are! Embodying the clueless newbie essence of the Public Domain ("Share and Enjoy" could practically have been the official slogan of broken shareware!), the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is celebrated as inspiration for a BBS' name (which, if true to its namesake, would have been down more often than not.) 2400 baud seems just about the right speed.
This one didn't jump out as a Hitchhiker's Guide-related piece until you read the small print. What starts out as a simple picture of a cup of tea takes on deeper meaning (as a good source of Brownian motion for an Infinite Improbability Drive) when the SysOp's handle is given as the nicely inconspicuous Ford Prefect.
There's one you never saw: a splash screen for Pinnacle's shareware Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trivia Challenge, presumably painstakingly drawn by Pinnacle programmer Timothy Campbell.
Anyone reading this blog can likely tell the difference between bespoke and computer-generated ASCII art, so even though this t-shirt design does employ some sophisticated design sensibilities to make a nice image, the heavy lifting of its ASCIIfication has been left to algorithms. But it's not unrelated, so I do include it here.
Bonus, 2017! Someone made a HHG-themed ZZT level, and here is its splash screen:
And bonus bonus, Horsenburger provides a teletext rendition of the BBC TV HHG's Zaphod Beeblebrox:
In conclusion, a piece that is not textmode... but it was drawn on a Commodore 64 in 1986, so ... if you try to make an argument that it doesn't belong here, you're quite simply wrong. The artist's handle is Dokk, and it's simultaneously a portrait of Douglas Adams along with small-scale art of Arthur Dent and Marvin the Paranoid Android AND the first page of the Guide.

Update! We found a few further HHG-related works in early underground artpacks and, to nobody's surprise, they are quite a bit superior to the offerings from the PD realm:

First off, the loudest sound in the universe, the rock band of Hotblack Desiato, who was spending a year dead for tax purposes -- Disaster Area!
Another Cosmic Cutie, this one done with feeling!
And an omnibus, Cosmic Cutie plus one rendition of the Heart of Gold spaceship, the namesake of the advertised BBS. (It was pointed out that I was missing logoff ANSI screens from local BBS Heart of Gold II, which did portray the ship more canonically like an athletic shoe, but as that art was never released in an artpack, it has proven difficult to dig up.) Closing things off here, you can enjoy a rendition of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy theme song -- "Journey of the Sorcerer" by The Eagles, selected after Douglas Adams perversely requested "something with banjo" to be his programme's theme song -- arranged for Mario Paint:

So long, and thanks for all the fish!