Hardcore fans of Douglas Adams can make the worst of ambassadors for his work. They go too often for the lowest-hanging fruit — like towels, “Don’t Panic!”, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a “trilogy” of five novels (a “joke” so thuddingly unfunny that I choose to believe it originated with some harried paperback copywriter rather than Adams himself). Or, God help us, “42.” All of these tropes had already had every last drop of novelty wrung from them thirty years ago. I can’t help but think about those awful teenagers — I should know; I used to be one — who march around repeating every line from their favorite Monty Python sketches verbatim in awful teenage faux-British accents in the belief that repetition is the soul of wit.
For me the real pleasures of Douglas Adams are subtler. He was a genuinely good crafter of sentences who cared about the way he put words onto the page, which is a quality rarer than it ought to be amongst popular writers. Even more unusually, he had a style all his own, crafting strange juxtapositions of words that shouldn’t work but somehow do. Some of the sentences in his books could have come from no one else’s pen. (Who else could have written, “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”?) His wordplay has drawn occasional comparison with Lewis Carrol:
“You’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
“You ask a glass of water.”
Hitchhiker’s as a whole is much more than a collection of intermittently amusing gags and goofy aliens. It’s no more really about outer space than Gulliver’s Travels is about Lilliput and Brobdingnag. At the same time, however, Adams wasn’t sending up or satirizing science fiction itself in the manner of something like, say, Space Balls. No, he was using his far-out settings and characters to comment on the real world around him: “I am writing about precisely here and now and putting it on an extreme epic cosmic scale to make fun of it.” Most of the best bits in Hitchhiker’s have recognizable analogues in human culture. It’s our sense of recognition, even if it’s subconscious, that makes them so funny. The Vogon captain is a stand-in for Adolf Eichmann and every other officiously bureaucratic little butcher in history. Through the band Disaster Area, “the loudest noise of any kind at all in the galaxy,” Adams mocked the pomposity of arena rock four years before This is Spinal Tap. Or take the resolutely non-sporting Adams’s description of Brockian Ultra Cricket as “a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away,” a description that could be applied to most of the team sports we humans play.
Like Jonathan Swift, Adams isn’t interested in peddling what he regards to be false comforts. There’s an unsettlingly nihilistic core to at least the first three and the fifth Hitchhiker’s books. Adams’s universe may be charmingly wacky, but it’s also meaningless and utterly uncaring, even if Adams still professed himself to be an agnostic rather than an atheist through the writing of most of the series. (That changed only in the lengthy gap between the fourth and fifth books, when he met and became hugely enamored of Richard Dawkins. He spent the remainder of his life as an outspoken atheist and anti-theist to rival Dawkins himself.) This is after all a series that begins with the destruction of the Earth and all its billions of inhabitants because a bunch of aliens randomly decide to build a “hyperspace bypass” through its orbit. He is cruel enough to offer a Nietzschian solution of finding meaning in self-actualization through the mouth of the old planet designer Slartibartfast, only to jerk it away as just as deluded as any other route to inner peace.
“Perhaps I’m old and tired,” he continued, “but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied. Look at me: I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway.
“Where’s the sense in that? None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fjords all my life. For a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award.
“In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do and of course I’m doing it with all fjords again because I happen to like them, and I’m old-fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough. Equatorial!” He gave a hollow laugh. “What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”
“And are you?”
“No. That’s where it all falls down, of course.”
It can all become a bit exhausting eventually, especially if you’re silly enough to try to devour the whole series in one gulp. Small wonder that Adams himself was prone to bouts of existential angst and depression throughout his life, during which times he admitted he could become embarrassingly like his terminally depressed robotic creation Marvin the Paranoid Android.
The emptiness at the heart of the other Hitchhiker’s books might explain why I like the fourth book, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, so much more than so many people, including on occasion Adams himself, tell me I ought to. The first time Adams tried to write a novel in the conventional way, from scratch (the first three books were all adapted from script treatments), it brings Adams’s hapless human victim-of-circumstances Arthur Dent back home to a resurrected Earth. (Don’t ask how; I’m not sure I even remember. No one reads Hitchhiker’s for the plot anyway.) There Adams lets him fall in love. More shockingly, it’s a disarmingly sweet little love story that, while funny, is funny in a completely different way from what we’ve come to expect. It shows the other side of Adams — the romantic — in passages that demand a noisily joyous soundtrack like, say, a little Raspberries. Or at least anything but Arthur’s album of bagpipe music.
That night, at home, as he was prancing round the house pretending to be tripping through cornfields in slow motion and continually exploding with sudden laughter, Arthur thought he could even bear to listen to the album of bagpipe music he had won. It was eight o’clock and he decided he would make himself, force himself, to listen to the whole record before he phoned her. Maybe he should even leave it till tomorrow. That would be the cool thing to do. Or next week sometime.
No. No games. He wanted her and didn’t care who knew it. He definitely and absolutely wanted her, adored her, longed for her, wanted to do more things than there were names for with her.
He actually caught himself saying things like “Yippee,” as he pranced ridiculously round the house. Her eyes, her hair, her voice, everything …
He would put on the record of bagpipe music. Then he would call her.
Would he, perhaps, call her first?
No. What he would do was this. He would put on the record of bagpipe music. He would listen to it, every last banshee wail of it. Then he would call her. That was the correct order. That was what he would do.
In moving his satirical eye to our own planet, So Long demonstrates how perceptive Adams really is about the world around him. The arguable highlight of the entire book is the biscuit story that Arthur shares with his new love Fenchurch. Unfortunately, it’s just too long to quote here. Instead I’ll share the alleged real-life origin of the story, which Adams later recounted in a speech collected posthumously in The Salmon of Doubt. (He helpfully translates “biscuit” into “cookie” here for the benefit of his American audience.)
This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person is me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.
Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies. You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know… But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?
In the end I thought nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, that settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice…” I mean, it doesn’t really work.
We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.
A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies. The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.
Whether in this or the more extended (and, truth be told, funnier) version in So Long, it’s a story that communicates worlds about Britishness. There’s been some doubt cast as to whether the story really happened at all; similar stories have apparently been passed around as urban legends since long before 1976. But then the story’s veracity or lack thereof isn’t actually the point, is it?
The series’s new tone didn’t last very long. When Adams returned to Hitchhiker’s under pressure from his publisher after a long hiatus, it was to write Mostly Harmless, a misanthropic little book that delights in blowing up the Earth and tormenting poor Arthur yet again and doesn’t even have the virtue of being all that funny. Big softie that I am, I prefer to pretend that it all ended with the perfectly tidy conclusion of So Long, with the Earth still intact, Arthur happily hitchhiking the galaxy again with Fenchurch, and Marvin dying — happy(!).
Amongst other things, Mostly Harmless was written as a sort of “Up Yours!” to Adams’s traditional fans, who hadn’t responded all that well to either the shift the Hitchhiker’s series had made in So Long or his Dirk Gently books, a pair of similarly earthbound philosophical detective novels he wrote between the fourth and fifth Hitchhiker’s books. (Some will tell you, and not without justification, that the Dirk Gently books were actually the best things Adams ever wrote.) It was a problem that frustrated Adams throughout his career: he wasn’t quite coming from the same place as most of the people who read what he wrote. While his fan base was rooted in science fiction, Adams never thought of himself as a science-fiction writer, in spite of some accidentally prescient things that sneaked into Hitchhiker’s — the most notable of which was the eponymous electronic guidebook itself, which is essentially Wikipedia running on a tablet, right down to the somewhat questionable veracity of much of what it offers and its editors’ somewhat, shall we say, idiosyncratic priorities.
Here’s what the Encyclopedia Galactica has to say about alcohol. It says that alcohol is a colorless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars and also notes its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also mentions alcohol. It says that the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
It says that the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.
The Guide also tells you on which planets the best Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters are mixed, how much you can expect to pay for one and what voluntary organizations exist to help you rehabilitate afterward. The Guide even tells you how you can mix one yourself…
Cue up the recipes, etc., etc. Earth, meanwhile, is dismissed in another of those jokes we never need to hear again as “mostly harmless.” Similarly, and as described in a recent MIT Technology Review article, Wikipedia lavishes more care on its “List of Pornographic Actresses by Decade” than on some entire countries.
Still, Adams himself noted that “saying I write science fiction is like saying the Pythons make historical movies.” He always thought of himself as a comedy writer who happened to play in a science-fictional setting rather than a science-fiction writer whose work happened to be funny. Being a voracious reader in general, he had read his share of science fiction before creating Hitchhiker’s, but he wasn’t particularly obsessed with the stuff. Certainly his opinions of some of the icons of the field were hardly glowing. He said he “wouldn’t employ Isaac Asimov to write junk mail.” Arthur C. Clarke fared only a little better: he was “a little dull perhaps.” The only two science-fiction authors he spoke of in consistently glowing terms were Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Sheckley. These are also two are of the relatively small stable of science-fiction writers who are genuinely, consistently funny, which perhaps shows where Adams’s priorities really lay. When Adams’s agent started booking him for science-fiction conventions in the first blush of Hitchhiker’s success, he was discomfited by the places, and soon asked to stick with traditional bookstore signings. His favorite writer was someone that most of the people who attended those conventions had probably never heard of: the great British wit, satirist, and societal deconstructor par excellence P.G. Wodehouse.
When others — and there have been tons of them, including heaps and heaps writing not books but games — try to write in the “comedy science fiction” genre Adams virtually invented, they tend to get the surface trappings but miss the Wodehousian wit and wisdom that underlie them. Thus you end up with, well, a collection of intermittently amusing gags and goofy aliens. You end up, in other words, with Space Quest. Infocom, however, had the luxury of working with Adams himself on their adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which led to something rather more interesting than most of the ludic works in this genre. Having bored and possibly inflamed you with my opinions, next time I’ll come down more on the side of facts as we look at how that most storied of Infocom collaborations came to be.
(Of the three extant Douglas Adams biographies, Neil Gaiman’s Don’t Panic is the most readable and M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker the most factually rigorous. The official biography can’t really be recommended on either count.
In addition to the biographies, I drew information for this article and those that follow from the April 1985 Compute!’s Gazette, the April/May 1985 Commodore Power Play, the April 1985 Electronic Games, and, most valuable of all, an interview a pre-Infocom Adams gave to the October 1982 issue of Your Computer. The image that begins this article was taken from the April 1985 Electronic Games.)