Douglas Adams

I'm wary of the weblogging tendency to post obituaries for public figures, although I've indulged in it myself and am about to right now; it can look as if we're all trying to claim a piece of people we've never met. But perhaps it's because they've already claimed a piece of us. Certainly, any future archeologist excavating my own comic history will find a prominent layer in the year 15 R.E.—just above The Goodies and just below The Young Ones and Python—devoted to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, whose author, Douglas Adams, died on Friday.

Hitchhiker's—the book—took over my life that year, along with Lord of the Rings. Unlike the latter, it had the pronounced advantages of being (a) funny and (b) short. But like Rings, it had an epic sweep—never fully realised, despite the appearance over the years of four sequels—and a prodigious amount of invention. Like Tolkien, Adams had the gift of being able to find perfect names for his characters, names that suggested a strange and wonderful universe: Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz; Max Quordlepleen; Slartibartfast; Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged; Vroomfondel; Zaphod Beeblebrox. Names that I can pluck from memory nearly twenty years on.

I was Zaphod Beeblebrox that year. I pinched the cool one's moniker when I was calling the local AM station's request line, and snuck past their 'no nicknames' policy by convincing them off-air that all the kids at school called me that (a blatant lie). Once I was talking to the DJ I launched into character with a 'Heyyyyyy, Bill baby!', and within a week the evening airwaves were full of teenagers doing bad impressions of their favourite TV characters.

In truth, I was more a blend of Arthur Dent and Marvin the Paranoid Android, which pretty much sums up your average 15-year-old male nerd and pretty much explains Hitchhiker's huge success. But that success wouldn't have been possible if the books and the radio series that inspired them weren't funny, which they definitely were.

It's difficult to impress on anyone who hasn't tried to do it just how hard it is to write comedy, particularly in novel form. In performance, comedy is pared down to the essentials, to the pithiest of gags, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps; try to fill them yourself, and you labour the joke and kill it. On the page, you must fill the gaps: a novel can't work as one long string of one-liners. The risk is that by writing in the structural elements that will make it work as a novel you'll write out the jokes that make it work as comedy.

Adams solved this dilemma beautifully by creating a novel-length structure that was itself a fertile source of comedy. He started by portraying the destruction of the earth as a routine council demolition; explained away outrageous coincidences using amusing deus ex machina (the Infinite Improbability Drive); and built up to awe-inspiring answers to Life, the Universe and Everything that turned out to be intentionally ridiculous anti-climaxes. Threaded throughout was the device of The Book itself (the eponymous Guide), allowing him to drop in non-sequitur sketches that were often funnier than the surrounding main plot. Rarely has anyone devised as successful a framework for a comic novel.

Unfortunately, Adams was unable to repeat this initial success; once the structural logic of Hitchhiker's had played out over the first few books, he had only the traditional novel forms to fall back on, and those just weren't as funny. So Long and Thanks For All the Fish and Mostly Harmless were contemplative works of middle age, overly focussed on Arthur Dent at the expense of the other elements that had made the series work. In two Dirk Gently novels Adams tried to break out of the Hitchhiker's mould, with some success, but it was clear that for all his continuing inventiveness he would have trouble matching his earlier work.

My favourite Adams book of later years is none of these; it's Last Chance to See, a travelogue following his journeys to remote places to see endangered species before they were gone. I suspect it's had more of an influence on me than I would ever have predicted. When I travelled to the South Island of New Zealand, it was with memories of his search for the kakapo in mind; wandering around the valleys of the Southern Alps I was sorry not to hear the booming call he had described. His Guide to the Galaxy was, after all, inspired by his own travels in earlier life.

Adams was never really part of a comedy group or movement, though he was sometimes involved in the work of others—Graham Chapman (whose 'Liar's Autobiography' he helped to write), Monty Python, Dr Who. At Cambridge, he did more with his own comedy duo than with Footlights. He spent most of his life finding his own paths and exploring the potential of different media. Hitchhiker's was a set of incompletely overlapping Venn diagrams: a radio series, a series of novels, a couple of comedy records, a television series, a book of original scripts, a text-adventure computer game, a website, and an ever-evolving, never-filmed movie script. With Starship Titanic and h2g2 he was bringing his own stamp to multimedia and the web. Not a bad record for someone who was notoriously late in meeting deadlines; not a bad role model at all, really.

Read between the lines of Hitchhiker's and it seems obvious that A.D. is D.A.—that many of Arthur's character traits of quiet English bewilderment and frustration are also the author's. Perhaps a bit too obvious. I'd rather remember Adams as Ford Prefect: funny, sharp, wide-eyed, hitching rides around the universe and reporting about it to the rest of us.


First published in Walking West, 14 May 2001.
This page: 18 October 2001.

©2001 Rory Ewins