So last week saw the marking of the 10th anniversary of the death of Douglas Adams and it seemed that would be a good time to continue on my way through “You Are What You Read” and to write about how Adams not only influenced me, but actually changed my life. Of course, I’d planned to have this published last week on the exact anniversary, but when that deadline went past with a whooshing sound, I thought that rather appropriate.
I first encountered his work when I was a 12-year old boy perusing the shelves of science fiction at my local library. While relatively young, I’d already decided I loved all things “science fiction.” I’d already seen Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back by that point and made my way through much of Heinlein, Asimov, et al so I usually haunted that section of the library regularly. Now though, I wanted something different. Something exciting. And while I did not know it at the time, something subversive. What I found was this:
. . . and that was all it took. I was hooked before I even read it. It may have been just that little green smiley face with its tongue hanging out from a smiling mouth and the little hands raised – this was my generation’s mascot, not that little yellow smiley face of a previous era. I’d never even heard of the radio series or anything at all about Douglas Adams. So I went home and I read . . . and finished it in a single day and then started to re-read it before I went to bed that night. THIS! EVERYTHING I READ SHOULD BE LIKE THIS! or something along those lines rang through my head. The characters were perfect, the writing intelligent and so, so funny, and it was different from anything I’d ever read, but still connected and a part of all of the sci-fi I had up to that point consumed.
It was like someone threw a switch and I suddenly had a perspective I’d never had before. There was now a new voice in my head providing commentary on all the things I saw and heard (and it had a British accent). Later I learned that this went by many names: sarcasm, snark, a sense of irony. Call it what you will, but Douglas Adams turned a formerly sweet, good-natured young boy into a smart-ass. This was actually a good thing. As I came to realize later, such an attitude is often the only sane response to the universe.
In the years following, I went on to read the rest of the five-part Hitchhiker’s “Trilogy,” and to this day, these remain some of my favorite books. Every few years, I’ll go back and reread them and I always come out of that feeling that these books are somehow different than almost all the rest of not only science-fiction, but all of literature. Adams managed to not only write novels that were unlike anything that came before or were around at the time, but anything since. There are other writers who write humorously in many genres, but I truly feel that his books are unique.
What made them so unique? It’s difficult to say, but I believe it was the way he successfully broke the rules and conventions of writing in general and the sci-fi genre while embracing the art of storytelling and the tropes of science-fiction. It was obvious he had a deep love for writing and science fiction while lovingly lampooning both subjects so often.
He went on to do the same for the detective story. As much as I love the Hitchhiker’s books, I will say I loved his Dirk Gently books even more. While generally not as popular or well-known, “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” are wonderful books filled with breathtakingly original concepts and stand-the-world-on-its-head silliness. To be fair, the first one was not just a detective story, but rather, as Adams described it himself, a: “ghost-horror-detective-time-travel-romantic-comedy-epic, mainly concerned with mud, music and quantum mechanics.” It also includes an Electronic Monk created on an alien planet. I could try and describe what an Electric Monk is, but I’ll let some quotes from the book do it much better than I ever could:
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. 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; Electric 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.
So the Monks were built with an eye for originality of design and also for practical horse-riding ability. This was important. People, and indeed things, looked more sincere on a horse. So two legs were held to be both more suitable and cheaper than the more normal primes of seventeen, nineteen or twenty-three; the skin the Monks were given was pinkish-looking instead of purple, soft and smooth instead of crenellated. They were also restricted to just one mouth and nose, but were given instead an additional eye, making for a grand total of two. A strange looking creature indeed. But truly excellent at believing the most preposterous things.
This Monk had first gone wrong when it was simply given too much to believe in one day. It was, by mistake, cross-connected to a video recorder that was watching eleven TV channels simultaneously, and this caused it to blow a bank of illogic circuits. The video recorder only had to watch them, of course. It didn’t have to believe them as well. This is why instruction manuals are so important.
So after a hectic week of believing that war was peace, that good was bad, that the moon was made of blue cheese, and that God needed a lot of money sent to a certain box number, the Monk started to believe that thirty-five percent of all tables were hermaphrodites, and then broke down. The man from the Monk shop said that it needed a whole new motherboard, but then pointed out that the new improved Monk Plus models were twice as powerful, had an entirely new multi-tasking Negative Capability feature that allowed them to hold up to sixteen entirely different and contradictory ideas in memory simultaneously without generating any irritating system errors, were twice as fast and at least three times as glib, and you could have a whole new one for less than the cost of replacing the motherboard of the old model.
This character I think was one of Adams’ best, neatly summing up many of his thoughts on technology, systems of belief, and the human condition. It is certainly one of my favorite literary concepts of all time. The second book involved heavy doses of Norse mythology and one of the funniest passages ever in a book describing trying to have pizza delivered in London. Both featured Dirk Gently, who is one of the most unlikely literary protagonists of all time but in my estimation one of the best and most entertaining.
While Adams wrote other books, including some wonderful non-fiction, and worked on such shows as Monty-Python and Dr. Who, he was not by any means a prolific writer. But he was very, very busy not being a prolific writer. And this is where we transition from my admiration of his creative writing to admiration of (and feeling of kinship with) him as a person. I’ve always found writers and what they disclose about their writing process endlessly fascinating – even before I’d made my little forays into the world of writing. There are two authors I feel especially simpatico with: Harlan Ellison and Douglas Adams. While I can make no reasonable claim to the genius of either of these two, everything I’ve learned about them has led me to see certain similarities with myself: a deep and abiding difficulty with deadlines; atheists; a propensity for distraction even if by our own ideas; and a certain creative way of looking at the world differently than most around us. That said, two more different human beings would be hard to imagine. Ellison is short (even shorter than I am) and combative and Adams was as accepting as he was tall. (For the record, height- and aggression-wise I probably come closer to Ellison) Both however embodied a certain subversive streak that I definitely responded to – Ellison’s was direct and aggressive, while Adams was subtle and coated with enough humor to get by under your psyche’s defenses.
Adams was also fascinated by the natural world and lent not only his name, but his own time and efforts to campaigning to save species like the black rhino as well as environmental activism in general. The other lifelong interest he had was in technology, famously being one of the original Apple fanboys and in a famous piece called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” (written back in 1999!) managed to come up with the most cogent analysis of what the Internet can and does mean to us as a species. In his fiction, non-fiction, and essays, Adams demonstrated an ability to see further and more clearly than most about many issues, but technology most of all. While not a visionary in the style of other sci-fi writers, he undeniably intuited where the world was going much sooner than most – and instead of making us try to glory in it or fear it, he instead chose to both amaze us with the possibilities and poke fun at the potential pitfalls.
Now would be the time to conclude with a cheesy tribute to him by way of some reference to “So long and thanks for all the fish!” but instead I merely leave you with some of my favorite quotes of his. These I think provide some flavor of him as a writer and as a person:
- I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
- I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.
- There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
- Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
- The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.
- Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty- five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I love a good quote, and so much of what Adams said or wrote was eminently quotable. So much so that I regularly think about how well Adams would’ve taken to Twitter, for I think it’s one of the best examples yet of what he talked about in the essay linked to above – technology that stops being technology and simply becomes a way for us to connect with each other. Of course, there would be a strong likelihood that, at least for awhile, his writing-for-publication output would cease entirely, I still like to think that seeing his regular observations on the world and the conversations he would have with folks like Stephen Fry would’ve have made that perfectly acceptable.
If you already have read some or all of his books, but have not read Salmon of Doubt, I’d very much recommend it to you. What started out as a third Dirk Gently novel and then transformed into a Hitchhiker’s novel ended up posthumously as a collection of many previously unpublished essays on his life and technology as well as short stories and letters and eleven chapters from the unfinished novel. It’s filled with wit and humor and provides a wonderful window on him as a person. Also, if you’re an audiobook fan, see if you can find any of the audiobooks versions of any of his novels where he read them himself – those remain my favorite audiobooks to listen to.
For all the reasons above and many more besides, Douglas Adams remains one of the most influential writers and people for me personally. He was an immensely likable genius who seemed to put up with the world, puzzled by our many eccentricities as a species while taking great joy in so much of what makes us human. His novels, while supremely funny, are thought-provoking and original. If you have not read his books, you simply must – your life will be a richer place as a result.
This is part of my “You Are What You Read: Books My Clone Should Read” series.