“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy.
Time was always flexible in the hands of the late Douglas Adams. Well known for his intimate distrust of deadlines (“I love the whooshing noise they make as they fly by”, as he famously once said) and his spectacular bouts of writer’s block, he was thus an incorrigible procrastinator of the first order when it came to writing, and, on occasion, apparently had to be locked into a hotel room in order to complete the final draft of whichever novel he was writing at the time, only to be let out at intervals by his publisher for ‘supervised’ walks in case he should try to make a run for it!
He was, however, also a complete and utter genius. And I’m not the only one who reckons so; not by a factor of at least 15 million worldwide – as wildly improbable as that may sound (and, after that, anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem, as Trillian so wisely puts it). His books are held in great affection by people of all ages, all across the galaxy, and have now been translated into more than thirty languages (presumably not including Vogon, as they lack all sense of poetry).
The story of how this rather tall, very funny and, sadly, now equally late genius came to write the cult classic Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy novels, which celebrated their thirtieth anniversary on October 12th, is (unsurprisingly) equally unreliable time-wise. There are several versions of the moment inspiration struck, some which are more true than others. To a given value of true, of course.
The best (and least true) version of this creation myth tells of how the young Douglas had been hitching round Europe sometime in the early 1970s with the aid of a book entitled The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To Europe, which was only of limited help as his language skills weren’t up to much and he couldn’t make himself understood half the time.
Despite this, he managed to get roaringly drunk one night, and – just before he passed out in the middle of an Austrian field – he was suddenly inspired as he watched the stars coming out in the night sky. With classic drunken illogic, it occurred to him that someone ought to write a helpful hitch-hiker’s guide to the galaxy too, because, as he put it later, “then I, for one, would be off like a shot”.
Nice story – but not exactly true, according to his friends.
Whatever the real, actual truth of the matter, it can safely be concluded that the idea for what became The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy occurred to Douglas Adams at some point in the early 1970s, and that it was a slightly silly idea that he rather liked. He had, however, already been responsible for quite a bit of high-quality silliness well before the advent of the original Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series in 1978….
Born in the famous university city of Cambridge in 1952, Douglas Noel Adams (his initials of DNA eventually seemed quite apt, considering his later love of science and environmentalism) was, like many writers, a scribbler from an early age; contributing spoof reviews and more serious stuff to his school magazine as a boy. He applied and was accepted to read English at St John’s College, Cambridge – a choice made for decidedly un-academic and very pragmatic reasons.
Why? Because Douglas wanted to join Footlights, the infamous Cambridge student amateur theatrical company, which was (and still is) famed for producing large numbers of popular and successful actors, comedians, satirists and writers. Apart from Douglas, its alumni include an unfeasibly long list of well-known figures, such as Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Peter Cook, David Frost, Stephen Fry, Germaine Greer, Eric Idle, Miriam Margolyes, Hugh Laurie, David Mitchell, Griff Rhys Jones, Emma Thompson, Bill Oddie and Sandi Toksvig.
And it was one of these Footlights luminaries who ‘discovered’ Douglas’s comic talents, not long after his graduation in 1974.
Having seen Douglas’s contributions to that year’s Footlights Revue, Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame was impressed enough to ask the young writer to collaborate with him, both on Python and non-Python material. The net result of this (Python geeks, pay attention), was that Douglas became the first and only non-Python ever to receive a writing credit on the show. He also made two fleeting appearances in the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; all of which appears to have very much informed his humour and his writing style.
However, it was his next major project that was to change everything for him – and for fans of sci-fi and comedy everywhere.
Although Douglas didn’t know it at the time, the impact of this new project was going to be akin to the effects of drinking one too many Pan-Galactic Gargleblasters on a night out with Zaphod Beeblebrox (and both his heads). This new project was going to be more successful, and become even more legendary than his later stint as a script writer and editor on the BBC’s iconic sci-fi series, Dr Who. This new project was the original radio series of Hitchhicker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which was first broadcast in 1978. The popularity of this, and the subsequent second series, led to demands for a book, which obligingly appeared in October 1979; followed by four more at appropriate intervals (or five, if you count the posthumously published and incomplete novel The Salmon Of Doubt, which had yet to make up its mind whether it was to be a Hitchhiker’s sequel or a new Dirk Gently book).
This ‘trilogy in five parts’ (“a poor grasp of arithmatic”, is how Douglas explained away this strange bit of maths) soon had a loyal cult following, which increased in size with every passing year – and is still attracting new followers three decades on, as each generation discovers its comedy genius.
Hitchhiker’s rapidly became a distinctly multi-media phenomenon (long before this sort of approach was cynically picked up on and manipulated by modern marketing types); the original radio series eventually spawning said novels, plus a TV series, a computer game, a number of stage adaptations, several official towels (for hoopy froods only, of course), and – in 2005 – the long-awaited film, starring The Office‘s Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent, and US hip-hop artist Mos Def as Arthur’s best friend, Ford Prefect.
So even Douglas’s death of a heart attack at the ridiculously young age of 49 seems not to have stopped the steady stream of sparkly new Hitchhiker’s goodies, with the latest in this multitude of hoopiness emerging only yesterday.
As part of the thirtieth anniversary celebrations, a brand-new Hitchhiker’s book has been published, written by Eoin Colfer, the Irish author of the hugely popular Artemis Fowl novels for teenagers. Colfer was given the job with the blessing of Douglas’s family, mainly, it seems, because the Adams’ daughter, Polly is an admirer of his books – although it is not going to be an easy job to satisfy all the long-time, passionate, and highly possessive Hitchhiker’s fans out there (like me – I’m making no comment until I’ve actually read the damn thing!).
Although Douglas had often spoken of wanting to write a sixth book in the trilogy, this is not a case of the relatively common literary practice of other writers completing an almost-finished work after its original author’s death – this is a brand, spanking new tale set in the Hitchhiker’s universe; and this time, it features the return of Arthur Dent’s snotty teenage daughter, Random, whose adventures appear to be an attempt to give the series the more upbeat ending its creator had wanted, according to reviews.
It seems that thirty years on from the first novel, and despite Douglas’s unfeasibly early death in 2001, this series of books are clearly as popular as ever. Which begs the question – why? What makes these books so infinitely readable and re-readable? What’s so special about a deeply silly space opera, full of really bad, geeky jokes in base 13, and with a cast list of an Everyman, a chronically depressed robot, several towels, two white mice and a selection of utterly ridiculous aliens who write bad poetry?
In my view, it is at least partially because most of the characters are comfortingly recognisable, almost archetypal – they are immediately identifiable as examples the different types of people we meet and interact with every day. Arthur is your classic, very English ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’, nondescript and ordinary. Ford is trying too hard to be something he’s not, a bit like many human teenagers. Marvin is that one whingy friend everyone has; the one who’s always complaining about something. Zaphod is that egocentric idiot posing down the gym who quite obviously fancies himself. The computer on the Heart of Gold is everyone’s mum – and the Vogons are everyone’s bullying, jobsworth bosses (the petty bureaucrats of the galaxy). I like the fact that even the aliens seem very human; a suggestion that we are all more alike than we may think. You’ll all have met at least one Vogon at some point, at least…
However, Douglas’s female characters suffer from being thoroughly two-dimensional and much less memorable than their male counterparts, which is my only major quibble about this most paradoxically sharp and funny of all comedies. Sure, it has its minor faults and a selection of oddities and strangenesses – for a start, it’s a comedy set in space rather than funny sci-fi, it’s very English and very middle class, the plotting is a bit weak in some of the later books, and every version of the story (radio, books, TV, film) is different, often in some significant ways. I’m also aware of people who consider it to be too smug for its own good, something which, at times, can’t be denied.
But the Hitchhiker’s trilogy is far better than that makes it sound. This is a series that quite clearly manages to be far, far more than the sum of its parts. It skewers life, the universe and everything with a sharp and silly wit, and is not afraid to confront the big issues like intergalactic politics and a sudden lack of dolphins – this is unashamedly part-comedy, part-satire and part-environmentalism. Conservation and environmentalism became crucial, central themes of the books; after all, this is a series that begins with the complete destruction of the Earth, blown to smithereens by an alien road-widening project.
For me, odd as it may sound to some, these are comfort books. I re-read the complete series once every couple of years or so, but the Hitchhiker’s trilogy are also books I can turn to when I need a familiar, funny and much-loved story to cocoon me in its silliness, when I need to escape from the stress and worry of the real world. For a few hours anyway.
Because that’s what the best stories can do.
And the story of Arthur Dent’s attempts to deal with the fact that his home and the Earth have been demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass (and the fact that he can’t find a decent cup of tea in the whole of the galaxy) is one such good story. It’s a story of an ordinary man finding himself in extraordinary, yet strangely recognisable situations – with the exotic and the mundane placed side by side by Douglas’s overactive imagination. We can all sympathise and identify with Arthur’s bemusement, confusion and understandable sarcasm, all while simultaneously finding the gently familiar but frustrating comedy in his disgruntled and bewildering adventures through a life he just doesn’t recognise any more.
Which is a bit like living on Earth in the 21st century, really…
“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.