The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams
Screenwriting master Robert McKee wrote in his encyclopedic volume, Story, that distance in space and time can be necessary to illuminate current, local situations too painful for audiences to confront otherwise. Comic master Douglas Adams channeled this advice presciently in the 1970’s, writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to shed light on a variety of distressing topics.
As a public service, I will address some of the questions that are bound to arise in the minds of future readers, or readers from other arms of this or any other galaxy:
Q. What are digital watches, or, actually, watches of any sort?
A. (a). Devices outlawed centuries ago as sources of hemorrhagic fever.
Q. What are hereditary rulers kept alive indefinitely in a state of suspended animation?
A. See answers above
Q. What are encyclopedias?
With those burning issues out of the way, for the remainder of this post, I’ll let Douglas speak for himself, although due to his death while wrapped, appropriately, in a towel, he may sometimes be channeled by me or by Nick Webb, writer of his official biography, Wish You Were Here.
“In appearance, Douglas Adams was like some large, friendly marine mammal,” Webb writes. “Eyes: brown; eyelashes: enviable -- as long as a giraffe’s; face: often lit with a half-suppressed smile, for he had a prodigious sense of humour and found the world funny when it wasn’t tragic.”
The world, he declared, in a documentary with his scientific idol, Richard Dawkins, “is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. . . The opportunity to spend seventy or eighty years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned.”
Perhaps for someone who lived as fully as Adams, seventy or eighty years would have overflowed his cup of awe. In May 2001 at age 49, as he rested from one of the workouts that had reduced his ballooning weight and apparently alleviated other health problems, he died from a massive heart attack. He, his wife and daughter had been living in sunny Southern California, surely the longed-for heaven of all British writers. Notorious for prolonged bouts of writer’s block, he had been eager to get to work again and hoping to see the movie version of the science fiction spoof that had run through every other known communication medium -- radio, TV, novel, more novels, even a short story. (The movie was finally released in 2005.)
Adams had told the story of the original idea for Hitchhiker so many times he claimed not to know whether it really happened or whether he only remembered the retellings. It was that, while hitchhiking in Europe between school and university in 1971, he lay in a field thinking someone should write a hitchhiking guide for a cosmic scale.
And although he didn’t know it then, he would -- just in time to help Earthling Arthur Dent and his friend Ford Prefect (“from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he usually claimed”) escape Earth’s demolition during construction of an interstellar highway bypass. The Hitchhiker’s Guide (or h2g2), as Douglas wrote, again presciently, was truly “a wholly remarkable book (and) also a highly successful one.” Long may it chart the foibles of this and any other galaxy.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics will continue a July of science fiction with the work of another writer who at least toyed with the idea of wiping our planet off the galactic map, Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit -- Will Travel.)