Remembering a Sci-Fi Great

by Asiya Haouchine

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” — Douglas Adams

Portrait of Douglas Adams. (Photo/Michael Hughes|Creative Commons).
Portrait of Douglas Adams. (Photo/Michael Hughes|Creative Commons).

Like many great things, Douglas Adams’ life was gone too soon—today marks his 65th birthday. The humorist and novelist wrote one of the funniest, most recognizable science fiction series that has garnered a massive fan following, even after thirty-eight years. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began as a radio show for the BBC, and was eventually adapted into a five-book “trilogy,” a television show, and a film. The idea for the comedy series came to Adams when he was gazing up at the stars while drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria—holding a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe—when he thought, “if only someone would write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”1 From that point on, the world was gifted with Adams hilariously comedic lines and outlandish space adventures.

Adams used social observation, comedy, and irony in a wistfully artistic manner. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has some of the funniest lines in science fiction:

“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”2

What could have been a dramatic answer from Arthur Dent is instead an anti-climactic reply that makes sense, because, in reality, if you didn’t listen to warnings from those wiser than you, you really would find yourself in a sticky situation. These sudden turns from the dramatic to the ordinary are characteristic to Adams’ comedic style, making his writing utterly unique and always enjoyable. The unexpected: “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t,” has me giggling every time I read it because it is simply a perfect description. While simple on its face, the line describes the ships in a completely unexpected, comedic way without taking away from the imagery that helps us see the ships floating in space as though they are weightless.

Adams’ brilliant comedy was not limited only to the Hitchhiker’s trilogy. In 1974, long before Hitchhiker’s, Adams co-wrote an episode for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the famous British sketch comedy series. Later, he wrote three scripts for the classic British science-fiction show, Doctor Who, and the comedic detective novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which Adams’ described as a “thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic.”

Adams’ influence did not cease after he passed, but his legacy lived on in the adaptations and book extensions of the much-loved series. Irish novelist and fan of Hitchhiker’s Guide, Eoin Colfer, wrote a sixth book in 2009 titled And Another Thing…. Colfer said the opportunity was,

“like suddenly being offered the superpower of your choice… For years I have been finishing this incredible story in my head and now I have the opportunity to do it in the real world… It is a gift from the gods. So, thank you Thor and Odin.”3

Adams’ storytelling abilities also influenced novelist Neil Gaiman. Gaiman wrote Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion in 1988 to serve as a companion piece detailing the history of Adams’ life and his works. Gaiman also gave the thirteenth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture in 2015, paying tribute to his friend and inspiration. The annual lecture raises money for two charities that were important to Adams: Save the Rhino and the Environmental Investigation Agency. During the lecture, Gaiman called Adams a genius, saying,

“I haven’t known many geniuses in my life. Some brilliantly smart people, but only a tiny handful would I class as geniuses. I would class Douglas, because he saw things differently, and he was capable of communicating the way he saw things, and once he explained things the way he saw them, it was almost impossible to see them the way you used to see them.”

I wholly agree.

Two weeks after his death, fans across the world organized a tribute known as Towel Day, which is celebrated on May 25. It has since become a cult literary tradition. The significance of the towel is described in the third chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; …use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; …you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”4

If you have not heard of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and love comedy, I suggest you rush to the library or a bookstore and pick up a copy for countless hearty chuckles and a heck of a great space adventure.

End Notes:

  1. From “Introduction: A Guide to the Guide.” The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Five Novels and One Story. (Random House, 2012).
  2. From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Five Novels and One Story. (Random House, 2012). (page 52).
  3. Flood, Alison (17 September 2008). Eoin Colfer to write sixth Hitchhiker’s Guide book”. The Guardian. UK.
  4. From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Five Novels and One Story. (Random House, 2012). (page 21).

Asiya Haouchine is an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut. She is the online and blog editor for the Long River Review.

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